Home Services Sarah Keenlyside of the Bespoke Travel Company explains the steps she has made to keep her business going through the epidemic

Sarah Keenlyside of the Bespoke Travel Company explains the steps she has made to keep her business going through the epidemic

by Tom Pattinson
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Sarah Keenlyside

Reducing costs, taking advantage of government support and planning for the future has helped keep The Bespoke Travel Company going in China

Time seems to warp in situations like this one. In mid-January, someone joked in a birthday group that they couldn’t make it because they had the ‘Wuhan flu’. We all laughed and told them to take it easy. A week later and we started hearing more about ‘the Coronavirus’, but the whole concept was still at arms-length. Fast forward just four days more, and I was on a panicked call with our CFO, who was telling me to act immediately to reduce as many costs as possible and to ‘not be myself too much’ when it came to giving out refunds.

I felt sick. Sure enough, in the days that followed, one client after another emailed asking for a refund. How was this happening so fast? All of the tours that the team had already banked for the year – the ones we had been so proud to announce in our daily meetings a few weeks before – were now our biggest liability.

We’ve always had a pretty strict refund policy, mainly centred around the fact that, when it comes to customising trips and events, a huge amount of work goes in upfront, no matter how straightforward they may seem to a client. Nevertheless, our brand promise has always been to refund people immediately, without question, if they felt we messed up or they didn’t feel in control of their trip. Not only does it hold the whole team to a higher standard, but usually wins the trust of new customers – it’s an important part of doing business with us.

Force Majeure

But this was different. This was that ‘force majeure’ clause you always knew was in the Terms and Conditions but hoped would never need to be invoked. I suppose I always thought when it did, it would be another earthquake.


Sarah Keenlyside

Sarah Keenlyside of Bespoke Travel Company

After much hand wringing, and armed with our CFO’s advice, we reminded those asking for refunds that we would have to enforce the cancellation policy they had agreed to, and so it would be better if they postponed instead to ensure their money wasn’t wasted.

We hated sending those emails, knowing very well not all of our clients would have travel insurance or feel keen to come back later in the year. We’re in the service industry for goodness sake, we want to be helpful. But did they realise that this was becoming a matter of life and death for a company like ours with every passing day, every new headline? Maybe, maybe not. This wasn’t their fault either.

At the same time, we rushed to mitigate our other financial risks. All of those WeWork desks we used? Better reduce them down to one, and execute a rushed office-move in taxis the same day. All of the subscription services we’re signed up to for everything from file sharing to marketing to sales and customer management? They’d better get pared down or cancelled too. But how to make sure we didn’t go too far?

Government support

As a company in one of the worst-hit segments, the government announced in early February that it would refund 80 percent of the deposit travel companies pay when they register. This definitely buys us a little more time, and, impressively, the money arrived in our account at lightning speed.

But of course, it’s not over. For now, the team is functioning on reduced pay, working from home and praying for an improvement sooner rather than later.

We’ve decided to focus on the one thing we can control for now – overseas expansion. It’s always been our dream to open Bespoke in other countries, in a bid to diversify and have the chance to appeal to Chinese clients too. We’re genuinely excited to have the opportunity (and most importantly the time) to work on that goal as a team without anything else getting in the way.

But honestly, right now, what other choice do we have?

Bespoke is working on a handful of special ‘Get out of the House’ tours and events for those living in China once restrictions ease, as well as remaining on hand to plan corporate trips or team building events later in the year. Email info@bespoketravelcompany.com or call +86 13810394905 to get help with your trips and events.


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