September 23, 2021 | By Bronwen Largier

Former head of the Cairns Convention Bureau Angela Uhlig gives us a view from London of what emerging into COVID-normal looks like.

Uhlig has been based in the UK for the past decade, spending eight years working with travel tech company Travelport, before moving into freelance consulting three years ago.

“This freelance move happened naturally from keeping close ties with colleagues, contacts back in Australia, New Zealand and Asia,” says Uhlig.

“Clients are mostly within the hospitality sector and luxury brands ranging from a private members’ club in Mayfair to a high-end coach operator in New Zealand and a privately owned resort in Thailand.

“Each client has very specific industry needs within the UK market.”

The pandemic has impacted her clients, with two going on pause indefinitely.

She says the comparative size of the market in the UK compared to Australia means it can be difficult to get cut-through in the market without the right connections.

She says while technology has significantly changed the way business is done, “you cannot compare a Zoom call with a face to face meeting”.

Uhlig says living in the UK during the pandemic has been “challenging and frightening”.

“It reminded me of SARS in 2003 when I was working in Singapore at how quickly businesses can be devastated and forced to close down.

“On reflection, no-one anticipated just how unpredictable and fast moving this deadly virus would last for, whereas with SARS it was contained within a matter of months and it did not become a worldwide disaster.”

She says the pandemic has had a “devastating” impact on the hospitality and visitor economy sectors in the UK.

“The restrictions on trading, along with fixed costs and accumulating debt along with very low revenues and cash reserves has bought many businesses to their knees [with] reports that their revenues were down by 90 percent in 2020.

“Sadly many will simply not survive although the bounce back has been dynamic and fast moving due to pent-up demand and with many people sitting on huge cash reserves saved during the lockdown.”

Uhlig believes the UK’s pandemic response hasn’t been managed well from the outset – particularly in respect of delays putting the country into lockdown which caused thousands of deaths. However she says the Government was right to fast track vaccines and the financial support offered by Government did have an impact for some.

“The furlough and government support schemes definitely helped some, but not all, especially the self-employed, which account for a large percentage of the UK workforce.”

She says vaccine mandates in the UK are “extremely controversial”.

“Employers are facing very difficult law issues around compulsory vaccination, alternatives and finding the balance with employees working from home.

“Large multinational companies have the ability to financially support the trend towards working from home, however the SMEs are struggling to entice their employees back and this is impacting on productivity and the challenges this presents to their financial viability.”

Despite being “very cautious” in day to day activities throughout the pandemic and being fully vaccinated, Uhlig recently caught COVID-19 from an unvaccinated person who visited her office without mentioning that he recently travelled from a higher risk country.

“This carelessness resulted in the entire office contracting Covid and the super spreader ending up in hospital fighting for his life.”

“Having been double jabbed it was quite a surprise to contract COVID.

“As I have an underlying respiratory condition, I was concerned whether it would become serious for me.

“Symptoms were flu-like for seven to 10 days and due to being healthy I bounced back within a few weeks, although I have yet to fully regain  my sense of smell or taste.

“Without a doubt I know that by having the vaccine, my symptoms were mild, and I did not infect others by following the NHS Test & Trace guidelines,” she says.

Uhlig says the lifting of almost all legal COVID-19 restrictions in July was “more pomp and ceremony as it was marred by surging infections, forced self-isolation and warnings of supply shortages”.

“The UK on average still has between 30,000 and 35,000 daily positive cases of COVID [each day], however as many are double jabbed the number of deaths are far less.

“Hospitals report that the deaths are mostly people that are against having the vaccination, which continues to divide the country.

“It’s been wonderful to see people getting out and about more, especially in central London which at times during lockdown felt like it had tumble weed rolling down Regent Street.

“COVID has also provided opportunities that would not necessarily have been available.

“We are seeing some incredibly innovative new business models emerging along with a great number of start-ups from working from home. There are numerous new delivery concepts that have been born through the use of clever technology and people being forced to find new ways of doing business.”

Uhlig says there have been complications for the restart of the tourism sector.

“The industry is experiencing rising staff shortages with job vacancies at their highest levels since records began.

“One in five workers left the sector during the pandemic…and…Brexit [is] being cited as exacerbating the problem.

“Many EU hospitality workers left the UK and have yet to return.

“Additionally, as demand this summer for staycations soared, many operators simply couldn’t cope with the demand.

“Everyone is looking for staff in a very tight labour market and many workers are demanding better pay conditions.

“Rising costs along with shortages from the supplier chain is disrupting the entire travel and hospitality eco system.”