There were many fantastic speaking sessions taking place at the ITB Berlin 2019 trade show. One such session, which attracted a sizeable and enthusiastic audience of over 120, was a panel entitled ‘Confused by Brexit? Emergency Stunts & First Aid’.

The current and future status of the UK’s relationship with the EU has been front page news for nearly three years. With March 29th 2019 set as the current Brexit date – a day only 18 days away at the time of writing – no one has a clue what the ultimate outcome will be. Nonetheless, the organisers of ITB Berlin decided to put together a panel of travel industry experts to discuss several matters such as what scenario planning their business had done, what advice they’d offer to others and what is likely to cause the biggest issues should a no deal Brexit be the result.

The panel featured Open Destinations CEO and Founder Kevin O’Sullivan as well as the following business and travel professionals:

Moderated by:
Prof. Dr. Claudia C. Brözel, Faculty of Sustainable Business Administration, University of Sustainable Development Eberswalde

Panel guests:
Kevin O Sullivan, Founder & CEO, Open Destinations
Alex Bainbridge, CEO & CTO, Autoura
Peter Hense, Lawyer & Partner, Spirit Legal LLP
Tom Jenkins, Board Member, Tourism Alliance, CEO, European Tour Operators Association (ETOA)
Anthony Pickles, Head of Tourism Affairs, Visit Britain / Visit England


Below we’ve provided a summary of the discussion of the session through key soundbites delivered by Kevin O’Sullivan and his fellow panellists.

1. Introducing the panel inc. Kevin O’Sullivan


2Companies, in general, are not prepared for Brexit but how can they be blamed when no one knows what will actually happen?

“If you’ve done nothing to prepare for Brexit then you are in very good company. I would say that 95% of businesses both in the UK and Europe have done simply nothing.”
– Tom Jenkins, CEO, ETOA


3. What are the biggest concerns for Open Destinations in all this? 

We’re worried about employment…worried about data…worried about legal contracts and VAT. Lots of things that are really uncertain and we need to work out where we’re going on this.”
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations


4Is the uncertainty affecting bookings?

“Tour Operators that we deal with, who are sending people to Europe, are saying that bookings are a lot softer over that Brexit period (March 29th-3oth 2019). People are wondering, what’s going to happen?’ With all the scare stories in the papers about flights and also the reality of delays at airports.”
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations


5What will Open Destinations do about data?

“At the moment it is easier to set up data centres or to use data centres that exist within the EU, to move data from one centre to the other. We just have to move systems from one data centre to another. So there will be a period, perhaps, where we’ll break the law [if we leave with no deal and no preparation time].”
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations


6. VAT is a problem for European tour operators and companies in general.

“Something that might happen is that if we crash out on the 30th of March, the tour operators margins stop. Therefore, every tour operator in the UK doing business in Europe would no longer be able to account for their activities under TOMS. Technically, they would have to register for VAT in every single European country that they do business in.”
Tom Jenkins, CEO, ETOA

Currently we don’t have to charge our customers VAT on an invoice…because we’re inside the EU. As soon as we are outside the EU, we’re going to have to charge it and they wouldn’t be able to reclaim it. So all of a sudden any kind of services that we provide to the EU would be 20% more expensive and that represents a threat for British companies doing business in Europe.”
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations


7. How can you know where data is being stored if it is in the cloud?

“You choose the data centre where you store it [data]. So although it is stored in the cloud, you know that I’m going to use it at – [for example] – the Amazon centre in London East. So when we choose a data centre for our customers, we know exactly what country it is going to be stored in. For example, we’ve got a large project that we’re just about to start in Australia. It’s a semi-government agency that are insisting that the data is stored in a data centre in Australia.”
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations


8. Have Open Destinations been able to properly plan for Brexit?

“The problem at the moment is that we really don’t know what is going to happen. The number of permutations now is escalating the closer and closer we get to March 29th. As a technology company it is a major concern. We could be liable for any data breaches or anything that happens to that data.”
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations


9. How worried should companies be about liabilities post Brexit?

“In many if the contracts there are high levels of liabilities, millions of pounds of liabilities.” 
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations


10. What do Open Destinations want the outcome to be?

What I actually want is to remain in the status quo. So I prefer that we have no borders, in Europe, that we can travel freely. And that – in effect – we can become more of a Shengen and that would be good for tourism, it would be good for services, for companies trading in Britain.”
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations

Many businesses within the UK have said that they want a soft Brexit. If we are going to have to leave the EU we prefer a Norwegian style solution where were part of a customs union where we have more freedom or if not total freedom of movement.”
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations


11. What should the UK’s message to the world be should the UK leave the EU?

Whatever happens, whether there is a deal or not, we’ve got to repair that damage as businesses in the UK. We’ve got to reach out to people in Europe and let them know that they are welcome to come to the UK, that there’s good jobs, there’s good opportunities and there’s a good standard of living in the UK. I think that is very important if we’re going to move forward as a country.”
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations

12. What is your advice for the next 2 or 3 weeks for tourism companies?

I’ll be reading the news and trying to work out whether we should be doing anything or not. That’s the important thing. As a tech business, we need to be agile, we need to make sure that – if opportunities arise and if things need to change – then we can respond quickly to it. Our customers will be impressed by how we respond to it depending on what comes up.”
– Kevin O’Sullivan, CEO, Open Destinations

“Keep coming, we’re still open.”
– Anthony Pickles, Head of Tourism Affairs, Visit Britain