The collapse of Thomas Cook is the culmination of a long running series of events. Many hard working and well-meaning individuals have lost their jobs and their clients have lost money and well deserved holidays. It was predicted many years ago by travel industry luminaries, yet nobody had the will or expertise to deal with it.
Over the years, people have invested in the heritage of Thomas Cook without efficiently examining its present and/or future performances. Thomas Cook’s investors bought into it not because of its attributes but because of its reputation and vast (deluded?) client database. ‘The collapse of Thomas Cook’ will become the topic for many business studies’ dissertations. The kaleidoscope of errors covers all areas of management and for students looking for examples of ‘bad this and disastrous that’, it is truly fertile ground. I have been in the travel industry for over 40 years and have had occasional dealings with the company. The random observations that follow are simply personal, truthful reflections. I’m neither mourning nor gloating, just sharing what I saw.
In 2011, a senior TUI manager told me that they could ‘finish Cooks off’ whenever they wanted. Some three years later and after another massive bail out, the same person told me they no longer needed to wield the sword of Damocles because Cooks were still on the same suicidal path and the new money was not going towards changing their business, just juggling debts and lining pockets. They took the money and stood still. Of course, cash was spent on a new logo and no doubt some wonderful think tank weekends for their executives in glamorous places but it would have been the same under performers that had always sought comfort by thinking well and truly inside the box.
Throughout 2015 and 2016 I was on a travel industry education committee tasked with developing vocational training. Cooks was represented by three managers. During a coffee break, I was talking to a director of a major Cooks’ rival whom I also knew through my work in education. They told me that Cooks’ presence was somewhat arbitrary because their influence on the group was now so weak and their attitude so inward looking that the other delegates conversed with them only out of politeness.
This drastically contrasts with my interactions with Cooks in the 1980s and 90s. During this period they were a wonderful client of mine. My business is a specialist hotel finder, particularly of Italian hotels. Italy was such a key destination that the Cooks’ Piccadilly office had a dedicated Italy desk and happily they gave us a lot of business. This meant that at least once a week I would stroll from our HQ in Regents Street to Piccadilly to deliver the clients’ travel documents. I remember there was always a feeling of arriving somewhere special and it was a privilege to go through their doors. The interior was modern (for the time) with banks of booking agents behind their airport style desks. Yet the Italy area was away from this functional zone and comprised two large dark mahogany desks. The visitor could sit in a green leather Chesterfield and with a true travel expert, go through their travel arrangements as if they were planning a 19th Centuryesque Grand Tour. Style and substance coexisted and it was still impressive.
This genteel corner of tradition however was on the wane. Even by the mid 80s IT had taken a firm, claws-first grip into the under SPF protected skin of the travel industry. Mr Cook had brought discovery to the kind of people who wanted adventure with comfort. The attraction in early tourism was cerebral and cultural with a safe pioneering feel. Cooks the company had every opportunity to maintain this niche but the myopic management opted to go big and inevitably bad. I am sure that many of their latter day clients that went on cultural tours still enjoyed them but the reality is that there are so many excellent specialists in this field, Cooks won’t be missed. Equally the bucket and spade end of things won’t really miss them either. Cooks was among those that helped regular people discover the thrill of leisure travel and to create a kind of travellers’ democracy. However, the IT mobsters have made it oh so easy for people to fly to the sun that they no longer need Cooks to be their Icarus.
An originator has melted its wings and finally crashed. The short term outcome is repatriation and chaos, the long term outcome will be less choice for consumers and a hike in prices. Book direct by all means, but remember you’re one step nearer the flame and there’s nobody there to shield you.
Photo; Jacob Peter Gowy (c 1615-1661), The Fall of Icarus (1635-7), oil on canvas, 195 x 180 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons