Thomas Cook seeks ticket out of time warp

High-street's biggest travel agent is axing 75 stores – and those polyester suits

Thomas Cook is in turmoil.

The high-street travel agent has seen two-thirds of its share price wiped off since the since the start of the year; there have been three profit warnings, and the chief executive has quit. Cheesy television advertisements featuring Jamie and Louise Redknapp have added to the sense that this is a holiday company trapped in a 30-year time warp.

And this is against the backdrop of an industry that has had to cope with erupting volcanoes, revolutions in popular North African destinations, rising fuel prices, and the downturn in consumer spending.

Simon French, a leisure analyst at Panmure Gordon, sums up the situation neatly: "The stock market hates uncertainty and at Thomas Cook there is certainly uncertainty."

Despite the chaos, Thomas Cook this month became the biggest travel agent on the high street, with 1,240 shops, after the Competition Commission approved its acquisition of Co-operative Travel and Midlands Co-op. What's more, Thomas Cook is embarking on a rescue plan that will see its estate spruced up in an effort to woo back customers as high-street travel agents show early signs of revival.

Some experts had predicted that the way through the crisis would be to close hundreds of shops and reduce the network of shops, as more holidaymakers book online. One source close to the business said: "The business should have no more than 600 shops across the UK. Its store portfolio has grown then shrunk over the years after various acquisitions and then disposal programmes. It should definitely shed more stores this time round."

But, instead, Thomas Cook plans to update the stores and consign to history images of staff in polyester suits, and fading brochures lined up on the wall. It is thought that the company is currently looking for consultants to lead this charge.

Nick Batram, an equity analyst in the leisure team at Peel Hunt, says that maintaining significant property is important for the brand. "It is right to have a high-street retail presence. Travel agents are important, and while online is taking market share, a well-located high-street presence is a valuable asset," he says.

Thomas Cook has confirmed it will close 75 shops, particularly where there are geographical overlaps with its new Co-op stores. But the figure could well exceed this if it can close stores where leases are expiring. The travel agency's disposal programme will also include hotels; it has already sold one in Mexico.

But the rationale of the Co-op deal was to increase the retail presence of its products, not massively reduce it. Simon French argues that the shops are stuck in the 1980s and that updating them is the key to attracting holidaymakers. "The presentation of its shops is not appealing," he says. "And if you look at your local Thomas Cook and compare it with TUI's brands Thomson or First Choice, it really looks tired. They still have handwritten cards in the window."

The latest sales figures seem to justify Thomas Cook's focus on its shops. At the end of June, research firm GfK Ascent found that high-street travel agent sales overall had increased by 2 per cent in value, and package holidays were up 1 per cent.

But any review or plan in the pipeline at Thomas Cook could be under threat when a new chief is found. After the three profit warnings this year, chief executive Manny Fontenla-Novoa departed in the summer and his 61-year-old deputy, Sam Weihagen, stepped in as interim boss.

The headhunters might well find someone with a bright strategy of their own for the business, which could lead to a much larger disposal programme for the high-street shops.

There won't just be one major change at the top, though, as a chairman is also needed – Michael Beckett is due to step down at the annual meeting next February.

The gossip is that leisure industry guru Sir David Michels could snare that role. Sir David would be able to draw on a number of different business plans from his stints as Hilton group chief executive, Marks & Spencer deputy chairman, and easyJet board member.

Nick Batram says that a successful disposal programme and a revamped leadership team are musts if Thomas Cook is to revive its flagging fortunes. "The share price has taken a hit but this has been exacerbated by the current stock-market backdrop," he says. "With a shock profit warning, no CEO, and concerns about trading, the share price reaction is not surprising. The next 12 months and beyond will be tough."

The uncertainty at the top and the paltry value of its stock could also leave Thomas Cook vulnerable to takeover. Rumours are already circulating that the company could be of interest to TUI, despite potential competition issues, and to the acquisitive Switzerland-based Kuoni Group.

Another problem for Thomas Cook could be its recent joint venture with Russia's Intourist. It agreed a £29m cash-and-shares deal, but that was before Thomas Cook investors saw their stock devalued. Some analysts question whether this deal will have to be renegotiated.

The main problem area is the UK, but this makes up only 25 per cent of its business and is cushioned by the more successful and profitable German and Scandinavian markets.

Analysts believe that the travel agent must improve its range of products. Mr Batram explains: "TUI Travel has been able to address the demand for shorter duration holidays through greater scale and flexibility, but Thomas Cook appears to have been less successful. Cutting back further on its aircraft fleet without changes elsewhere could further restrict flexibility."

Despite the problems that the company faces, Thomas Cook is still forecast to make more than £300m operating profit this year. As one analyst argues: "There will always be a place for package holidays. But Thomas Cook needs to be flexible and rebuild credibility with investors."

If the company does that, holidaymakers won't just book it. They really will Thomas Cook it.

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