Simon Calder: The company remains a robust and going concern
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Wednesday 23 November 2011
Suppose, at the start of the year, you had 100 shares in Thomas Cook. At £2 each, you could have made enough for a package holiday to the Med. While there are still plenty of £199 deals, selling the shares at yesterday's price would not even buy a one-way ticket on the Gatwick Express.
Thomas Cook is the strongest brand in travel, with a tradition that stretches back 170 years. So how could it go so badly wrong? Partly misfortune, and partly mismanagement.
It is easy for fellow countrymen of Thomas Cook (the person) to imagine that Thomas Cook (the company) is composed only of high-street travel agencies selling mainstream package holidays with flights on Thomas Cook Airlines. In fact, Thomas Cook (the multinational business) is a lot more complicated – which could, ultimately, prove its salvation.
The move into Russia was, as they say, a good idea at the time. But key destinations for Russians are Egypt and Thailand. When the former overheated and the latter overflowed, bookings were hammered. Bad luck, but the one certainty in this industry of human happiness is that things will always go wrong – and holiday firms need deep pockets to respond. Mr Cook's pockets were once happily filled with earnings from the package holiday business.
Unfortunately, the internet bestowed anyone with a broadband connection the ability to assemble flights, hotels and a rental car. The past couple of years, from ash cloud to Arab Spring, have also been particularly cruel to Thomas Cook, but the firm should have moved away from commoditised two-star Mediterranean holidays much earlier.
The management failed to read its own brochure – at least the current Club 18-30 edition. It explains: "We're always changing. That's because you are always changing too. New fashions. New music. New attitudes." Arch-rival Tui realised much earlier that the future lies in differentiation, in specialist adventure and activity holidays, and in combining brand and brute force in the market place to deliver outstanding experiences at competitive prices. The collapse of the share price does not presage the biggest collapse in travel – unless fearful customers shy away from Thomas Cook in the post-Christmas sales surge. I'll be buying, knowing that my money is safe thanks to Atol protection, and confident the holiday will go ahead.
The firm remains a robust organisation and going concern, but five years from now will be a lot leaner and fitter. Which, sadly, means job losses. Thomas Cook's core strength is that it remains a trusted brand, which is just what travellers need when stepping out of the comfort zone.
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