Thomas Cook nosedives after warning on profits

More than one-quarter was wiped off Thomas Cook's market capitalisation yesterday after the travel company blamed weak consumer spending in Britain and the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa for a dire profits warning.

Its trading woes led Europe's second-biggest tour operator to kick off a strategic review of its UK business and warn that it expects group annual operating profit to come in at £320m this year. This compares with City analysts' forecasts of about £380m for 2010-11 and last year's actual £362m.

Nick Batram, an analyst at Peel Hunt, said: "It is not the downgrade but the scale of the miss that is the surprise. This raises questions about just how flexible the business model is, or whether management just called it badly wrong."

Thomas Cook said the impact of the political unrest in the Arab world – which has particularly hit summer bookings to Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia from France – will be "substantially higher" than expected.

In the UK, the group said the continued "difficult trading conditions", driven by the squeeze on household budgets, means it is "now appropriate that we revisit the effectiveness of our UK business model". Its new UK management team has started a "fundamental and operational review", which analysts expect will see the group close some of its 750 high street branches in the UK.

While Thomas Cook said its summer-holiday programmes are "well sold" with average prices up and fewer holidays left to sell in most markets, in the UK it is having to discount to shift some holidays, which is hitting its margins. But Thomas Cook said its Central Europe, Northern Europe and Airlines Germany operations "continue to perform well", despite the impact of North Africa. Shares in Thomas Cook fell 34.9p, or 28 per cent, to 87.9p, valuing the company at £754m.

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