Thomson suffers the curse of the black cats

Thomson Travel operates from one of London's most famous office buildings, an art deco gem guarded by giant carved black cats. Yet the UK's biggest package tour operator has been stalked by bad luck over the past year. Friday's profits warning, which sent shares plunging 18 per cent in a day's trading, signals even tougher times ahead.

Unusually, it's private investors who stand to be upset by the headaches at Greater London House in Mornington Crescent. Around 570,000 private investors leapt aboard Thomson travel group when it floated last May, making it one of the biggest private share buying sprees outside the Government's privatisation offers.

The heavily advertised Thomson Travel Group share offer was five times oversubscribed as people tried to get hold of shares and (arguably more importantly) the attractive perks. In the end, all applicants got pounds 500- worth of shares and, as members of the "founders' club", became entitled to 10 per cent off brochure prices.

Brokers and financial advisers say they try to warn naive investors off buying shares simply because there are decent perks attached, but it's a message that repeatedly gets lost - especially when the flotation is backed by glossy advertising.

The army of ordinary punters has lost out on both share price and perks. From 170p the price has tumbled to close at 106p last Friday, having lost almost 24 per cent in a single week.

And even the founders' club perks have proved less than glittering. It's easy to find a deal at well below brochure prices. Thomson has even discounted its late summer and Millennium holidays by more than 10 per cent due to lack of demand.

It's all a long way from last May's hype. At best, it's a useful lesson to newcomers that even in a bull market their shares can go down as well as up.

Trading in Thomson's shares at execution-only stockbrokers was much brisker than usual on Friday, although not all the armchair investors were offloading their stock. A spokeswoman for Charles Schwab Europe, which runs low-cost phone and internet broking operations, said its web-based customers had been loading up on Thomson shares, apparently spotting a bargain.

Jeremy Batstone, head of NatWest's stockbroking arm, suggests wavering privatisation owners should hang on to their shares. "It's too late to sell now - there have been two profits warnings. Nicola Horlick says sell on the first as there is always another to come. And Thomson's business is skewed to the second half of the year. Perhaps we shouldn't read too much into it."

Chastened, Thomson has announced an immediate review of all its businesses, which include Britannia Airlines and Lunn Poly travel agencies.

The problem lies within Thomson, as other tour operators are holding up in the tough package holiday market. Justin Urquhart Stewart, at Barclays, thinks Airtours is a better bet because it has a strong presence in the growing cruise market.

Institutional investors are baying for more Thomson management blood - the firm lost its managing director, Paul Brett, in July and is still searching for a replacement.

Ironically for a company that made such a play of moving on to the stock market, 19 per cent of the firm is still owned by members of the Thomson family. Investors who feel let down by their foray into the markets might wonder why this small band of privileged shareholders doesn't sell up and let someone else entertain the holiday-makers.

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