As you emerge from the arrivals area at Palma airport, the first thing you see is a big sign above the Thomson customer-service desk: “Arrive with a question, leave with a smile,” it promises.
Plenty of British holidaymakers flying to Mallorca over the past 10 days have certainly had a question: is our hotel going to be open? And a number of them have been reduced to tears by the stress and disappointment of a refurbishment project that went wrong.
Last weekend I went to the lovely island to see what was happening with the AluaSoul Hotel near Cala D’or in the south-east of the island. I met some very unhappy people. They thought they had booked a five-star luxury package, but ended up with an Allocation On Arrival holiday.
“AOA” holidays have long been popular with cheapskates like me. They began as a way for tour operators to offload “distressed inventory” (unsold plane seats, empty hotel beds) close to departure without upsetting the folks who had booked well in advance for named accommodation.
On May Day, dozens of Thomson customers who had booked a luxury break were told that their lovely new resort wasn’t ready and they'd be going somewhere else. But only when they were on the bus from the airport.
In the most extreme example, cases had been unloaded from the transfer coach, only for the hotel manager to tell the tired, stressed holidaymakers to go elsewhere.
Hotel refurbishments have always had an element of uncertainty about them. Booking a trip means buying a promise, and sometimes it is inadvertently broken.
All the disappointed holidaymakers I met were reasonable people and accept that things can go wrong. But they also expected Britain’s biggest tour operator to respond properly.
Warnings that progress seemed slow began to appear on message boards and Thomson’s own Facebook page long before the expected opening day, 1 May. Thomson has a big team in Mallorca, and it should have been straightforward to assess the project, see that things were going chorizo-shaped and act accordingly: offering customers the choice between a full refund or a different location, together with a generous rebate for the disappointment.
Instead, the picture that emerged was that the AluaSoul’s intended guests got a take-it-or-leave-it phone call or email the afternoon before they were due to depart, with a desultory £40 refund for having their plans changed at the last moment.
There were problems, too, across in Ibiza at the AluaSoul sister hotel.
Besides the messed-around travellers, I met someone else who was really angry: a lady called Lynn Moores, who lives in Congleton in Cheshire but has an apartment five minutes’ walk from the site — and has a background in customer service and project management.
Lynn has been watching developments since January. She told me: “I can’t believe anyone could have looked at this two weeks ago and thought, ‘this is going to open on time’.” And while no one was physically dragged out of the unfinished hotel, she compared the tour operator’s attitude to that of United Airlines immediately after the infamous overbooking incident.
“I just feel so sorry for people who’ve booked what they thought was a Thomson Platinum hotel,” she told me.
“It’s not so much the fact that the building isn’t ready, it’s the way in which it’s been handled. They could have used this to show how well they handled a bad situation, and quite frankly they’ve done the opposite.”
Thomson told me: “We understand the disappointment caused to customers following the delayed openings of the AluaSoul Majorca and AluaSoul Ibiza and would like to apologise again for the disruption.
“We can confirm that both hotels are now open and guest feedback has been positive.”
Tui, the parent company of Thomson, is on course to make a billion pounds in profit this year — that’s close to £2,000 per minute, which should be enough to raise a smile.
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