In his first major interview since his appointment, Thomas Cook’s UK managing director outlines plans for retail, cruise and marketing after a tumultuous year. Lucy Huxley reports

It’s been a year of incredible highs and lows for Thomas Cook. In November, a report into the deaths of children Bobby and Christi Shepherd at one of its resorts nine years ago criticised the company for putting cost before customers.

Just weeks later, the company reported a return to profit for the first time in five years, while facing an “unprecedented level of disruption” after three terrorist attacks in key tourist destinations.

UK managing director Chris Mottershead, who took over in October, is now keen for a period of stability and growth as he devises a strategy encompassing directional selling, third-party suppliers and trade relations as well as marketing, retailing, cruise and product initiatives.

Ad campaign

Thomas Cook’s new TV advertising campaign features a young boy on holiday walking out to the pool, then breaking into a street dance.

Mottershead said: “Our campaign this year is a massive departure for Cook. In all the years I’ve been in the industry, getting cut-through in the market is a real challenge. You tend to end up promoting holidays for everybody. But our new ad is unique and I feel, for once, it stands out.”

He said there were two versions of the advert yet to be aired – one featuring two young girls and one with “more of an adult focus”.

Mottershead said Cook’s marketing director, Jamie Queen, had done “a really smart job” in getting the advert aired in a range of media outlets, from cinemas before the Star Wars movie, to TV and YouTube.

“Normally, we keep things pretty confidential, but this year we’ve done the complete opposite,” he said. “We shared the ad with all our staff and encouraged them to pass it on and share it with their friends on social media. Let’s say every one of our staff has at least 100 friends that they’ve shared it with, then the reach is huge.”

Shop windows

All Thomas Cook windows were due to be decked out in new imagery and messaging from December 27.

Mottershead said: “We’ve put a lot of effort in to get away from the old-fashioned style of the past. Your shop windows say a lot about a business, and if you’ve got lots of scribbly bits, it doesn’t look very professional.

“Our new windows look modern and more appealing – the new look gives a much more quality feel, featuring images of destinations and people.

“It’s consistent across the whole chain – although we have a separate look for our Co-op stores which hasn’t been done before.

“Co-op customers are different from Cook customers – they believe in the Co-operative philosophy. They will also feature imagery, but it will focus around the Airtours holidays brand.”

Retail estate

Mottershead confirmed that he was looking to open Thomas Cook stores in more towns around the UK, but said there was “still some rationalising to do” in certain areas.

He said he thought the overall number of shops in the group’s portfolio would remain fairly constant at about 830, but added: “There are major areas of the UK where we aren’t represented.

“It’s not going to be corner shop‑style – it’s got to be a good‑sized retail shop.

“We are constantly asking ourselves whether we have the right retail presence. We look at where we aren’t currently, and where we have shops that aren’t profitable enough.

“It’s not just about numbers. Each shop has got to make a serious contribution, otherwise it’s not sensible to keep running it. But there are areas where we could be making a serious contribution and yet we’re not represented. This will change.”

Cruise focus

Mottershead said he wants to develop the cruise retailing side of the business.

“We are still the leading cruise retailer, but the market and the landscape have changed,” he said. “There is a lot more competition now online.

“Our strength is high street retail and we will continue to develop and improve that. We 
will upgrade, promote and push 
it more.

“But we are also going to look at how we rebuild our call centre‑style business with a clear plan. We have call centre agents and homeworkers and have done more business through them in the past. But we’ve let it wane. Cruise has always been a passion of mine.

“The product is so fantastic, so we want to get right back up there with selling cruise holidays.”

Club 18-30

Mottershead said the youth market would be another key focus for Thomas Cook in 2016.

“We’ve made the first step in reviewing it to make sure it’s got a plan and we’ve reshaped it a bit already,” he said. “We’ve got our traditional Club 18-30 hotels, which are doing well, but we’ve also launched Club Xtra, offering young people other destinations and recommendations of places to stay and things to do.

“These are not fully repped hotels, but places we recommend and can sell flights and accommodation to, and also tickets for concerts and festivals and things to do. We’re going to take this to the next level by offering Club Xtra in winter and city destinations, as well as beach ones.”

Mottershead said the youth market was strong and growing, adding: “It’s 15%-20% of the market – that’s a huge lump of kids – and every day our Club 18-30 sales are up. We’ve sold twice as many Club 18-30 holidays for next year as we had at this point last year.”

He said young people were more resilient in the wake of security breaches. “Young people want to go and have fun. They have more of a carefree spirit.”

Mottershead said “a complete overhaul of the Club 18-30 and Club Xtra communications channel” had helped drive demand.

“We launched Club TV on YouTube and have had more than five million hits – this is a huge communication transformation for us, but it’s where young people are looking, so it’s working,” he said.