Comment: Thomas Cook’s contrition could earn it agents’ respect

Lee Hayhurst, head of news, Travel WeeklyThomas Cook’s chief of mainstream business Ian Ailles probably knew he was in for a hard time when he agreed to talk at the weekend’s TTA/Worldchoice conference.

As we reported, he came prepared to hold his hands up and to make no excuses for any shortcomings the travel giant was accused of following what has been a traumatic few months.

But his conciliatory tone didn’t mean agents in the auditorium were in the mood to hold back. One  accused Cook, and it seemed by extension Ailles himself, of lacking integrity. The agent later apologised, but in private before Ailles had to run to catch a flight home.

Not everyone in the audience supported the attack, but afterwards one consortium boss said it was better big operators heard the sort of complaints aired on Saturday direct from member agents than in senior-level dealings between the consortium and its suppliers.

And certainly Ailles would not have mistaken the strength of feeling among some in the room. Clearly the name Thomas Cook is still capable of raising passions among some travel agents.

However, it was doubtful many TTA agents, most of whom specialise in rivalling conventional operators with packages of their own, felt a part of what to them must have seemed like a very old-fashioned industry spat.

So what’s gone wrong at Thomas Cook, the multiple with retailing in its DNA? Ailles appeared to accept that Cook had stopped living up to the standards it expects of itself and others expect of it, and that something other than running a good travel firm and looking after customers – including third party agents – had distracted the previous management.

It wouldn’t be surprising if that something included the pressures of running a large Plc and keeping a hostile City happy.

While Saturday was a good opportunity for disgruntled agents to give Cook a good shoeing, the conspicuous absence of representation from the other member of travel’s duopoly was also something to get worked up about.

Whether Tui Travel was invited and declined or simply wasn’t on the list, the result was the same. We didn’t get to find out if, as Ailles said of Cook, Tui is ‘open for business’ with third party travel agents and ready to face their criticisms head on.

Ailles’ contrite performance might have been a tempting opportunity to have a pop at a giant on its knees, but it was also a chance to reflect that the best business partnerships are built on mutual respect.

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