The boss of the new online travel agency Thomas Cook is the first to admit the collapse of the former travel giant was one of the hardest times of his career.
And it goes some way to explaining why chief executive Alan French, formerly group strategy and technology director at Thomas Cook, is so proud to be at the helm of the reincarnation of a ‘modern’ version of the company, owned by Chinese conglomerate Fosun.
Speaking to Travel Weekly, he said: “Without being morbid, the collapse of Thomas Cook was probably the toughest time in my career.”
French was at Thomas Cook for around six years until its collapse, and was responsible for digitising the company. As well as experience at various travel companies, he previously worked as chief technology officer at Boots and Marks & Spencer, and was tasked with taking high-street brands online.
He said: “It’s a real honour to bring Thomas Cook back to life in a modern way. The brand has so much power behind it, largely because of the people.”
He recalled the strong spirit of the staff at the company at the time of its failure.
“They wanted to service customers as well as they could almost irrespective of what was going on in the background,” he said. “My memories of the old Thomas Cook were warmth and knowledge; we are trying to replicate that.”
In the light of criticism from some former staff about the timing – the new Thomas Cook has launched almost exactly a year to the day Thomas Cook collapsed on September 23, 2019 – French is at odds to point out this is “not deliberate”.
Despite the name and sunny heart logo, the new Thomas Cook is a very different beast to the traditional, vertically-integrated company which owned an airline, 560 travel agency branches and a tour operation.
It is being run remotely with all 50 staff working from home, a mix of former Cook staff and employees from other travel firms.
Thomascook.com went live this week, operating purely as an online travel agent and offering holidays only to destinations which are on the government’s ‘safe’ list and do not involve quarantine restrictions on holidaymakers’ return – for now. Launch destinations are all short-haul and include Italy, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.
French said: “We want to make the process as clear and simple as possible. To that end we are selling a subset of the holidays we would otherwise sell.
“We have been able to configure our site so we only sell a products that are safe for people to travel to, on the government’s mandated list.
“We have only got health and safety rated hotels and we have included hotels in our portfolio that we know customers liked.”
Former company brands, Cook’s Club and Casa Cook, are also owned by the parent company and will be used to promote hotels within the OTA’s portfolio. These will not all be exactly the same properties as before but will represent the same values, according to French.
Currently there are no holidays from other tour operators on sale through the OTA, but this could change in future.
French said: “The majority of what we sell will be our own product but we may sell others in the long term. Our ambition is to grow.”
Holidaymakers can put together their own holidays, picking their own flights, mainly provided by easyJet, and matching them up with dates, airports, durations and resorts under the company’s recently-acquired Atol licence.
French explained the licence, which runs until the end of this month when it is due to be renewed for the next 12 months, is “very small” because of the current market.
He is tight-lipped on how many passengers its annual Atol will allow the company to carry abroad. Estimates have varied from 10,000 to 50,000.
He said: “We have got a very small licence; it expires at the end of this month. Our ambitions are much broader than that for next year.
“We are applying for a licence for a reasonable amount for next year but we have taken a fairly conservative view about what the market is like.
“In the short term it’s a very soft market. As we go forward we see no reason why that should remain.”
There can be no doubt about the company’s long-term ambition, backed as it is by a large conglomerate, to be one of the leading travel players in the UK.
“Our ambition is to be one of the big guys over a period of time. Before coronavirus we had a much more bullish plan but I think we will be able to grow quite significantly. The opportunity is to be nimbler and quicker,” said French.
The key to the company’s success, according to French, is to get the right balance of cutting-edge technology and knowledgeable travel staff.
He said: “Having great technology is part of it but the other part is having the people at heart of it who understand travel. There is a need for expertise in travel in an environment where customers are becoming increasingly confused about where they can go.
“It’s about having someone that can help them through that process and the technology platform to help them, with chat functions and Facebook Messenger in place.”
French stressed the new-look Cook was digital-first. “The holidays on our website are holidays you can book. We will only sell a holiday to where you can go that is quarantine-free,” he said
“In this pandemic people are looking to find someone they can talk to who is an expert. Initially this will be digitally, then we will aid that by putting people on the phone.”
Added to this, he said, is the importance of the financial stability to operate in the current climate, the backing of a large company, a transparent business model and the financial protection provided by its trust account model.
“Given where customers are at the moment this is important; they need to know they are safe. We have a trust model backed up by the Civil Aviation Authority,” he said.
French is confident online competitors do not have all these elements.
He said: “We have taken a long-term view. I don’t think they [rivals] have got the fiscal freedom we have got.
“There was a natural progression from what we were doing in the old Thomas Cook to the setup we’ve put in place. We are coming into it without a lot of baggage that a lot of OTAs have in terms of a financial ‘drag’.
“We are coming in as a very digitised offering, not just a website. We have a very click-responsive website that puts something in front of the customer that is meaningful because of our funding, that other people have not got. Yes, we are much smaller but we can move in a more nimble way to take advantage.”
Another obvious challenge for the new Thomas Cook will be to overcome brand perceptions in the marketplace.
Not only was the collapse of the former Thomas Cook high-profile and devastating for thousands of holidaymakers and staff, the traditional package holiday product at the core of its offering was also well-established.
French said the company was trying hard to explain to consumers the difference in the holiday experience under the new OTA, namely that holidaymakers will not be met and looked after by a rep in resort.
He said: “We have tried to make it very clear what our key points of difference are. We are spending time explaining so people don’t expect to be greeted at the destination point as they would have been.
“We don’t have representation in destinations but you will have a device in your pocket that will allow people to get a lot of the help they need remotely.”
What French is keen for the brand to retain is Thomas Cook’s focus on customers being at the heart of its business.
“We do have ambitions to have the Thomas Cook customer ‘centricity’ of the brand,” he added. “We have elements of the old business but assembled differently; it’s a digital wraparound but retains the customer centricity. If we can get the balance right we have a place in this market. “
There are no current plans to work with the trade, but equally French said he will not “shutdown any opportunities”.
For the time being the company will “play the cards we have got as well as we can”.
Advertising of the new brand will be mostly online. “Our marketing campaign is largely driven by the size of this market. As the market recovers, and we fully expect it to, then we will take advantage of that. We would look very closely then at each [advertising] channel,” said French.
For now, launching in the current volatile market, the company will have the time to find its feet and iron out any glitches.
He said: “It’s hugely exciting. We are realistically ambitious but we can test it and learn; it allows us time for when the market comes back. I think we have got a really good combination of travel experience and technology experience that will allow us to get through.”