Big Interview: Nick Longman, MD of Tui UK and Ireland

The Thomson name will disappear this year, as the Tui brand displaces it on shops, brochures, aircraft and all else. Tui UK and Ireland managing director Nick Longman explains why to Ian Taylor

Tui intends its rebrand of Thomson to change perceptions. That is what UK and Ireland managing director Nick Longman told a University of Surrey audience at the end of last year, as he laid out the group’s strategy to engage growing numbers of consumers in rapidly changing times.

Longman said: “Thomson has been around for 50 years [and] legacy is a great thing. [But] it’s hard to change people’s perceptions and that is one reason why we’re going to rebrand Tui. It’s not a decision we’re taking lightly. [But] it’s an opportunity to speak to new audiences that would not consider Thomson, and to stretch into more flexible and premium areas, offering a range of holiday experiences.

“As Tui, we’ll have more data than any other travel company in the world. It means we can offer much more individual holidays. We’ll harness our expertise to design personalised breaks.”

He insisted: “Thomson’s potential was really quite limited. Trying to stretch Thomson into new fields would just be too difficult.

“The perceptions of a package holiday [are] it’s easy, it’s secure, you have peace of mind [and] we’ll look after you. But it can be impersonal. With independent travel, you have a multitude of choice and total flexibility, but it can be confusing.”

Longman said Tui would offer “a third way” with “the ease, the security, the reliability, but also flexibility and personalisation”.

He said: “Tour operating has moved on a long way. We’ve moved to holidays that are exclusive and available only from us.

“We’ve evolved from traditional package holidays to Spain and the Canaries to offer destinations such as Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Saint Lucia.

“The move from Thomson to Tui gives us the opportunity to break with that legacy perception, and to introduce a raft of new products.

“It’s the right time to rebrand and a good opportunity to change people’s perception of us and of the industry.”

Increased digitalisation

The rebrand will take place by the autumn, alongside an increased digitalisation of all aspects of Tui’s business.

Longman said: “Consumers have much less patience these days.” But he added: “Knee-jerk decision-making is a fundamental opportunity. We already have phone payment methods and you can tap in and out of the London Underground. What if you could do that when you turn up at an airport and want a last-minuteflight or holiday?

“Smartphone website visits have increased dramatically. We’ve seen a 35% uplift in [smartphone] visitor numbers across Thomson and First Choice [in the past year].

“We had five million [smartphone] visits to our Thomson website and two million to First Choice, compared with 14 million for Thomson by desktop and five million for First Choice.

“There will be more opportunities for people to book with smartphones, going forward. That is why we spent such a lot developing our app.

“Technology can help us know our customers better. We already aim to move from standard content to serving each customer personalised content. A huge amount of work is going into our site to ensure we understand who customers are, and serve them a different set of search results.

“We’re working to a goal where our search results are so intuitive, you don’t need to choose a package holiday – it chooses you.

“We want a digital experience at every touchpoint.”

He added: “We want to phase out brochures by 2020. When we announced that, I got a lot of abuse, from my business and from shop managers, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do. We want to reinvest the money in digital content in store, at home and on the app.

“Not everyone agrees with us, but as market leader, you have to be prepared to be bold. When I was in charge of our retail estate, I used to hate the cards in shop windows that invited people to come in for a deal. They made our shops look like a jumble sale. I said we needed to clear out the windows. You would have thought I’d chopped someone’s arm off. Shop managers said it would never work. [But] we saw no impact whatsoever on our business when we did it, and we ended up with cleaner, better stores.

“I expect the same thing to happen with brochures. We’ll still have some printed material, but it’s likely to be more like a magazine driving people to digital content. I asked my management team: ‘If we were starting a tour operator tomorrow, would we have brochures?’ Pretty much everyone said no.”

Local expertise

But this does not mean the end of Tui shops or travel agents, said Longman. He insisted: “We’re big believers in people alongside technology.

“Travel is more and more about local insight. We’re proud of hiring local people in resorts. We also aim to tap into the expertise of our employees, and make sure we share it instantly and effectively.”

However, he added: “We’ll have virtual holidays and virtual assistants. We’ve been working with IBM using its Watson technology to try to recreate the conversation you can have with a travel agent, and we just released our Tui virtual assistant. That was an important step for us. Reading the press, people saw this as a move to replace the travel agent – but not at all. There is always going to be a place for the agent, we just want to make the digital interaction as intuitive as possible.

“We’ve started work on virtual reality. Imagine the ability to choose a hotel and to be able to step inside the hotel room from the comfort of your local shop, or to walk around the pool or entertainment venues. This is stuff we’re working on. It’s not far away.

“Personalisation and the use of data to recognise customers instantly, and better inform their holiday choices, is our key priority.

“We take more than five million people away each year [at Tui UK] and more than 20 million as a group. So we have a lot of data to understand different customer types, their reactions to the information we present and what that means for the further information we serve them.

“We still have more than 600 stores and there are no plans to shut those. The key is ensuring customers can find the expertise our staff can provide using technology.

“Customers want to be recognised and [for us] to know their preferences.

“Whatever you can do to make them feel special becomes key.”

Nick Longman was speaking at the University of Surrey’s School of Hospitality & Tourism Management Alumni Winter Reception at the London Transport Museum.

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