The new boss of Thomas Cook has told TTG the team behind the iconic brand’s relaunch as an OTA this week already have a strong vision in mind for rebuilding Cook’s brand identity, and restore it to the travel landscape.
Work on a second iteration of Cook has been ongoing since January after Chinese travel giant Fosun, which was Cook’s largest shareholder when the operator collapsed last September, acquired the brand and various assets, just a few months later in November.
It was formally relaunched on Wednesday (16 September) as an asset-light, tech-driven OTA with a focus on flexibility and innovation.
New UK chief executive Alan French said the Cook brand would be able to flourish again, unencumbered by the brand’s previous debts and overheads, and with a clearer vision.
Speaking to TTG, he also stressed the team hadn’t lost sight of Cook’s brand values.
“Thomas Cook was always about the effort the people that operated it put into it,” said French. “To still have the same customer centricity is going to be important to us.”
Here is what French had to say about his, his team’s and Fosun’s efforts to revive Cook and continue to build on its legacy as the UK’s oldest travel brand.
It was in January, we started to move forward. It has certainly been an interesting year, and to spend half of it stuck in my study has been quite challenging.
We know there is demand, despite the pandemic, for travel. So we want to be there as demand comes back. The demand at the moment is around people wanting to book their holidays and have certainty they can travel without quarantining on their return.
What we’ve tried to do is to help them do that. So instead of launching with a wide range of product in Spain, all bookable next year, we’ve launched with a much narrower portfolio of product, all of which you can go to and return from today with some level of safety and certainty through the government-mandated corridors and through our health and safety efforts.
I think our ability to do this rests on three tenets. The first is technology. We’ve built a very fast, flexible system that will run on any device. We can configure it quickly so we only sell product you can travel to safely.
Secondly, we’ve got some fantastic people with a lot of experience in travel. One of the problems customers have at the moment is who they turn to for advice. The market is quite difficult to navigate for customers. Having a group of people available to help, I think, is important for the customer. Those things come together in allowing them to use chat, social media, messaging, as well as phone.
The third tenet is our fiscal backing, which obviously comes from having Fosun as a backer, from having a trust model in place, and having that underwritten by the CAA and Atol. That should allow us to be very open and very transparent about our fiscal stability.
It was mainly to make things transparent and open, so everybody can see what’s going on. One of the things we felt was that even with the CAA certificate, there wasn’t always transparency. So to be able to say ‘the money’s in a trust, these are the trustees, this is how it’s been audited, this is the regulation around it’ – that allows us to be very very transparent.
We’ve got a very small number of licences for the remainder of this month. But then [from October], suffice to say, we’ve got enough numbers for the level of trading we expect next year. And while there is a great deal of volatility in the marketplace, within that, we can ramp up quite quickly.
We’re working with a couple of flight providers, but easyJet is probably the one we’re working most closely with. In the current market, dog eat dog isn’t there so much. At the moment, access to distribution is an important consideration for all players in this market. And given the strength of the Cook brand, I think there are opportunities for us around distribution.
We have a sister company that owns [former Thomas Cook hotel brands] Casa Cook and Cook’s Club, so there will be some sharing of inventory that we’ll be getting from those companies as well [in addition to Club Med].
The brands will be run separately from Thomas Cook, but they’ve got a great future. The assumptions that went into them ensured they were quite leading edge in terms of marketing, their basic concepts, the actual set-up, and the informality and the enjoyment people got from them, all of those things are still there.
In the current depressed market, they’re not quite floating to the top quite as quickly as we would have liked. But I think the underpinnings of them are still there so we should be able to leverage that. We’ve got a sister company that’s working on pulling those brands together, and we can certainly distribute those in the same way we would any of Fosun’s other products.
We’ve done a lot of customer analysis to try to gauge the sentiment. And, at the moment, it’s very positive. So from a customer point of view, I think there’s still a lot going for the brand. From the perspective of the people who were perhaps on the inside a little more, I think there are two key points.
Firstly, the strength of the brand is in no small part down to the people who operated it, particularly in the latter parts of last year as people went well above and beyond the call of duty. That customer centricity, bringing that to life in a digital way, is part and parcel of what we want to do. So I hope we’ll have the support of a lot of the people who were involved in Cook previously.
Secondly, I also hope we’ll have the support of the trade as we get into this. The anecdotal feedback we’ve had to date has been very positive. It was a very loved brand, and the strength of it was the people. So therefore, I think the amount of support we’ve got has really been quite heartwarming.
At the moment, we’re not looking at the trade terribly deeply. What we’re trying to do initially is take advantage of a soft market. We want to remain very flexible as we go forward, though. We’ve got a number of tenets that are important to us, and one of them is being able to respond quickly to the market. So at the moment, we have no plans to work with the trade. But we will be flexible – we want to make sure what we are doing is responding quickly to what the market is doing.
We’ve got a couple of the other senior guys. We’ve also got a number of members of the technical team who came across. But we’ve also been augmented with people from other technology backgrounds, and from other travel businesses. While the Thomas Cook values are very much at the heart of the new business, it’s not just the old Thomas Cook team.
The main area we’ve looked at is the call centre team. Quite a number of them have come from the old Thomas Cook, and a smaller number from elsewhere, but with good with travel experience. I think people can rest assured the knowledge around the travel business that we’ve got within Thomas Cook is second to none. Not just at senior levels, but actually at the coalface.
We are looking at this very closely. It is something we will be launching with over the forthcoming period. We’ve got some thoughts on where we want to take the brand. A lot of it will also depend on the feedback we get from our customers, and we’ll be seeking a lot of input from social media and other places. So yes, we have some ideas about where we want to move it. But that will become clearer over the next three to six months.
What I can tell you is that the plans we had at the beginning of this year are not quite the ones we’re running to at the moment. But that underlines our stance on flexibility. We do need to look at what’s changing in the market and respond to that. Whether that’s longer trends around global warming or a greater focus on Europe, there are a lot of things shifting in this market, and we want to remain flexible enough to take advantage of that.
The opportunities to leverage the things we consider really important which are around being debt-free and therefore relatively nimble, being digital and therefore being able to change quite quickly, having access to the innovation and technology that sits within the broader Fosun group, and then a trust model that underpins it all – we think all of this together is a winning combination.
The old Thomas Cook was a very different business model from this. I think the customer proposition and the customer values are ones we want to stay very close to. I don’t though think I could draw many parallels between the old operating model and the new one.
We can bring countries back online very quickly. We would, of course, want to consider them quite carefully before we decide to recommend them as destinations to our customers. There wouldn’t be any technology constraints though, we’ve got all the inventory we need in place.
In the first few weeks and months, the market will be soft. And we understand that. We’re here to be here long-term. We will expand as the market expands. As we start to see stabilisation, and I can’t overestimate just how anxious people are to travel, we will be able to start bringing people on and expanding a bit.
Our ambition, which is slightly thwarted at the moment, is to have a very broad range of inventory and within that, bringing it to life through some very advanced search tools – these will use artificial intelligence and some other novel techniques. I think this will put us in good stead.
One of the things you have to bear in mind, and it sounds strange today, but normally in Europe – and the rest of the world – you’ve got vast choice. And trying to make sense of that vast choice is quite hard. We can offer some technical help to find a way through that very wide choice and bring it back down to a set of options that are digestible to the average person.
The business of being able to transact quickly on any platform and do it with transparency so people know what they’re getting is also critical to us, and that’s quite a difficult thing to do. One of the hardest things about e-commerce, which I’ve been involved with for a long time, is trying to bring a product to life on a smaller and smaller screen.
We want to be able to offer our customers the widest range of product that we can, but also to help them reduce it down to a couple of screens of holidays that they can then spend their time thinking about.
No, not at launch. That would be very difficult to do. But we are encouraged by the more regional approach that we are starting to see the government adopt, and that does give us some hope.
We will be covering them in one way or another. We’ll also be sensitive to where the regulations [in the UK] differ. Establishing what the rules mean for them [customers in different regions], I think that’s where we can be helpful.
I’m incredibly proud of the work the team has done after last year. We’ve brought it to market in an ever-changing environment, and that has meant we’ve needed to pivot a couple of times. It is really exciting, it’s almost an honour to be able to leverage on the back of the brand and the brand values.
Thomas Cook was always about the effort the people that operated it put into it. To still have the same customer centricity was always going to be important to us.