There are few that would deny 2015 was a challenging year to become the UK and Ireland managing director of a major holiday firm.
Especially when that firm happened to be Thomas Cook; a company that spent much of last year trying to deal with its own issues – the aftermath of Harriet Green’s departure and the inquest into the tragic deaths of Bobby and Christi Shepherd, to name but a few – not to mention the many global crises that rocked not only the travel industry but the world at large.
For Chris Mottershead however, amid the many varied challenges, 2015 was also a year of opportunity. In October he was appointed to the top UK and Ireland job at Cook, bringing with him his 10 years of experience at Tui, and nine years at Airtours – a company which he helped lead through its glory days in the 1990s, when it dominated the market as one of the largest travel businesses in the UK.
“We have to be flexible and adapt. If the customer wants to go to certain destinations, we have to be able to go to it.”
And he is a breath of fresh air to Cook. Unlike his predecessor Salman Syed, he has a travel background, but anyone thinking this might constrain his vision or make him more traditional in his approach is likely to be pleasantly surprised. Mottershead is clearly keen for change, and he’s excited about it. He’s also not afraid to create controversy.
On the day we meet, Mottershead has just confirmed he will be “reviewing” Cook’s third-party supplier list, with plans to make further cuts after the travel giant dropped both Belleair Holidays and Balkan Holidays in September.
There are other parts of the business that have also attracted Mottershead’s attention, including the destinations within Cook’s programme.
Last year the travel giant expanded its US routes, featuring destinations such as Las Vegas, New York, Boston and Miami. It was a significant change for the company that had traditionally specialised in short-haul package breaks. But Mottershead says Cook has seen “strong growth” in its long-haul offering, and could look to boost its flights to the US, having already added Gatwick-Orlando flights which will begin on May 21. He admits the new programme has transformed the company’s traditional business model.
“We have a dual role at the moment,” Mottershead says. “As well as our holidays, there’s an emphasis on other holiday companies as well. We’re doing a lot of seat-only. We can tap into [our US flights] for the role of creating holidays [as a whole package], but the primary role is seat-only,” he stresses.
Mottershead is also not shy about tapping into the gap left by Virgin Holidays’ withdrawal from the trade. “We see it as a real opportunity,” he admits. “We were already the biggest long-haul operator in Manchester, but in Gatwick, we hadn’t had as big a long-haul market. There was an opportunity [to fly to Orlando] and it was an easy move because we can now use [more] retailers.” Is there a chance that Cook could look to emulate the model of Tui in adding many more long-haul destinations? “We don’t believe in copying,” Mottershead smiles. “We’ll do it on our own basis. We’ve done the US and others haven’t, but that’s not to say we wouldn’t fly somewhere like Asia in the future. “We have to be flexible and adapt. If the customer wants to go to certain destinations, we have to be able to offer them. You should always ride the crest of a wave.”
Offering more alternative destinations in its programme has proved even more important following the tragic terrorism events of last year. Tunisia in particular hit the company hard. “We were the largest operator to Tunisia from the UK, and we have had to adapt,” Mottershead concedes. “[But] we have to move forward.”
Cook has said it hopes to return to the North African country by April 30, providing that the FCO lifts its advice. Mottershead admits, however, he is not convinced Tunisia will be back on sale by then. “I’m not sure that it will be open [for UK tourists] by then. If it is, we will need to have had a period of time to push and sell it… [ideally] I would hope to see the country open by February,” he adds, “but I’m not convinced it will be.”
“One of our modern day strengths is that the government and industry both understand each other; it’s not just an unconsidered view”
The closure of Sharm el Sheikh airport has also presented challenges, with the company currently stating that it will reinstate flights to the Red Sea resort from February 10. Mottershead stresses though that the government has been working “in tandem” with the industry.
“One of our modern day strengths is that the government and industry both understand each other; it’s not just an unconsidered view. “Even the prime minister is understanding of what the tour operators and customers have to go through when decisions like this are made,” he adds, revealing that David Cameron wrote to Cook to thank it for its response during the Sharm el Sheikh repatriation crisis.
“The PM personally thanked us as a business; it was great recognition of the industry.” Cook might have spent much of 2015 dealing with crises abroad, but there have also been issues at home. A particular gripe for a number of third party agents is its call-centre, with the Facebook group Travel Gossip often filled with complaints about long wait times.
Mottershead insists that the problems only arise during emergencies, such as with Tunisia or Sharm last year, but he does reveal that one of Cook’s largest call-centres will receive significant investment in 2016.
“We will be investing several million in upgrading our technology in our Falkirk call-centre to modernise it. The team are doing the best they can, but we do need to upgrade the technology and there will be a major overhaul of that. “I don’t think there is an issue in the call centre,” he insists. “It’s when specific things happen, [but] we want to be able to grow and do that in the right way, so we will be investing.”
Cook’s high street has however told a stronger story. Where just four years ago the company was busy cutting shop numbers, Mottershead says he is now keen to open up new stores. He admits leases will still be evaluated as they come up for renewal, and stores could still be shut, but stresses this will be decided on location and performance rather than a definite closure strategy.
“The high street is our strength, and I embrace it,” he says. “That is a clear strategy for us; we might even want to open some new shops. We will continually review stores when the leases come up, but we’re not closing shops for the sake of closing shops; I don’t see the point in that because otherwise we’re denying the sale of our own holidays.” Branding clearly remains an important tool for Mottershead.
He is adamant about keeping the Co-op brand distinct from Cook and is passionate about rejuvenating the Airtours brand. “By summer 2017, we want to do something a bit different – a refresh of it.” He says it will be similar to the revamp that Cook gave to its Club 18-30 offering, which he admits is not yet complete.
“We’ll have more to say on that later this year,” he adds. “We haven’t maximised that opportunity over the last couple of years.” Thomas Cook is likely to look back on 2015 as a significant year for several negative reasons, but Mottershead and his team certainly seem to be gearing up to ensure 2016 is remembered more positively.