Like most in the industry, TravelMole editor in chief Bev Fearis is feeling shocked and saddened by the demise of the world’s oldest tour operator, but here she explains why that’s not the only thing that’s upset her this week…
“Call me melodramatic, but just like the death of Princess Diana, the 9/11 terror attacks and the Brexit referendum result, I’m sure I will always remember where I was the day Thomas Cook went under. I’m guessing that anyone working in the UK travel industry, and indeed many of the hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers caught up in the fall-out, would say the same.
Despite the fact that we had been covering the story for many weeks, in fact months, it still came as a shock when the news finally came. It appears it was the same for those on the inside. Apparently one long-serving manager at Cook’s Peterborough head office had even joked on Saturday about popping back to the office to clear her shoes from under her desk ‘just in case’, not actually believing the worse would actually happen.
I heard the news while away on a friend’s birthday weekend in Exmouth. With a slightly sore head from a weekend of indulgence, I woke up early and immediately checked my phone. Missed calls from TravelMole colleagues told me what I needed to know. Thank goodness I’d taken my laptop. As I sat at the breakfast table of our Airbnb, scrolling through emails and writing and editing the news as it broke, one by one my friends joined me at the table. The conversation that followed is one that I want to share with you.
Just to set the scene, my fellow weekenders were all well-travelled, professional people, who read newspapers and keep a close eye on the news, but it soon became apparent that there was much confusion among them. One or two seemed to believe it was Thomson who had failed (sorry, TUI marketing team, I’m afraid you’ve got a bit more work to do there). One said it was all OK, because ‘ABTA will pay for everything’. One had actually booked Thomas Cook flights for a Christmas trip to Goa, just the week before, but sadly not on her credit card. She told me she’d believed that booking with Thomas Cook, a ‘package holiday company’, meant she would be covered, not realising that you actually had to book a package for the cover to kick in. Nobody even mentioned the word ATOL.
The lack of awareness amongst my closest friends and the general, widespread confusion this week – both inside and outside of the industry – sadly shows that, once again, the message about consumer protection just isn’t getting through. But it’s hardly surprising. Based on the media coverage of Cook’s collapse this week, it’s clear that some consumer journalists don’t fully understand who is protected and who isn’t, and although you have to applaud the efforts of the CAA, its indiscriminate repatriation of all ‘stranded’ holidaymakers who are overseas until October 6, whether they are ATOL protected or not, will only serve to muddy the waters even further. The CAA might well be acting with good intentions, and I have no doubt its decision will make the whole repatriation process simpler (imagine the headlines if some unsuspecting flight-only holidaymakers were left stranded while others in the same hotel were brought home) but agents are already complaining that this makes a complete mockery of ATOL protection, and rightly so.
Meanwhile, some members of the public who booked a cruise or a holiday with a third party company through Thomas Cook are mistakenly believing their holiday has been cancelled, when in fact many of these trips can still go ahead, assuming they’ve been paid for. It could take some time, though, for the administrators to pass customers’ details on, so meanwhile it’s up to the customer to contact the supplier and provide proof of the booking, and then pay any outstanding balance direct. Complicated or what?
And let’s not forget the whole Freedom Travel Group debacle, which shows that even within the industry there is misunderstanding, mistrust and, seemingly, another glaring flaw in the system. Nobody seems to know who should be paying who, how and when and, most importantly, what to tell their customers. If we can’t get to grips with it, how on earth can we expect consumers to?
In just over a week, the industry will gather in Tokyo for the ABTA Convention and, once again, the same arguments will be made, the same accusations thrown, the same debate about bonds, trusts, and insurance and the same calls for clarification, transparency and reform. We had the same discussions when Monarch failed, but two years on and not much seems to have changed. Has the industry now become so complex that a simple solution just can’t be found? Assuming we find one, will we be able to convince our customers to trust it?
In truth, it doesn’t really matter to consumers if they’re told they’ll get a refund or will be flown home for free. They just want a carefree holiday, which they can look forward to and enjoy without the worry that the company they booked with might go bust. The demise of a company the size of Thomas Cook, a travel institution, will only further damage their trust in our industry. Regaining that trust is a mammoth task and one we only have any hope of achieving if the whole industry works together. Personally I’ve been moved by the feeling of ‘togetherness’ since Monday’s terrible news. Let’s try to make it last.