After a year on the skids and a cash injection of £200m by its creditors, the grandee of the travel industry, Thomas Cook, has been saved - for now. It marks a sad decline for an honourable brand.
Thomas Cook is both one of Britain's best known brands and the founding father of the modern tourist industry. In 1841, a Baptist preacher, Thomas Cook, was inspired to lay on a special train 'to carry the friends of temperance from Leicester to Loughborough and back to attend a quarterly delegate meeting'. A few weeks later 570 travellers made the journey. His tourism enterprise, however, took off in 1845 when he organised a day trip by train from Liverpool to Caernarvon. In subsequent years Thomas Cook was taking tourists across the UK and, by the mid-1860s, to continental Europe. It was his holidays to Palestine and Egypt by 1870 which was the making of Thomas Cook and modern Tourism.
In 1880 the Egyptian government gave Thomas Cook exclusive control of all passenger steamers up and down the Nile. This led the writer and journalist G.W. Steevens to observe that Egypt's "nominal governor is the Khedive, its real governor... is Thomas Cook."
Thomas Cook's travel business became an institution of the Empire and a huge commercial success. But like the founders of some of Britain's other enduring brands (e.g. Cadbury, Rowntree, Clarks), Thomas Cook considered himself foremost a social reformer and a philanthropist. Travel, he believed, was an agent of democratisation. His excursions were conducted on the principle of "the greatest benefit for the greatest number at the lowest cost."
He saw his work as 'appertaining to the great class of agencies for the advancement of Human Progress'. And to a large extent his vision was fulfilled. Thomas Cook was at the vanguard of the post-war tourist boom, facilitating affordable mass tourism for Britons seeking summer sunshine; many will have a nostalgia for the brand as they associate it with memories of a first holiday.
With such a noble heritage, it is sad therefore to see yet another great British brand in dire straits. Like Cadbury's and Clarks, there's a huge sense of affection and loyalty for the Thomas Cook brand. The question is how to revive its fortunes.
Leveraging what made the brand special or loved in the first place is important. Perhaps the clue, here, for Thomas Cook, is the founder's vision of travel for all. The question is how you exploit or capitalise it in the right way and in a contemporary way. In such a competitive market as today's travel sector, where many of us now piece together our own holidays through using the internet, this is a major challenge for the business.
Ultimately, Thomas Cook's revival relies on consumers' preparedness to buy its products. If it's not meeting customer's expectations either because of price or quality, then it's unlikely to be a viable proposition for brand resurrection.
Success or failure for Thomas Cook will rest on how its existing, strong brand equity can be contemporised for a fast evolving and changing market. Sticking close to its heritage will surely serve the business well; as much as the brand may remind consumers of good times past, that alone won't be enough.
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