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An English Rose in Georgia: Thomas Cook: From innovation to bankruptcy
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Another British institution disintegrated a couple of weeks ago as the huge and famous travel agency The Thomas Cook Group collapsed into bankruptcy, leaving staff and holidaymakers (the British word for “people on vacation”) high and dry.

Like most British people of my generation, Thomas Cook was part of my childhood and early adulthood adventures abroad, long before the internet age, which ultimately destroyed this beloved company. In the 1970s and ‘80s it seemed that every high street and shopping mall in England had a bright Thomas Cook shop front with the brand’s cheerful logo and cheesy (or “naff” as the British would say) advertising campaigns, like “Don’t just book it – Thomas Cook it.” 

I would sometimes visit the travel agency in our local north-west London suburb and take home a small pile of travel brochures, to dream of adventure and warmer climes. In the late 1980s and ‘90s, when I finally got to travel abroad with friends, we turned to the nice ladies at Thomas Cook who arranged our package tour vacations, including flights, hotels, transfers, insurance and even our travelers’ checks.

I remember the travel agents had “special information” in large, confidential books, detailing what was good, bad and interesting about locations and hotels – an insider’s guide to the secrets of exotic places.

What a different world from today’s Trip Advisor reviews and instant online reviews and social media!

This 178-year-old travel agency practically invented the package tour. And it was sad to see the estimated 600,000 travelers and 21,000 employees in 16 countries stranded or unemployed after the company’s failure. Although the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) hired 45 jets to bring holidaymakers back home, the collapse hit suppliers, such as hotel owners, very hard. It really is the end of an era as most people have evolved from using a one stop shop for their vacation plans to doing it all themselves from their smartphones. Today, we think nothing of browsing the internet for low-cost online booking sites and budget airline seats. However, that relatively new approach by consumers has completely undermined the formula that served Thomas Cook so well for so long.

The company had high fixed costs as it owned 105 jets, 550 travel agency shops in the U.K. and 200 hotels in popular destinations for British sun-seekers like Cyprus, Greece and the Canary Islands.

Once pricing and availability information on flights and hotels became accessible at your fingertips, the big “one stop shop” travel agency model was doomed.

The history of what became a worldwide travel agency is legendary. Thomas Cook was born in middle England in the early 19th century, and many consider him to have invented modern tourism.

Leaving school at the age of 10, he became a Baptist preacher who had the innovative idea to give workers something to look forward to other than consuming alcohol.

His revolutionary idea was to offer organized trips or “excursions,” as he called them. The first of these was a train trip from Leicester to Loughborough in 1841 for a temperance (anti-alcohol) meeting.

It is ironic that by the time I was booking through Thomas Cook for what had evolved into “package tours” to Spain, we had to be careful to avoid those locations that attracted the super heavy drinking party animals.

During Cook’s lifetime, his “target audience,” as we would call it today, was the workers of the Industrial Revolution who were struggling to cope with long hours, low wages and lack of health and safety regulations they experienced on a daily basis. Cook’s experience in creating religious flyers enabled him to produce appealing printed materials to advertise trips – a revolutionary concept in the 1800s.

His formula of promoting an enticing journey for a cut-price fare created by the lower cost of a group booking led to great things the company “Thomas Cook and Sons.”

Cook’s famous teetotalers’ rail excursion was very popular and the railway agreed to make the arrangement permanent. Cook’s success led him to develop and lead tours to France, the rest of Europe and then to the holy land.

In the early 1860s, he ceased to conduct personal tours and became an agent for the sale of domestic and overseas travel tickets, including military transport and postal services. On his death in 1892, the business passed to his only son, John Mason Cook who had been his father’s partner since 1864. Cook’s grandsons took over in 1899 and the business remained in the family until 1928.

In 1972, the company was renamed Thomas Cook, and by then it was a growing chain of travel agencies that had democratized travel, enabling families who had never ventured beyond the British seaside to experience the delights of “traveling abroad.”

Less than 50 years later, the plans and dreams of Thomas Cook holidaymakers and employees have been destroyed. There is a lot more information at www.bbc.com.

I will leave you with an amusing quote from Dave Barry, American humor columnist and author: “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”

The British had the same revelation decades earlier, thanks to Thomas Cook.

God bless America!

Lesley grew up in London, England, and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or via her PR agency at lesleyfrancispr.com.

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