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Old meets new as a 179-year-old tour operator brand begins a new life as an online travel agency.

The “old” Thomas Cook collapsed in September last year.  A lot of its high street retail network was snapped up by Hays Travel, while China’s Fosun Tourism Group salvaged the rights to the bankrupt travel company’s brand for $14 million.

Now, not only is Thomas Cook restarting in the UK with the launch on Wednesday of thomascook.com without the burden of that large network of travel agencies, or an airline in tow, but it’s also declaring itself a “Covid-ready” travel company.

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What does that mean exactly? And is such an historic name like Thomas Cook ready to do business in the middle of the second wave of a pandemic?

Thomas Cook’s marketing team would probably argue: is the pandemic ready for Thomas Cook?

It’s got it all figured out, you see. By “Covid-ready”, Cook has built in some unique features. A spokesperson told Skift it was a “mobile first” company. That’s debatable, going by the new website — but it is certainly “coronavirus first”.

Switching Channels

First, the holidays. It’s proposing to sell customers thousands of hotels and flight routes, so they can design their own holidays. It’s joined forces with accommodation wholesalers WebBeds and Hotelbeds, with flights provided by consolidator Paxport.

What’s different is that it will only sell those holidays that the UK is permitting travel to, via its designated corridors. If a destination that’s been booked suddenly becomes blacklisted, Cook will give the option to switch to a country that is permitted.

Current examples include a three-night break in Rome in November at the four-star Grand Hotel Fleming for £252 ($324) for two adults flying from Gatwick. Further afield, a family of four can stay for a week all-inclusive at the five-star Crystal Green Bay Resort & Spa outside Bodrum, Turkey, on October 11 for £1,250 ($1,610) flying from Liverpool.

And while it will actively promote its own stock, such as Casa CookCook’s Club and Club Med properties (which are also owned by Fosun), the spokesperson told Skift even hotels run by former rival TUI will be on offer.

“From the bed banks, we’ve selected the properties we want, based on the health and safety standards. If TUI distributed its stock through the bed banks we use, then we’d absolutely sell their hotels. We want to sell hotels customers want to go to,” he said.

Protection in Mind

Then there’s its attempt to reassure customers their cash won’t disappear, or end up as a credit note, should the holiday fall through. Thomas Cook is licensed by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority while there’s also an “updated operating model” — a trust model to ring-fence customers’ payments, meaning Thomas Cook only receives customers’ money once they’ve returned from holiday.

A company statement also said that Thomas Cook is protected by Atol, and has the “backing of a multi-billion-dollar organisation”. This is where new owner Fosun comes in. Previously, Thomas Cook wasn’t known for its winter holidays, but through Club Med it will be able to offer ski holidays, Covid-19 permitting.

Meanwhile, Fosun stands to gain from reintroducing the Thomas Cook name back into Europe. Since it acquired the brand rights, it’s been selling Thomas Cook holidays in China. “When this pandemic is over, there is a huge demand from China for inbound European tourism,” the spokesperson said.

Jim Qian, chairman and CEO of Fosun Tourism Group, said in a statement that after acquiring the brand last year, the company wanted to quickly return it to its home in the UK. “Supporting the growth of the brand in China and its relaunch in the UK is a big step in our plan to turn Thomas Cook into a global success story and a key milestone in the development of the Fosun Tourism Group’s strategy,” he said.

What’s In a Name?

The biggest question, however, doesn’t really revolve around technology or destinations, it’s confidence. There will be some element of mistrust associated with Thomas Cook, which after all left a black hole of debt amounting to at least $12 billion.

“As you can imagine, we’ve done a fair amount of research preparing for this launch,” said the spokesperson. “We started working on this back in December. We see a continual improvement in the brand’s confidence. Many people had forgotten Thomas Cook collapsed because, frankly, most people don’t pay attention to holiday companies, unless they’re booking.”

Then there’s the matter of competition. Surely brands like Expedia carry more weight today, when it comes to online expertise? Again, it’s back to the brand, and the spokesperson claimed many people associate the Cook name with customer service. “We’re taking the best bits of Thomas Cook: the brand, some of the people, that sense of customer service, and matching that with one of the fastest websites in travel, focusing on sourcing great hotels. The old business was package a room, with a seat, and a transfer bus, and sell that at the highest possible margin.”

This new-look Thomas Cook may be able to succeed in digitizing a once much-loved holiday brand, and it’s got little to lose with this relaunch, but a lot rests on whether the frustrations of this year’s lockdown will block out the memories of such a major event last summer.

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Photo Credit: Jim Qian, chairman & CEO Fosun Tourism Group, speaking at a Skift Forum. Skift