In September 2019, Thomas Cook went bust. Less than a year later, it was reborn as a digital start-up. Here’s the story of how one marketer fought to keep the 180-year-old brand alive through liquidation, acquisition and a pandemic that grounded virtually all tourists.
There have been many points in the past 18 months where Jo Migom must have felt like giving up. Take September 20 2019. A day that started like any other, but by the end saw her fielding messages from hundreds of bewildered staff worried about their futures as rumblings of liquidation emerged. Two days later, their worst fears were realized as the world’s oldest travel company fell into administration.
“Actually seeing us pull the plug was one of the worst moments in my career. The thing I had worked so hard for, 10 years at Thomas Cook. It was incredibly hard,” she recalls.
But out of despair came the daunting prospect of potentially keeping the company alive. Migom, then the head of its digital operations, and Alan French – then head of strategy and technology, now chief executive officer – had been working on a digital overhaul of the company for some time and saw an opportunity in taking the best bits of Thomas Cook and rebuilding it as an online-only operation. They had spent years trying to move an oil tanker, but here was a chance to shed its legacy systems and offering and finally take the brand in previously impossible directions.
But they needed cash. “We started discussions with shareholders,” she says. “I never thought we would succeed in all honesty. We called it project Firefly for the slim chance that we might.”
Migom soon found herself in front of a room of investors from Chinese tourism group Fosun trying to show what the brand could do with a little bit of help. She recalls her spiel on why the financials made sense, the relatively low risk – and cost – of setting up as digital first that could solve key problems the ‘old’ Thomas Cook had, but was just too big and slow to address. However, it was the brand, the heritage, the global awareness of it, and the unwavering love for the ‘Don’t just book it...’ tagline that she says sealed the deal.
She and French landed £11m in capital to execute their vision. While Thomas Cook of old was shackled with an expensive airline fleet, over 600 retail branches, and a tour operating division, the new Thomas Cook would have just a website and a customer service center. It was criticized for failing to accept that hand-holding wasn’t really what people wanted from a travel company in the Airbnb-era, and so new Thomas Cook would service as a one-stop-shop to book everything from a ready-made package holiday to a more flexible arrangement with a variety of flights from different operators, hotels, transfers, car hire, airport parking, currency and insurance.
“We will offer customers choice and a better booking experience. Our website is designed to be fast and simple to use and our priority is to ensure customers can book their holiday with absolute confidence,” said French last year.
Wasting no time, they got to work on hiring staff, looking for offices and creating a roadmap for what the relaunch of a beloved British brand would look like.
And then the pandemic hit.
Migom shakes her head and rolls her eyes as she recalls flights around the world being grounded, holidays canceled and airports shut down. At this point, I’m not sure anyone would have blamed her for calling it quits.
However, she looks back at the past year not as the catastrophic disaster that it has been for many travel companies, but instead a rare opportunity to flex its start-up muscles and do what it couldn’t do as ‘old’ Thomas Cook – adapt quickly to survive.
They sought to establish Thomas Cook as a trusted voice that could explain the constant changes to confused consumers, with the website designed in a clear way that communicated key updates to travelers. They experimented with staffing of remote contact centers that can now scale up or down depending on when a country opens or closes for travel. When Portugal was put on the UK’s green list, for example, there was a 500% surge in demand overnight. And having never had a chance to set up in an office, they’ve been unfazed by the move to homeworking and organized current and incoming staff so seamlessly that Migom hints it may be a permanent solution.
Testament to how it’s coped, Migom says they’ve not put any staff on furlough but instead have been actively recruiting for over 20 different positions. Compare that to the travel and tourism industry as a whole where, according to the Office for National Statistics, nearly 50% of workers were still on furlough in late January of this year. British Airways has been forced to slash thousands of jobs while companies like STA Travel and Specialist Leisure Group have gone bust.
And while Migom is looking on the bright side, the last 18 months have also bought her time to take stock of the brand; what she would bring forward under the ‘new’ Thomas Cook and how she would handle negative associations that would inevitably follow it into the future.
“It’s been very much a learning exercise,” she says. “We thought about changing the logo, but continuous research and the awareness of the brands has led us to conclude how important it is to keep the key recognizable assets. I think keeping the sunny heart was the right decision.”
Perhaps surprisingly, one asset that’s still being debated is the famous ‘Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it’ slogan that first hit our vernacular in 1984 and has stayed with the brand ever since.
“We’re still working out what to do with it,” she says.
The hesitancy perhaps stems from concerns on where to draw the line from old to new Thomas Cook. Migom says that thanks to news of a relaunch hitting headlines just as Covid’s grip on the world took hold, there was a wave of nostalgia-induced positive sentiment towards the company.
“Brand awareness has doubled [compared to old Thomas Cook] so if you’re a start-up in travel, that is a dream scenario,” she says. “While it’s great we get exposure for things that we do, if something small goes wrong we risk getting the same high exposure.”
In other words, ‘new’ Thomas Cook is not afforded the same margin of error as another travel start-up – instead it’s held to the same high standard as Thomas Cook of old. The legacy of the brand is both a blessing and a curse that Migom is trying to navigate.
“We are doing absolutely everything that we can to live up to those eye-high expectations. If anything goes wrong with a customer, the whole team, including the CEO [Alan French], gets an email about it.”
It will be of little surprise that marketing has been pretty non-existent for Thomas Cook. Forsun has afforded it big budgets to tell the world that it’s back – but what’s the point when travel is still so risky?
In the meantime, all focus has been on SEO to protect the rankings established over the past two decades, which so far has consisted of a huge content launch and “dipping the toe” into paid social with a campaign called ‘Love This’, as well as building its influencer community.
“It’s a challenge because so many people still don’t know that Thomas Cook is back. So you get the comments from people who think it went bust. But we have fantastic fans on our Facebook page who explain Thomas Cook is back on our behalf. We actually sent them a gift to thank them for being such great advocates.”
All the while, Migom’s finger is hovering on the ‘go live’ button for a major advertising assault. “We have the agencies, the campaign, the media plan – we’re just waiting for the right time.
“It’s so heavily dependent on the communications by the government. We can’t plan for it – it’s almost impulsive.”