150,000 travellers were left stranded and 21,000 employees lost their jobs when Thomas Cook ceased trading on Monday, 23 September. The travel company had been operating for 178 years.
Therefore, in the wake of their demise, let us look back at the company that brought the option of a holiday abroad to the masses for the first time, and in doing so changed British history forever.
Thomas Cook was a tee-total baptist missionary living in Market Harborough with his wife and son. On July 5th 1841, he started the company when 500 people paid one shilling each to travel to Loughborough for an anti-alcohol rally. The idea grew from there to include trips to Europe, America and eventually round-the-world tours.
Indeed, the company was deemed so vital to the British people that when it faced bankruptcy after World War Two it was nationalised. By 1950, more than a million British people were going on foreign holidays every year. Where someone goes on holiday has always been an indicator of wealth and social class, but the explosion of growth in the tourism industry, including the creation of the package holiday as we know it today, was one of the biggest cultural shifts that took place in post war Britain. Trips far abroad trips started to become a possibility for the middle classes and even though other companies were beginning to steal large parts of the market share, Thomas Cook remained a successful brand. In 1965, the company turned over a £1 million profit for the first time.
Their agencies became a staple of the British high street and in 1998 they acquired ‘Club 18-30’, the company famous for organising cheap holidays to ‘party islands’ and destinations such as Magaluf and Aiya Napa (The company’s devoutly sober founder must have been turning in his grave). For a while, the brand was remarkably successful, bringing in £48 million in annual profits in the early 2000s, but by 2018 Thomas Cook were forced to close it. In a relatively short period, young people’s attitudes to holidays had changed drastically, with more ‘instagrammable’ destinations and cultural activities becoming the new trend.
At the same time, the dawn of internet booking did not do the company any favours. Nowadays, less than one in seven people in the UK go to a high street travel agent to book a holiday. In 2007, Thomas Cook merged with MyTravel: the idea being to create a European tourism giant that could quash cheaply-run online startups. But in reality, taking on the loss-making company saddled Thomas Cook with monumental debts.
The company almost breathed its last in 2011, suffocated by owing £1.1 billion, but it was saved by a last minute injection of cash. The last couple of years proved particularly challenging for travel companies. The unprecedented heatwave in May 2018 caused many to delay booking holidays to warmer climates. This year the falling value of the pound, as well as more general Brexit uncertainty, caused some Brits to postpone booking their European breaks or skip it altogether.
The end of summer is typically a difficult time for package holiday organisers, and this season the Thomas Cook group were scrabbling to make a deal that could keep the business going.
The Turkish government and a group of Spanish hotel-owners had agreed to invest in a rescue deal to prevent damage to the tourism industry in their respective countries. But once the UK government said it was not willing to underpin the deal with any financial backing, it disintegrated. Ministers have faced criticism for this decision, given the chaos and job losses the failure caused, but a No. 10 spokeswoman said, “A bailout would not have been a good use of taxpayers’ money. We would have had to repatriate people later down the line and have lost more money in the process,”.
It has been reported that on some of the last Thomas Cook flights, crew members were moved to tears after passengers arranged a whip-round for them.
The revolution in online holiday booking that killed Thomas Cook has benefited companies like Ryanair, EasyJet and AirBnB. However in the midst of the climate crisis, Thomas Cook may not be the only travel operator under threat: as the sustainability of airlines as a whole is put evermore under the public’s critical eye, the extreme commercialisation and affordability of even low budget airlines may not be enough to stop the demands for a completely new outlook on air travel.
Image: Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia