How Thomas Cook relaunched as a start-up in the middle of a global travel shutdown

The Drum 10 Jun 2021 11:00

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.

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.

“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.

And then the pandemic hit.

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.

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.

“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.”

“We’re still working out what to do with it,” she says.

“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.”

“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.”

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.

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.

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Thomas CookMigomAlan FrenchJo MigomMigom