Almost all the greatest explorations from Europe into Africa began with Mssrs. Thomas Cook, a group of brothers and friends who were the precursor to the Thomas Cook Travel company that went bust this weekend.
Mssrs. Cook et al would be contacted with little more than the explorers’ avowed itinerary: for example, “I’m going down The Nile” or “to find a big mountain in Abyssinia.”
The Mssrs Cook would kindly respond, “How long? From which port do you plan to depart? How many in your immediate group? What type of whiskey do you prefer?”
All questions that good travel agents ask their clients, today.
Then Mssrs Cook would build crates, topped up with whiskeys and colognes plus the appropriate beads they subcontracted from distant relatives in India, chords of silk and linen, pieces of metal chains and by the end of the 19th century, even guns and ammo.
Within hardly a few months of the expedition’s departure, Mssrs Cook would deliver to the portmaster what often amounted to partial cargo ships of wooden crates, strapped with Thomas Cook’s signature metal chords, and an inventory list referring to what was in each and every crate.
Now obviously you’d expect there had to have been some interaction between the customer and the agent before this happened. I can’t imagine, for example, that Lady Burton didn’t scour the lists of provisions the way so many of my clients reexamine the contents of their suitcases, over and over again.
But for the life of me I can’t find any indication this actually happened! Not a word after Stanley advised “I’m walking across Africa again” until at the Liverpool dock he met the Cook agent who was waiting patiently for him, top hat and pressed cummerbund with the bill in a fancy envelope held by white gloves.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the only interaction between Mssrs Cook and Henry Morton Stanley was limited to the one-time order and the delivery of the bill.
And that, my friends, was Thomas Cook’s success for the next two centuries. Warning signs that the formula needed alteration came in the age of the internet when price overtook service as the primary consumer motivation.
Today Americans will spend 5 hours on the internet to reduce their $200 airline ticket price by $15. That’s insanity. That’s capitalism.
Yet Cook was moving with the times. Last year it struck an amazing alliance with Expedia, giving up huge hunks of its profits which nonetheless added greater earnings than expected. So it was on the right path.
The path, however, was into a recession.
Thomas Cook collapsed this weekend onto a $2 billion debt, a dozen leased aircraft, millions in shared property partnerships, 20,000 employees and more than 150,000 stranded customers. The brothers Cook are twisting in their graves in the face of such ignominy.
Cook was the largest travel company in the world not partially or wholly owned by an airline company or consortium. Nearly 20 million customers used it every year.
The brothers Cook should rest easily in my estimation. This was a great, great company, and unlike all the postmortems currently underway claiming it just wasn’t right for the times, the fact is that the company fell because of its size and the imminent recession.
Cook’s formula for success is being targeted as the main reason for its collapse in the modern era, e.g. too much packaging, not responsive enough internet, staid trips and an aging clientele. So join the club. You could say the same for Sears and Shopko, and that isn’t to say it isn’t partially correct.
But Cook was so large, with such innovative management that was trying so hard to change with the times, I actually think they would have made it were it not for the recession. If management made a mistake, it was waiting just a tad too long to innovate. But who among us could have predicted this Trump/Brexit era?
Travel is the first casualty of an oncoming recession, and the bigger you are, the further you fall. We probably were due a recession even without the political crazies digging our graves before our time. Now with the economic cycle looming, and the turbulent politics ravaging every day life, it’s probably better Cook fell all at once instead of withered away.
I feel bad for the all current and past customers, of course. Hopefully they had insurance, but I know absent this very hurtful aspect of losing money and your vacation, few among Cook’s 20 million annual customers will have any memories which aren’t of the finest vacations ever.
And thank god they got Burton’s whiskey right. We might never have discovered Lake Albert.