A change of diet for Thomas Cook

A streamlining drive and a new marketing chief could be just the ticket for Thomas Cook.

SBHD: A streamlining drive and a new marketing chief could be just the ticket for Thomas Cook.

Going Places’ commercial and marketing director Kevin Welch, on hearing about his rival’s appointment of a new head of marketing is in no doubt about their choice. “That’s very Thomas Cook,” he says.

“Thomas Cook spends a long time contemplating its navel. It is in character for it to recruit a consultant rather than a doer,” he says.

The woman in question is Thomas Cook head of marketing Dido Harding. She takes this criticism in her stride. “It is common for consultants to be thought of as eggheads who don’t know what they’re doing. I want to prove I can do things before the label sticks,” says Cook.

Thomas Cook’s image has suffered over the past decade compared to its more dynamic rivals, Going Places and Lunn Poly – a fact reflected in its diminishing ad spend. According to Register-MEAL, Thomas Cook’s ad spend was £5.5m last year. This compares with £6m for Going Places and Lunn Poly’s £11.5m spend.

Welch says: “Five years ago Thomas Cook was a major player. But it has stood still since the mid-Eighties. It has allowed itself to be overtaken on all sides.”

However, it has led the way in developing its highly-profitable foreign exchange business.

As the market stands, Lunn Poly is number one, with about a 23 per cent share and 755 shops. Going Places is aiming for 700 shops by the end of the year (it has 630 at present). Thomas Cook has 385 shops and a similar market share to Going Places – about 15 per cent each.

Thomas Cook sold its Travel Management arm to American Express last September. A large-scale redundancy programme followed. Welch believes this streamlining was “not before time”.

“Thomas Cook is tightening up its act but there are still some oddball titles around. Tony Bennett (director of strategic marketing Europe) was brought in as the new marketing guru, but now he’s been promoted, nobody knows what he does,” says Welch.

Harding appears to agree: “Thomas Cook has not been able to give me a clear idea of how the structure will work.”

Thomas Cook head of communications Russell Amerasekera says Harding will take on two roles: day-to-day marketing and long-term strategic development.

Harding’s predecessor Fiona Ferguson worked exclusively on retail sales and promotions. She is now joining Sears as buying and marketing director for Milletts and Olympus sports.

At least one industry insider thinks Thomas Cook has made a wise decision in taking on Harding to perform both functions: “Harding’s degree in politics is the perfect qualification for this job. Thomas Cook needs to get rid of some its bureaucracy and focus on the high street”.

Harding has gained experience in retail strategy from working as a management consultant, and is aware of the issues involved. “Thomas Cook is a fabulous name in a world where price is becoming more important, and branding less so.”

It is attempting to lose its stuffy image and use its name to become more aggressive.

There are no signs that the retail travel market will be any less competitive in the future. Harding has accepted the challenge and she will have ample opportunity to make her mark.

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