Business

Thomas Cook: What's gone wrong at the holiday firm?

Swimmers on a beach in Spain Image copyright Getty Images

Travel firm Thomas Cook has come a long way since its formation in rural Leicestershire during the early Victorian era.

Founded in Market Harborough in 1841 by businessman Thomas Cook, the fledgling company organised railway outings for members of the local temperance movement.

Some 177 years later it is a leading global travel group, with annual sales of £9bn, 19 million customers a year and 22,000 staff operating in 16 countries.

Profit warnings

Thomas Cook has had a chequered history, including being nationalised in 1948 - when it became part of the state-owned British Railways - and owning the raucous Club 18-30 youth brand, which it recently closed after failing to find a buyer.

However, just as the travel world has progressed from temperance day trips, so the modern business and leisure market is also changing, and at a far faster pace than in previous decades.

The firm is being buffeted by a number of factors: financial, social and even meteorological.

Image copyright AFP

Six months ago shares in Thomas Cook were trading at just below 150p. Now, after two profit warnings, they are worth just a fraction of that price.

Its shares had fallen by nearly 60% over the past week, to a six-year low, although there was a mini-renaissance on Wednesday following news that chairman Frank Maysman had bought 373,000 shares at 21.6p.

Meanwhile, its bonds have dropped in value, as the cost of insuring its debt against defaulting on payments hit a record high. Financial analyst Moody's has also downgraded its rating on the company to B2 from B1.

'A lot of disruption'

Stuart Gordon, an analyst at investment bank Berenberg, has followed Thomas Cook's financial performance closely.

"There is a feeling the company may have to ask its shareholders for more money," he says.

The firm has blamed its drop in profits on a prolonged UK summer heatwave hitting overseas bookings. Meanwhile, winter bookings are also down by 3%.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The UK heatwave has been blamed for falling summer bookings at Thomas Cook

"I think the hot weather played a part in what happened to Thomas Cook over the summer," says Mr Gordon.

"The fact is that it is a pretty structurally challenged company. As consumers we are moving online, it is causing a lot of disruption for them."

He says holidaymakers are using the likes of AirBnB and Ryanair to put together their own holidays, and no longer buy traditional package deals.

"I am not saying the package holiday industry is dead, but I do think they will continue to face challenges," Mr Gordon says.

Airline sale?

As well as weather issues, and stiff competition from online travel agents and low-cost airlines, he notes there are other disruptive factors, including political unrest in countries such as Turkey.

One potential move being discussed as a partial solution to Thomas Cook's current financial headwinds, is the potential for the firm to sell its airline, which operates 94 aircraft.

"This is something that the company has previously considered but it has, thus far, concluded that the airline gives it a competitive advantage," Mr Gordon says.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Thomas Cook's airline has 94 planes

"We doubt that Thomas Cook will sell this asset. However, if the company revisits the prospect, we question whether there would be interested parties."

Thomas Cook's rival TUI, which owns the Thomson brand, is less reliant on package holidays and has diversified into the cruise and hotel businesses. "So they are not just reliant on package holidays," Mr Gordon says.

It all means that Thomas Cook may need "some kind of fundraising" in the near future, the analyst argues.

'Industry leading'

However, analysts at US multinational investment bank Jefferies differ from this critical picture and believe that Thomas Cook can avoid a "capital raise".

In a note for investors they also say that the firm's recent partnerships, such as with online booking firm Expedia and with Hainan Tourism Development Committee in China are "industry leading".

They add: "Thomas Cook's Airline, in our opinion, has transformed from a side-show for the tour operator, into an impressive airline in its own right. It now represents more than half of group operating profitability.

"In our opinion, Thomas Cook would be open to a minority stake sale in its airline, looking to retain majority control to ensure control over capacity looking forward."

They believe a sale of a minority stake in the airline could realise £400m for the firm.

And with regards to digital bookings, they say: "We are impressed by Thomas Cook's ongoing shift online, especially in the UK where it saw 30% online growth in bookings year on year."

'Brand value'

Simon Calder, travel editor of the Independent, says Thomas Cook is the strongest brand name in travel.

"They have great value in their heritage, brand recognition, and they also put together pretty good holidays. But for the past 25 years they have taken their eye off the ball and failed to spot trends, mainly the emergence of no-frills travel and what it has meant for people's holidays."

Image caption A 2016 recreation of the first Thomas Cook outing in 1841 celebrated the firm's heritage

He said that as well as rival TUI thriving, Thomas Cook had also been hit by the rise of budget airline Jet2 - which has become the second-biggest tour operator: "They have picked up a lot of the bread and butter holiday market that Thomas Cook used to have."

Mr Calder said that Thomas Cook was "not a complete basket case" and that its business in Germany and Scandinavia remained healthy.

"But its share price is embarrassing," he said. "The market seems to be taking the view that Thomas Cook will stay in business, but that there will be a funding call to investors.

"A lot of people emotionally feel they have a share in the ownership of Thomas Cook - it was nationalised once after all. It is a shame to see such a great brand name held in such contempt by the market."

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