When Alistair Rowland was voted in as the new chairman of ABTA at the end of June, few could have predicted – at least with much certainty – what the following weeks would entail.
Rowland, whose day job is chief retail officer for specialist business at The Midcounties Co-operative, replaced Noel Josephides, the chairman of Sunvil Holidays, following his six-year term as chairman. Within a few weeks of taking on the role, Thomas Cook, one of the oldest travel companies in the world, ceased trading.
“You don’t take on a role like this thinking that you’re a month away from the worst thing that could possibly happen,” Rowland tells ABTA Magazine.
“But it will show the true value that ABTA has, especially when it comes to dealing with government and all of the relevant parties.
“Right now, we don’t know what is going to happen next. We’re going to see a very different marketplace with different agents and operators. Ultimately, we are going to see more transparency when it comes to cash and more protection when a company fails. The principal still has to carry out the booking, and they’ve not got the data.”
The comments mark how rapidly the travel industry has moved following the closure of Thomas Cook. During the ABTA Convention in Tokyo, John Bevan, the CEO of Dnata B2B Europe, complained that he didn’t get details of customers who booked a Travel 2 or Gold Medal holiday until a week after the closure. Then there are also the details around how much a customer had paid.
Rowland continues: “In the future, helped by GDPR, a tour operator will have access to a database and will be able to contact the customer to let them know that their booking is OK, should a business fail. Right now we’ve got this daft situation where a customer gets repatriated and can claim the money back as well.
“When a customer booked through Thomas Cook – and if it wasn’t a Thomas Cook holiday – they thought that the holiday had been cancelled and often tried to book another one, but there was nothing wrong with it.
“You’ve got a perfect storm of issues and there will be lots of outcomes as a result.”
At the bottom of everything, according to the new ABTA chairman, is a conversation about data – but for that to take place firms needs to redefine their own role – and those of their partners.
“If you think about why we’re in this situation [Thomas Cook closure] it’s because an agent is an agent and an operator is an operator. And, an agent won’t give an operator the information because they think they will steal their customer. That’s a bit ‘legacy’ thinking.”
For Rowland, customer data needs to be available to a tour operator in case the worst should happen. There also needs to be more relevant information on the ATOL certificate.
The Midcounties boss feels the same way when it comes to how companies handle cash.
“If you look at what’s happened, Thomas Cook made a conscious effort to collect more money, earlier, so that they had more cash. Had they not gone bust it would have been paid across [to the tour operator],” he says. The issue, according to Rowland, is that when companies offer discounts – for paying the balance up front for example – that isn’t communicated with the tour operator. The result is that tour operators don’t know who has booked their holiday or how much they have paid.
Rowland adds: “That money has now gone but if you’re a tour operator you still need to perform – even with no money on the books.
“Ordinarily, the legacy issue is that travel agents are used to collecting the money before paying the tour operator, particularly for the balances. We need to be bigger than spending the customers’ money.
“One of the likely outcomes is that there will be some control over the collection of money – whose it is, where it is and when it’s paid over. I could see, for example, a system where the customer hasn’t paid the agent, or the agent hasn’t paid the tour operator, and the tour operator nullifies the booking.”
Regardless of what comes out of the Thomas Cook failure, one thing is clear: there will be ramifications as a result. For Rowland, ABTA will be key in reshaping the industry in a post-Cook landscape.
“I’ve been on the board of ABTA for seven years,” he says. “I’ve always been a huge fan of ABTA and what it does, but equally I’ve been frustrated that it doesn’t get the credit for much of what it does, such as the lobbying in Europe. Another area where we need to be much stronger is in education, not only of the socially responsible traveller, but basic knowledge for the industry.
“The one reason I put my hand up for this role is that I am a huge fan of ABTA and the work it does – 90 per cent of travel businesses choose to be part of it. They don’t need to, they choose to. In the post-mortem of Thomas Cook, ABTA will be really important in resetting the bar and I will be privileged to be a part of that.”