Thomas Cook: The company taking visitors to the Olympics since 1896

 
Marc Sidwell
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COUNTDOWN TO THE LONDON 2012 OLYMPIC GAMES

Q. WHAT WAS YOUR BRAND’S PRIMARY REASON FOR BEING INVOLVED WITH THE GAMES?

A. Thomas Cook actually took customers from Britain to the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, and passengers from all over the UK to the 1908 and 1948 London Olympics, so we’ve got a long history here. And we have a very good sporting pedigree: we’re the official travel provider to most premier league clubs; we do Six Nations, the Rugby World Cup, Formula One, boxing, Ryder Cup – even darts. When we heard the tender was out for 2012 – this is the first Games that the rights to provide Olympic breaks have been sold this way – we naturally applied.

But the reality also is that a large sporting event has an effect on traditional tour operating and travel – our core business. The thought was: if you can’t beat them join them.

Q. HOW DID YOU STRUCTURE THE CASE FOR BOARD APPROVAL?

A. We divided the case into four strands. First, profit – as I said, turning a potential loss into a gain in a very tough time. It is going to be tough because of the Olympics, so let’s turn tough margins into something we can commercialise. Second, customers: it’s a chance to position ourselves as more than the shop at the end of the road where you get your foreign exchange and your holiday – a chance to show what else we do. If I can get the Olympics from Thomas Cook, what else can I get? So it will increase awareness of our wider sport business and our other niche businesses that people may not be so aware of. Third is people, and in a grey period for most businesses we’re using 2012 to engage our own people.Three weeks ago I had the honour of telling the staff which ones had succeeeded through our selection process to receive our torchbearing places. We’re also Olympifying a lot of things in our business – from shop windows and uniforms to computers: everyone’s screensaver across the business is now an Olympic one.

Finally, there’s longevity. We’ve signed a deal with the British Olympic Association (BOA) to be its preferred travel partner until 2020, so we’ll be taking guests to Sochi and Rio and beyond. It’s a long-term plan for us, and the contacts that we get from our London 2012 business will also be introduced to the world of Thomas Cook Sport.

Q. HOW HAVE YOU STRUCTURED YOUR BUSINESS TO MAXIMISE OLYMPIC OPPORTUNITIES?

A. Thomas Cook had no recent Olympic experience. So we scoured the market and found Iluka, which specialises in Games Time hospitality. Now we’ve got a joint venture, sharing staff and expertise. That got us across the line in the bid, giving us credentials on experience to match our distribution network for the 315,000 tickets for the Olympics and the Paralympics we’ve been allocated.

There are a lot of stipulations around your contract with Locog. It is incredible what you can’t do. We can’t put the prices of our packages on the plasma screens in our stores because the televisions aren’t Samsung. So when you get into the nuts and bolts of it it takes some time to get to the reality of what you’ve won and paid for.

In terms of business lead generation its been fantastic – it’s allowed us to talk to businesses we would never have talked to before. To start with, another 30-odd Olympic sponsors. For example, BP has bought a number of packages to give away as forecourt promotions.

Q. WHAT ARE THE MOST CRUCIAL COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITIES IN THE GAMES FOR YOU?

A. We have two products, Games Breaks and corporate hospitality. One of the things we wanted to do is ensure that people could get to the Olympics no matter what their wallet. So you can get to the Games from Birmingham with Thomas Cook, including ticket and accommodation, for £99. That is amazing value. We’re not making any money on that; it’s a loss leader. But Games Breaks go up to about £1,000 per person, depending on the event and the hotel. Those are going a storm, we’re over 60 per cent sold on those already. Our corporate hospitality is four or five star hotels and AA, A or B events – finals and opening and closing ceremonies. It can be sold in two ways. That side isn’t going at the same rate of knots, probably because Thomas Cook is not traditionally known for corporate hospitality and also just the current condition of the market. Confusion around the Bribery Act is also creeping in. It’s not actively putting people off but it’s not helping to push them forward.

Q. WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE NON-OFFICIAL PARTNERS TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITIES IN 2012?

A. Two words – be there. Think about who you want to give this experience: staff, clients, whoever. Come and tell us what your objectives are and let’s see if we can’t put something together. Get involved and be there and don’t presume it can’t be done because things are sold out or because it’s London 2012.

Stephen Vaughan is the director of Thomas Cook’s London 2012 partnership.

We’ve signed up with the BOA to be its preferred travel partner until 2020