Unable to pay suppliers for trips already booked, Cox & Kings, the Americas recently became the third global tour operator in six months to collapse, a trifecta of failures that sparked questions last week about whether the shutdowns were coincidence or indicated underlying problems within the industry.

"I have to think it's coincidence," said Robert Joselyn, CEO of the travel business advisory firm the Joselyn Consulting Group. "What's baffling to me about what's going on is that it's happened after three or four of the most profitable, expansive years that I have seen in the travel industry."

Still, Joselyn said, short of a forensic accounting analysis of Cox & Kings and the other failed operators, Thomas Cook and JG Worldwide, it would be impossible to know if any underlying similarities existed.

Travelsavers chief marketing officer Nicole Mazza said that while she also sees "each of these situations as unique," the closings might be a result of failure to keep up with a fast-changing industry.

"The closure of legacy companies Thomas Cook and Cox & Kings, while particularly sad, does offer lessons in the necessity of being nimble and able to address the needs of an evolving travel marketplace," Mazza said.

Douglas Quinby, a longtime industry analyst and co-founder and CEO of Arival, said the failures were a "long time in the making."

"The rising pressure of self-booking online, the rise of OTAs and [low-cost carriers] have all eaten away at the classic packaged-tour market," Quinby said. "Some operators have adapted, but others have not. I know there have been some closings of smaller operators in the U.S., but my sense is these are isolated. But when the slowdown comes -- some say we're already seeing signals -- the weak and strong will be separated."

George Morgan-Grenville, founder of U.K.-based travel agency Red Savannah, blamed discounting for exacerbating already low profit margins.

"It's very sad when you see old, established brands like that going under," Morgan-Grenville said. "But I think we live in an age where the consumer is king and where there is a constant downward pressure on the margins."

He added: "As an industry, we need to think about how to add value and make [consumers] pay full fare rather than using discounting. As long as we see discounting continue, we will see business failures."

Mike Estill, COO of the Western Association of Travel Agencies, said he sees two related factors at play.

"Unbridled growth simply for growth's sake, that seems to be the singular yardstick by which all things are measured today," he said. "I rarely hear anyone discussing 'smart growth.' So I don’t believe we have an intrinsic problem in the industry, but we have become a very large, complex and dynamic ecosystem. And as the ecosystem changes, some species will adapt and thrive, and some will become fossil fuel."

According to a confidential email obtained by Travel Weekly last week, Cox & Kings, the Americas suspended operations this month, saying it was unable to pay its suppliers for trips that had already been booked.

Although the tour operator said it was in talks with an investor interested in taking over the company, the email said travelers who had already booked trips have just two options: Cancel and apply for a refund, or pay local suppliers directly and apply for a refund of any deposits and duplicate monies already paid. 

The Cox & Kings collapse came less than a month after the huge U.K. travel company Thomas Cook went under, leaving some 150,000 travelers stranded around the world, and less than six months after JG Worldwide shuttered, leaving untold numbers of travelers holding worthless bookings made through two of its tour operators, Revealed America and Heritage Tours.

It also came a little more than two weeks after Azamara Club Cruises sued Cox & Kings, the Americas alleging breach of contract for booking land excursions but failing to pay local suppliers. At about the same time, Virtuoso removed the company from its preferred suppliers, citing the financial woes of India-based parent Cox & Kings Ltd., which, like Thomas Cook, has long billed itself as one of the world’s oldest travel companies.

When media reports first surfaced about Cox & Kings of India, the U.S. affiliate insisted that its operations were fully independent and insulated from the parent company’s financial woes. 

Cox & Kings, the Americas also emphasized that "as an active member of the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA), significant customer protection is required and carried. The business also holds supplemental insurance policies, such as errors and omissions, which are well above industry standards and does so to offer additional peace of mind to our clients."

The USTOA declined to comment beyond issuing a notice on Oct. 15, which said that effective immediately, Cox & Kings, the Americas was no longer a member. It also noted that any claims for lost monies under the organization’s Traveler Assistance Program would only cover refunds for trips booked before Oct. 15.

That program requires all members to post a $1 million bond to cover lost monies in the case of a default. It's unclear, however, whether that will be enough to cover travelers' losses should the company be unable to make refunds.

In the case of Cox & Kings, the Americas, that seems unlikely.

In a bankruptcy court filing earlier this year, JG Worldwide, a much smaller company, stated that it had $10 million in debts and no assets with which to satisfy creditors.

ASTA general counsel Peter Lobasso said, "The $1 million in security that each USTOA active member is required to provide certainly offers a degree of protection."

But he added: "That being said, the $1 million amount is in the aggregate and not per traveler. This means that if a large tour operator ceases business operations or files for bankruptcy protection, not every affected traveler will necessarily be made whole. For that reason, among many others, travel insurance remains important, and recommending a policy that includes financial-default coverage is well-advised."

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI