The collapse of Thomas Cook meant the closure of its 555
brick-and-mortar travel agencies around the U.K., but the willingness of other
agencies to hire former Thomas Cook employees and open storefronts in the same
locations signal the strength of the overall agency community in the country.
Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the Association of British
Travel Agents, the trade association for U.K. tour operators and travel
advisors, said the news that agencies like Hays Travel were interested in
keeping traditional agencies in former Thomas Cook locations was a good sign
for the agency landscape overall.
"It was a surprise, really, because it happened so quickly,
but it's also very positive," Tipton said.
The agency landscape in the U.K. shares a number of similarities
with its counterpart in the U.S. Like agencies here, Tipton said, the advent of
online booking hit agencies hard, especially brick-and-mortar agencies
(commonly called "high street" agencies in the U.K., roughly equivalent to
calling them Main Street agencies in the U.S.).
While the emergence of the internet significantly reduced
the number of agencies across the U.K., those that survived tended to be very
good at their jobs and true experts, Tipton said.
Independent, home-based advisors are proliferating in the
U.K., and brick-and-mortar agencies are also enjoying a resurgence, according
Thomas Cook’s trouble was "more to do with the large amount
of debt that they accrued through various acquisitions, and that brought the
whole group down in the end," Tipton said. He said he believes other agencies
are interested in the company's brick-and-mortar locations because they were
Hays Travel announced earlier this month that it would not
only acquire Thomas Cook’s 555 shops, but also hire up to 2,500 Thomas Cook
employees. Of those, 100 would be based at Hays' headquarters in Sunderland,
Before the official announcement, Hays had already offered
jobs to about 600 former Thomas Cook employees.
John Hays, managing director of the agency, issued a
statement saying, "Now that we are able to reopen the shops, we are looking
forward to welcoming many more people who share our passion for the travel
industry into our family business."
Last week, Hays was in the process of reopening former
Thomas Cook storefronts and bringing the former employees back onboard. As of
last Wednesday, Hays reported it had opened 186 locations in England, Scotland,
Northern Ireland and Wales and had hired 1,982 former Thomas Cook employees.
Peter O'Connor, Phocuswright's senior market analyst for
Europe, agreed with Tipton that the agency side of Thomas Cook's business
wasn’t the problem but rather that operations were challenging. He called Hays'
efforts "a strange move," as the company already had many agents of its own.
Before it began reopening Thomas Cook storefronts, Hays had 190
brick-and-mortar locations in the U.K.
Dirk Rogl, Phocuswright's research analyst and content
specialist for Europe, agreed that if the deal was undertaken just for
storefronts and agents -- and not for customer data, which is generally not for
sale due to EU data protection laws -- it is "unusual indeed."
Hays isn't the only agency with plans to pick up what Thomas
Cook left behind. Several others are interested, Tipton said.
Among them is Barrhead Travel, a Travel Leaders Group brand
with 76 stores and headquarters in Scotland. Barrhead said in a statement that
it planned to open as many as 100 new stores in the U.K. and to rehire "a significant
number of former Thomas Cook employees as quickly as possible."
Travel Leaders acquired Barrhead in early 2018. Travel
Leaders chairman Michael Batt said expansion plans had already been in the
works but were accelerated in the wake of Thomas Cook's collapse.
Christina Jelski contributed to this report.