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The Business of Tourism: The Thomas Cook saga - A lesson for tourism business operators

A VACATION is about happiness and fulfilling dreams. For this reason, tour operators, hotels, destinations, airlines, and service providers cultivate a positive image, a high reputation and encourage a feeling that they care. It means that when something goes wrong, it requires sensitive handling and an understanding that holidays are about more than a normal consumer transaction.

For this reason, the behaviour of the tour operator Thomas Cook over the deaths of two children on a holiday some years ago, is hard to justify. Thomas Cook had sold the holiday.

In outline, two children, ages six and seven, were found dead in a bungalow on the grounds of a hotel in the Greek island of Corfu in 2006 and their two accompanying adults in a coma. The children had been on a Thomas Cook holiday with their father and his partner, now wife, when they all breathed in carbon monoxide fumes from an unrepaired faulty boiler.

In 2010, a Greek court found the deaths of the two children were the result of unlawful action by hotel employees. Two Thomas Cook representatives were exonerated, and the company reportedly received £3.5m (US$5.35m) in compensation for loss of profits and other expenses. The family, however, received around one tenth of that sum.

Subsequently, and much later, after a formal inquest in the United Kingdom in May 2015, a jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing in the case and concluded Thomas Cook had "breached its duty of care".

By then, notwithstanding, the pervasive sense of a big company thinking only about its commercial interests had taken root, and the media had begun to focus on the company's failure to apologise, its legally advised decision not to answer questions in the coroner's court, and the inequity in the compensation awarded to the family by the hotel, after what for them had been an expensive legal battle.

Instead of the story then fading away with all concerned trying their best to have a dialogue about ways to mitigate the tragic loss and reputational damage, the story grew bigger daily as the company failed on just about every count to respond in a humane manner, let alone suggest a business that wants to bring joy to its customers.

Instead, Thomas Cook unilaterally announced that it would give one third of the compensation it had received to UNICEF, a charity not remotely linked to the children or their vacation, and without consulting the family about its wishes; released, after strident media and political criticism, a video of it present chief executive apologising from behind a lectern, but declined to allow any broadcast interviews or to meet with the family; and told the media it had sent a letter of apology that the family had not even seen. To make matters worse, the individual who until last November was the company's chief executive said that she would donate around £3m to charity following a backlash for a massive bonus she had received from the company.

As a consequence, the family concerned is in despair, and days after the coroner's court ruling, there are calls for a consumer boycott, and Thomas Cook continues to receive highly critical media coverage with damning leading articles in newspapers that range from the Financial Times to Britain's tabloid press.

Thomas Cook, a company that sells holidays and cruises to many destinations including the Caribbean, ought to be seen as a company that cares about people and puts its customers first. Its failure to do so in this extraordinary case should be a lesson for everyone in business in the tourism sector. 

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