How Thomas Cook made the jump from travel brand to media owner

Thomas Cook's Media Partnerships division has built a viable media business out of the 176-year-old travel brand.

British holiday giant Thomas Cook, has gone through some turbulent moments in the last few years, enduring a changing holiday marketplace as well as recent political upheaval and terrorist incidents in tourist destinations; such as the attacks in Sousse, Tunisia.

Against this backdrop, the FTSE 250 company has spend the past seven years focused on gleaning value from data it holds on the 22 million customers it has interactions with each month.

In 2015 it enlisted Stuart Adamson to launch Thomas Cook Media Partnerships as managing director, with the exec previously having served as group head of media partnerships, and previously head of media solutions.

Adamson, speaking this week at the Fipp Innovators Summit in Berlin said when the division launched the brand was a “media owner waiting to happen” and that his team has since built the division into a media powerhouse.

At the beginning of the decade, he said Thomas Cook started to produce digital travel content with the aim of creating material that was just good as the features in Sunday newspaper supplements or coffee-table travel magazines:working across stores, aircraft, websites, magazines and travel agents.

Early sales, were good but not optimal – in part, Adamson put this down to the limited inventory of ad space on the travel brand’s website. As such, his team had to find a way to work around the brand’s laser-guided focus on selling holidays, and so began capturing data on every customer that touched any part of the Thomas Cook brand.

Around this they built insights they could feed into marketing platforms that would then allow the brand to target customers with promotions and relevant content tuned to their needs.

“The key with our data is that every single one of those people that enters our world tells us where they want to go, when they want to go, who they want to go with, what star rating hotel they want to stay in, whether they want a beach holiday, a cruise holiday or a skiing holiday. And they also tell us how much they want to spend,” said Adamson.

As one of the earliest brands to embrace programmatic trading, Thomas Cook developed its own tech stack, incorporating a data management platform (DMP) and a demand side platform (DSP).

The company’s investment in a programmatic trading desk allowed the brand to leverage its own data and work with partners across the web, in a move that Adamson said “took the business to another level.”

The next move was to begin incorporating these digital insights in the offline world.

The brand’s 3,000-strong network of high street travel agencies, (constituting one of the biggest OOH networks in Europe) began using geofencing tech to target nearby consumers and tempt them inside.

“I was a bit skeptical that this was actually going to bring people in-store,” Adamson admitted, “but what we’re seeing is that for every 27 million impressions we’re delivering, about 1,000 people are walking in store.”

At the same time, interactive screens equipped with cameras were rolled out in Thomas Cook outlets. The screens, which showed promotional videos focused on the brand’s various holiday destinations, measured how long visitors stayed to view the content as well noting the viewers’ age and sex, before using that data to display personalised content in real time.

The company truly stepped into publishing when it launched what Adamson described as “an inspirational content platform” as a way of tying together its sprawling library of brochures.

This manifested itself in the relaunch of The Excursionist, a travel magazine originally launched by Thomas Cook’s eponymous print-minded founder in 1851, which claims to be thethe oldest travel title in the world.

Its return after a 70-year absence from the shelves “has been a huge success” according to Adamson, and the title has acquired a digital and print readership of 1.4 million across Europe.

Adamson said that Thomas Cook’s media brand now stretches across the entire breadth and width of its diverse business.

“We’ve actually created a huge multichannel offering that we now deliver for partners, which goes into social, which goes into screens, in-store, involves agent training, goes into digital online, it’s content, it’s video, it’s images, it’s in-flight media. And it has a full-blown communications strategy underneath all that.”

Thomas Cook’s media business has provided the firm with ample opportunity to escape the cash flow issues inherent to an industry dependent on seasonal demand, and as such, the strategy enjoyed senior buy-in from the beginning.

Adamson, highlighted the support of chief executive Peter Fankhauser as instrumental, saying that his 60-strong team were now considered a key profit centre for the company.

Thomas Cook’s transition from travel agency to media brand has not come without challenges. The Media Partnerships unit was tasked with overhauling the brand’s collection of brochures, a legacy of past consumer habits, and infusing the range with same flexible, data-led approach taken by its burgeoning media portfolio.

As Adamson put it, “We don’t market one-channel brochure marketing any more – we market multichannel because it’s 2018, not 1985.”

The solution was ‘Hotel Everywhere’, a platform that pools the vast array of destinations on Thomas Cook’s books and inserts relevant listings across the brand’s many channels.

The proposition comprises in-store screens, agency intranet systems and consumer-facing website. The platform has become Thomas Cook’s foremost weapon in the fight against e-commerce giants like Trivago and Expedia, playing to its strengths.

It’s also reinvigorated the company’s supplier marketing base, with the brand’s huge web of hotelier-owners signing up and getting behind the platform, triggering a 22% increase in marketing contributions. Adamson credited the system as a “huge revenue driver”.

Thomas Cook’s data-focused approach to building its brand has paid off in other forms, too. It was recently the first non-media partner to be given access to Google’s network data, and has since been included in a trial scheme giving access to the tech giant’s search data, providing unparalleled insights to travel search preferences.

Despite its success in growing a viable media business from within a 176-year-old travel brand, Adamson said that Thomas Cook plans to stay on the front foot.

“We now have a full service creative content agency,” he added, “as well as a full-service research and insights division that uses all the data that Thomas Cook has, in addition to about 30 in-house research specialists to offer full research services to our partners.”

Additional reporting by Sam Bradley.

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