Friday, 20 June 2008

The End of High Street Travel Agents

Thomas Cook - time for a geography lesson

I'm planning a trip to California at the moment. I've been trawling the web for inspiration but I've also been reading a Trailfinders brochure - turning glossy pages is a welcome break to scrolling web pages - and its much more portable too. The first transatlantic flight I ever brought was from Trailfinders - Air New Zealand, Heathrow to LA. That was nearly 20 years ago, but their knowledgeable and competitive service has left a lasting impression with me and I trust their research. Last year I used Trailfinders accommodation recommendations in South Africa and they were all good.

I've never brought anything from Thomas Cook and I probably never will judging from today's experience. Passing a very down at heel branch in West London this morning I popped in to see what other brochures I could pick up. As I surveyed the tatty racks, largely bereft of any brochures, a scruffy young girl approached me to ask if I needed any help. She conveyed all the enthusiam of someone who has been instructed to do this during training: 'Turn browsers into buyers Shirley'.

'I'm looking for flydrive California brochures' I told her. She turned to her supervisor, sat at one of the deserted desks, 'California?' she faintly echoed. 'There might be a Thomas Cook Signature brochure out the back' offered the supervisor. 'That would be great' I encouraged.

With nothing else to distract me - such as an offer to discuss my travel plans in more detail - I looked around. Sales posters and signs covered all the walls in the dimly lit branch. At the currency exchange desk a peeling newspaper cutting warned of 'bank currency rip-offs'. After what seemed an age the first girl emerged offering a single slim brochure with a large, single word title emblazoned across the front cover 'Florida'.

'Florida' isn't quite California is it?' I pointed out (do you think they give Italy brochures to customers who enquire about France?). The supervisor piped up 'There might be a small bit about California in there'. Perhaps there are also small bits about Nevada, Arizona and New York, maybe even the Galapagos I thought, but the title is a giveaway.

Long before this exchange I realised I'd made a big mistake stepping into Thomas Cook. The great pioneer of mass travel would despair at the brand which has taken his name. Asked to point to either California or Florida on a map I doubt either of these two could.

'Come back next Tuesday...We could search availability...' their voices faded into the distance as I made my excuses 'I don't think so' and headed for the exit. As I walked away I remembered this was also the branch where I once asked about Gran Canaria and they showed me a print out of availability for Playa Las Americas - which I pointed out was in Tenerife.

We've heard high street travel agents are being read the last rites - if this is the service they offer, then no wonder.

Thomas Cook I suggest you shut the doors and save the rent.

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