Scott Allison Vice-president of marketing, Thomas Cook Group (Canada)

Scott Allison is the vice-president of marketing at Thomas Cook Group (Canada.)Before Thomas Cook's recent acquisition of Marlin Travel, Allison was the latter firm's vice-president of marketing. He started in business as a sales representative at Kellogg Company of Canada in...

Scott Allison is the vice-president of marketing at Thomas Cook Group (Canada.)

Before Thomas Cook’s recent acquisition of Marlin Travel, Allison was the latter firm’s vice-president of marketing. He started in business as a sales representative at Kellogg Company of Canada in 1973.

Allison has spent 16 years in the sales and marketing areas of the travel industry in Canada and the u.s.

He sits on the advisory board of the Canadian Tourism Research Institute, the air services committee of the Metropolitan Toronto Board of Trade and the Minister of Tourism’s advisory committee, Ontario Tourism sectoral strategy.

In Canada, British-owned Thomas Cook has more than 350 offices.

Its share of the travel market in this country is 11%, with sales this year of $800 million. Thomas Cook’s annual worldwide sales are 26 billion pounds sterling (more than $50 billion.)

Do Thomas Cook’s different divisions market themselves to different market segments, or is a plane ticket simply a plane ticket?

We market under three brands, or we will as we bring the two companies [Thomas Cook and Marlin Travel] together. There’s the travel management business, which is the business of selling travel to corporations. On the leisure side, we have Marlin Travel, and we have Thomas Cook’s at Eaton’s.

Marlin Travel is very strong in the travel management business as well, and we will be integrating the Marlin brand into Thomas Cook over the next few months. It will ultimately be a Thomas Cook for travel management. The integration of the brand on leisure will take a longer period of time. We may take as long as five years to do it, depending on customer acceptance of the new brand.

Is it possible to brand a holiday?

Very definitely. You know, branding is an issue of customer perception of value, and certainly here in Canada there are some strong brands in the travel business. Brands like our own Thomas Cook, and Marlin for that matter. We know that our preferred supplier strategy is partly based on the strength of the brand of the company we’re doing business. Adventure Tours have a very strong brand in the Canadian [tourism] industry.

The economy: what has Thomas Cook done to counter it or perhaps to cope with it? Have there been any company initiatives?

Clearly customers are looking for the best possible value when they’re shopping, whether they’re business clients looking for the best possible arrangements for their companies’ business travel, or for an individual. So we’re having to make our counsellors much more conscious of the price-value relationship.

The second element is getting our people to focus on the basics of what it is they do, getting back to some of the core values of being a retail travel agent. Over recent years many people in the travel industry have become very promotion-oriented – phones and all sorts of different incentives to get people to book.

Promotions have become widespread in the travel business. Will they become so expensive that eventually the industry will be forced to drop them?

I think to a certain extent [the industry] will be forced to drop [them] because those who are helping to fund these activities will start to say when there is so much going on you get into diminishing returns on your promotional investment.

As more and more promotions have been piled on, it’s become harder for the customer to differentiate one from the other, and the customers are saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I don’t want all this. What I really want is the best possible travel deal.’

I don’t want to minimize the importance of co-promotions; we believe strongly in co-promotions. We have a worldwide alliance with Mastercard.

Given the state of the economy, and razor-thin margins to begin with, what sorts of costs can you consider for reduction if not outright elimination?

One of the things in our industry that we believe we can reduce costs on is the processing of bookings between ourselves and the tour operators. All of our airline bookings, of course, are [computerized.]

On the leisure side of our business, virtually nothing is automated. So all of that manual booking activity has a real productivity loss to it. We’re really pushing to ensure that a higher percentage of our bookings are done with suppliers who can provide us with an automated solution.

That’s a big issue. The productivity saving there can be as much as 200% to 300%.

Does Thomas Cook’s size give the company some leverage with suppliers?

That’s a very interesting question, and I’ll answer it in two ways because we see it as a customer and as a supplier.

As a customer, what we’re driving towards more than increasing the leverage in a traditional sense is looking for strategic alliances or partnerships where we can build longer term relationships. One of difficulties in the travel industry has been that relationships are too cyclical.

On the supplier side, we have had a number of major companies come to us and say we can only afford to spend this much money on our travel. We realize fares have gone up. The airlines have reduced some of the corporate discounts. We want you to find us other ways to save that money.

Apart from the traditional way of getting and keeping customers – supplying value for money – what else has Thomas Cook been doing for the customer?

One of the things we’re doing quite successfully is we’re doing more of our own branded product. There is consumer anxiety about some of the suppliers. By putting our own brand on something it gives the customer a real feeling that Thomas Cook is 100% behind this product.

How do you see the market a year from now? Will it start to show signs of life again?

I think it will have started to show signs of life again. But I think we have seen, and I know that this is becoming a bit of a cliche, but there have been some structural changes in the industry. I think there are consumers who will not buy travel like they have bought it in the past. People will continue to buy travel, but people have become more educated about travel, more sophisticated about travel.