Tech troubles cooked the travel agent

Is technology partly to blame for Thomas Cook’s demise?

"Don't just book it, Thomas Cook it," was the now defunct travel agent's slogan when I was a kid. If my recent experience of booking online with the company is anything to go by, the slogan should have been "you just can't book it when you Thomas Cook it".

Like virtually every travel-agent website I can think of, Thomas Cook did a woeful job of handling online bookings. My efforts to secure two hotel rooms for my family were repeatedly thwarted at the final confirmation screen after I'd laboriously entered every detail, tweaked every flight and selected all the non-optional extras because the rooms we wanted were now inexplicably unavailable. Only when I finally broke and spent 30 minutes hanging on the company's telephone helpline did a harassed member of staff confess that she had no idea why I couldn't book them. Computer said 'no'.

So, when I read that Thomas Cook still had an expensive fleet of 600 bricks-and-mortar stores that hugely exacerbated the company's already monumental losses, I wasn't the least bit surprised. Having lost the plot myself with the travel agent's broken online booking system, I could see why it would be preferable to get Sandra at the high-street branch to take over the task of screaming at her screen in frustration.

Online travel booking should have been an open goal for these firms. Back when I was a lad, prospective sunseekers had to wade through pages and pages of Teletext listings to find the holiday of their dreams. And Teletext Holidays is still going online today, a decade or more after Teletext itself vanished, such is the affection people have for that brand even though the experience could barely have been more tedious.

Unbelievably, booking holidays and flights online has become even more painful. Websites routinely don't work properly and, even when they do, they often work against you. When flight-booking websites crank up their prices because they've clocked you're a repeat visitor and they now know you're definitely interested guess what? People get angry. And even if many of these sharp practices are getting weeded out of the industry -- either through tighter regulation or because firms have been caught red-handed it absolutely destroys customer trust. Can you blame people for wanting to look a human travel agent in the eye when they can't trust the prices on the screen in front of them?

Even when your holiday is booked, the travel agents use technology to blackmail you for more money. A few weeks before we set off on the holiday that we eventually booked with Tui, emails started arriving encouraging us to reserve specific seats on the plane, accompanied by a live map showing that there were only a few left unreserved. The message was clear expect to spend the 10-hour flight sat apart from your children if you don't pay the extra 100 or so it costs to reserve seats. It's extortion, pure and simple.

Millions of people have lost their holidays and tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs in part, because Thomas Cook's technology was nowhere near good enough.

Sadly, they won't be the last.

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