Who needs brochures?

Tui’s decision to keep brochures is like holding back an internet tide of its own creation, says Steve Endacott.

In the 1990s, when travel agents worked from black and green Viewdata terminals, brochures were an essential part of the sales process.

We used to talk about three stages for booking a holiday: dream, research, book.

The dream stage has always been a weakness of the booking journey.

Historically, it often comprised conversations with friends and families in the pub or at the school gate, although dedicated TV travel channels and programmes like Wish You Were Here also helped shape destination selection.

Customers then wandered down the high street to pick up a range of brochures to complete the research stage and most would then return to the same shop to book, even though by the late 1990s tour operators were trying to erode this by advertising direct booking numbers in brochures.

The high street lost out on ‘late’ allocation-on-arrival bookings because the customer did not need to see brochure pictures.

This allowed Teletext-fulfilled call centres with lower overheads and more-convenient opening times to dominate the late-booking sector, until it was superseded in turn by more-convenient internet booking.

An average cost of £1 per brochure and 20 brochures per booking created a high cost of sale which encouraged major tour operators to invest in online channels at the expense of shops.

The roll out of high-speed broadband in the last 10 years has also allowed Tui to develop excellent video content which, when combined with millions of detailed user reviews, makes the online experience far superior to traditional brochures.

So why, after pushing so hard to scrap brochures, has Tui reversed its position and announced it will continue to produce brochures?

I think the answer is that customers’ purchasing habits have been slower to evolve than expected and brochures still facilitate the high-street booking process in the following ways:


A key weakness of most travel websites remains that you need to know where you want to go before you can search.

Brochures offer ‘flickability’ with customers able to scan prices and pictures for a whole range of destinations quickly and effectively allowing them to help shape the ‘dream’ stage. 


Holidays are the most expensive annual purchase but end with customers leaving a shop with nothing tangible except a promise to deliver a holiday months later.

Brochures act as a psychological voucher that allows customers to show friends and family what they have purchased.

Ethical bonds

Brochures create an ethical bond between customer and shop as they remind customers of the effort the travel agent has put into assisting them with their holiday selection, which often leads them back to the shop to complete the transaction.

This is one of the reasons high street shops convert 25%-40% of customers who walk through their doors even though few book on the first visit.

Conversely, online competitor sites are only one click away and, because no emotional bond is created, customers feel free to shop around leaving conversion levels at a sub-1%.

Even given the above, Tui’s decision to continue to produce brochures feels like the action of a King Canute, trying to hold back an internet tide of their own creation. Bluntly, the better Tui’s online experience becomes the faster its shop network is going to close.

So although I see a strong future for independent agents selling complex holidays such as long haul, touring and cruising, from multiple suppliers, but it’s hard to predict such a healthy future for employees of major tour operators’ retail chains.

Does Thomas Cook’s relaunch of Airtours make sense?

The industry has seen many travel groups created by acquisition and consolidation over the years.

The big four tour operators – Thomson, First Choice, Thomas Cook, Airtours – become the big two of Tui and Thomas Cook while many independent travel businesses were hoovered up to create specialist groups like Travelopia.

Have these deals ever delivered shareholder value?

Given the recent £1.1 billion write off by Thomas Cook of its MyTravel (Airtours) acquisition, it’s clear two plus two did not even make three in this case.

The merger of Thomson and First Choice to create Tui is less clear cut, but the First Choice brand has been downweighed markedly and now only offers a relatively limited range of all-inclusive holidays.

The basic problem is that it’s hard to create differentiated hotel product and, when you do, it’s natural to want to offer this via your strongest brand which is also displayed on your aircraft and retail divisions.

This leaves little room for secondary brands – hence these start to shrivel and disappear.

Similarly, although there are demonstrable synergies from the use of central IT and finance functions within specialist groups, the process of acquisition often leads to founders leaving which, over a period of years, leads in turn to a loss of brand identity as more junior managers are employed or senior managers asked to manage multiple brands.

Specialist groups like Travelopia can work, but many have not.

Given the above, Thomas Cook’s decision to re-launch Airtours as a dynamic-packaging brand appears sensible, but at the same time challenging.

It certainly makes sense to separate out the differentiated hotel product, operated exclusively on inhouse flying, and have common Thomas Cook branding across the retail shops, airline and tour operation.

Using the Airtours’ brand to sell the commodity bed-bank hotels combined with a range of low-cost carrier seats within its own retail outlets and online could also work.

However, it will always be a difficult balancing act within the Thomas Cook retail network.

The main tour operation will not want one million dynamically packaged holidays to be sold at relatively low margins via its shop network, as happened previously, while some of its own charter-flight seats are empty.

It also won’t be easy to re-establish the Airtours’ brand in a Google-dominated distribution space against the established, technology-driven OTAs On the Beach and Love Holidays with their slick marketing.

What makes less sense is expecting independent travel agents to sell Airtours’ dynamically packaged holidays, when they can dynamically package at higher margins using their own technology and the same prices from low-cost airlines and bed banks that Airtours has access to.

Jet2Holidays’ and easyJet Holidays’ trade sales are driven by access to exclusive discounted seats from their airlines, which drive their price competitiveness and give independent agents reason to book.

Creating clearly differentiated products between brands is to be applauded, but Thomas Cook will need to be willing to make a major investment in technology and marketing for the Airtours’ relaunch to be a success.

However, as a debt-free tour operation owning historically recognised brands, they are in a better position than most to pull it off.