I was on holiday with my wife when Thomas Cook went into liquidation and our holiday was booked as a package with them. We had already met some really nice and helpful staff and our thoughts are with them and their colleagues, who now face an uncertain future.
When any business goes bust the ramifications are felt, not only by the staff, but also by a host of other companies and people. At these times, you get to see how some people rise to the occasion and we encountered some incredible people, who did just that. As both an acknowledgement and a thank you to the staff of Thomas Cook, the staff and management of Port Royal Hotel and Spa, Rhodes and the organisation of UK CAA, I would like to share our experience.
Although the fact Thomas Cook were in trouble was well known to us before we went on holiday the news was one of a rescue deal having been agreed. On Friday, 20 September 2019 we were sitting in 31° of sunshine beside a swimming pool at Port Royal Hotel and Spa, Rhodes, when my wife received a WhatsApp message from her daughter hoping that we would be okay.
Having been away for almost 2 weeks we were not sure what she was referring to but realised it must be to do with Thomas Cook. Once we had updated with the news saying that talks were happening over the weekend it was clear that there was nothing we could do except follow events, leading up to the final talks on Sunday 22ndSeptember.
Being two hours ahead, time-wise, we followed events on Sunday evening and realised that the Chief Executive leaving by the service entrance did not bode well. We followed events on Twitter, through much of the night and when it was reported that Thomas Cook planes were returning and empty planes leaving the situation became clear – and it was not to be good news.
Waking up on the Monday to the confirmation of the company going bust our immediate thoughts were with the staff of Thomas Cook. On the flight out, whilst queuing to get on the plane, my wife was have a jovial chat with the cabin crew manager who was smiling and welcoming each passenger on board. My wife mentioned to her that ‘welcome aboard’ was probably not what was going through her head, to which she replied, “No it’s not, I am thinking about what I’m going to putting in the kids lunchboxes tomorrow and getting them to school.” We reflected on that brief conversation and the effect that losing her job would have on her and her family. Lunchboxes were probably not the priority now.
Reading the BBC news site, we were pleasantly surprised to find the links to the UK CAA website, which immediately explained what to do if you were on holiday. Simply by inputting the airport you should be leaving from, together with the date and time, the site showed your original time of departure and revised time of departure. In our case this was to be the same– 4pm the following day. All that changed was the flight number and a requirement to be at the airport 3 hours in advance of the flight, instead of 2.
The BBC news site also had stories of some holidaymakers being asked for money by their respective hotel, with some even being held hostage. Although we knew the hotel got paid subsequent to our holiday, we had not realised it was a 90 day payment agreement, which meant that hotels were expecting to be paid for the high season of July, August and September. We all know that the failure of a business is usually caused by cash flow; not profit and loss accounts, so we were concerned what the reaction of our hotel management would be; understanding that they must be equally concerned about their business.
Later we received a note asking us to go to reception. I must admit to going expecting to receive a request for payment for our final night, to be told our holiday was at an end immediately or that we would now have to pay for our food and drinks instead of being all inclusive. At reception we were told the front of house manager wished to speak to us and, having confirmed we were with Thomas Cook, what we were not expecting was, “Has your flight been rearranged and is there anything we can do to assist you?” When we mentioned that we only needed our taxi brought forward 1 hour she said that Sophie, who was in the foyer, would arrange that.
Who was Sophie? The Thomas Cook rep! We waited to speak with Sophie, whilst she sorted out trips for some passengers who still had a week of their holiday left. When we asked for our taxi to be brought forward, she emailed the taxi company immediately. Although we had booked this, as part of our package, I asked if we would need to pay the taxi direct and told that would be unnecessary. Sophie was Greek and I asked whether she was franchised from a local company or employed by Thomas Cook. At this, she welled up and told us she was employed by Thomas Cook – “…. or I was.” So, knowing that Thomas Cook had gone bust, that she probably no longer had a job and she was unsure whether she would get paid this month, she still turned up for work. She was willing to help us – and even book trips for others, so that they could make the most of their holiday. How many of us can say we would do the same?
During that day, we found out that the staff at the resort weren’t sure about their future. The owners have 3 hotels in Rhodes and, whilst the Port Royal only had a few Thomas Cook customers, one of the hotels was predominantly Thomas Cook customers. That did not prevent any of the staff providing their usual excellent customer service. In the evening I bumped into the manager and thanked him for the excellent service we had received over the whole two weeks. I told him of the help we had received and asked him to pass on our thanks to his staff. During our conversation, I said that this must be a worrying time for him too, which he confirmed. However, his response was, “I am not sure what will happen, but I have told all of my staff that we will take care of them and we must do all we can to help you. You are stranded; we are not.” That is leadership!
On the Tuesday, even the taxi driver wasn’t sure what was happening about payment. He was self-employed and still only concerned about helping us.
At the airport our good fortune continued. After waiting for check-in to open, we asked if it was possible to have an exit seat, for extra legroom. Being 2 metres tall, I have found I do not physically fit into some seats on charter flights. The check-in staff conversed with each other, before we were told that they couldn’t, as they did not know what model of plane would be coming for us. I then asked if there were seats available in row 1, as the bulkhead sometimes has a bit of extra space and we would take a gamble on them. We were given seats 1A and 1B.
Unfortunately, 4pm came and went, with the departure board showing the flight had been delayed to 20.20. This time also came and went and people were getting tired and scratchy. A bright green S7 branded plane (a Russian company, registered in Siberia) arrived at the gate, raising hopes that this may be the plane to take us home. These hopes were raised when one of the passengers, a lady wearing a green and white dress that matched the colour of the plane, announced very loudly to her partner, “That’s definitely our plane – I can see our cases. Look, they’re putting our cases on it.” About 10 minutes later it was announced that the S7 flight to Moscow would be boarding shortly. This meant it was not our plane and, worse still, the loud lady wouldn’t be leaving either!
Although the waiting was frustrating, at 22.15 we were bussed out to an American Eastern Airlines Boeing 767-300. From previous experience, I know this to be a plane that usually has 1stclass, business class and economy sections. As we boarded the plane, the cabin-crew member checking our boarding passes uttered those favoured words, “Please, turn left.” Even though this was an old plane, seats 1A and 1B, in 1stclass had plenty of legroom – as well as a fully reclining seat.
We were ‘repatriated’ in the early hours of Wednesday morning. We would not wish any other company to suffer the fate of Thomas Cook, but their demise has shown how individuals, such as Sophie, the manager and staff at the Port Royal Hotel and our taxi driver come to the fore with professionalism, loyalty and leadership. Thank you.