• Jodie May Williams

Rescue me: My Thomas Cook Story

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

Thomas Cook collapsed on the 23rd September 2019 at 2am. I am one of the 9,000 UK employees who have lost their jobs with immediate effect.

I sit now writing this, with mascara-tear stained face. The first sentence is still hard to read. I feel like I am living in some twisted version of what I'm supposed to call my life. I should be in the shower now, getting ready for work tomorrow. I should be buttering bread - to make my sandwiches. I should be going to sleep, with no worries. But this is no longer my life.

It was a normal Friday morning, the 20th of September to be precise. I knew I was being made redundant in late September, as due to the footfall in Bicester town and the ghost-like town centre, we were not making enough profit to stay open. I had come to terms with redundancy, I had mentally prepared myself.

I had met my colleagues in the morning and did the safety checks and procedures like we always did, the same protocol. Settled at our desks, adjusted our office chairs, like we always did. It was all the same.

We thought this was going to be the same day as it always was. Quite literally, another day in the office.

We'd check our emails, nothing. An odd confirmation here and there, we'd pass it on to the clients and spent the majority of the day pacing around the shop, discussing the news, latest Netflix conquest and counselling each other about relationship problems, twiddling thumbs. We were a family. I spent more time with my colleagues than my real, biological family.

Then, 9am. We had just unlocked the doors and the phone started ringing immediately.

"Hello, Thomas Cook, Bicester - Jodie speaking, how can I help?" seemed like it dragged on forever.

Still, this part of the phone call, was the easiest part to say.

People were frantic.

"Is my holiday safe?"

"Am I even going on holiday?"

"If my holiday doesn't go ahead, what am I supposed to tell my children?" "I'm getting married, what do I do?"

"I'm abroad and I've heard the news, am I going to be stranded?"

It all just came out of nowhere. I had barely even logged into my emails.

Still, my heart was aching before I even knew what was happening.

We were updating and refreshing our intranet constantly, trying to get answers, clutching at straws. My colleagues and I were frustrated that we could not offer any of our clients clarity, or reassurance.

We had nothing to tell them.

We knew... nothing. We were told nothing.

"Business as usual"

Those were the words we were told to speak.

Was this ethical? No, this was business.

Having studied business and being incredibly interested and inspired by powerful people, I knew still taking bookings and trading as normal made blatant business sense - proving to others that consumers had faith in us, and we still had money in our banks and people buying our services.

But being in customer service, I was annoyed that I couldn't protect the customers. This was my job, my responsibility.

I started off as angry. I was incredibly angry. And frustrated, especially on the Friday. I wanted to tell my customers it was all fine, I wanted to tell myself it was all fine.

But I knew that Thomas Cook had almost gone into liquidation before - long before my time as a travel agent. So, the chances of rescue deal, I believed to be, very slim. I knew for days that something was wrong. When one of my colleagues did an enquiry for a customer for Summer 2020 last week, which had been on sale for quite a while, one of our Thomas Cook branded hotels, one we knew that was highly popular, was not available during any of the summer months.

Still, I was indenial. There's no way Thomas Cook - a 178 year old travel giant - could go bust.

It's crazy as I've had friends ask me if I regret dropping out of sixth form to pursue my then dream career with Thomas Cook. It's easy to regret in hindsight, but I don't think anybody expected a travel giant like Thomas Cook to go into liquidation practically overnight.

If I could bottle the feeling of getting true satisfaction from my happy customers, I'd be a millionaire.

Customers were piling into the shop - it was the busiest I've seen the shop in almost 2 years. If only there had been this many customers booking holidays, we’d still be sat at our desks now. We’d still have jobs. Customers would still have holidays.

There were people every where. All of which we offered next to no clarity. I deeply wanted to reassure my customers.

I had a couple of my regular clients who had booked really special trips, and my heart was hurting not being able to tell them that their holiday would still be able to go ahead as they had planned - holidays we, as agents, had spent hours, days, weeks perfecting for them.

The most I could say - was that they were protected financially under the ATOL scheme, if booked in store or as a package.

But these people didn't want their money back - they wanted their holidays. They wanted to escape their realities, some were terminally ill, some were just in need of a break from the dull, fast paced working life that we all experience every day.

When I first started at Thomas Cook, or at least when I had my interviews, I was 16 nearly 17 years old. My Dad had seen a recruitment poster in the Bicester branch window and it appealed to me so much. I can remember what great courage it took for me to go to the interview, I felt ridiculous being only a teenager thinking I could do the same job as the people who had worked there for over 20 years. It felt like I was insulting them. I felt rude.

I wanted to be as good as them.

As some of my colleagues will probably remember, I was a brown haired, shy, wouldn't-say-boo-to-a-goose girl. I hadn't received any uniform other than my white and orange blouse - so I wore a navy blue pencil skirt to compensate for the rest of my missing uniform.

For 6 weeks, I studied and copied every single piece of text from the training PowerPoint slides, and talked to no one. One of my colleagues said to me "You can talk you know, Jodie". I would do my nervous giggle and laugh it off.

Saturday the 21st of September 2019

I wake at 7am. My usual time. Normality.

I know I have a challenge ahead of me today.

I was reading the ever-growing speculating media articles, judging, posting fake news. I was angry.

So I set up at work, once I arrived in the morning.

People walking past, looking in. I felt like a caged animal, a fish in a tank.

I turned to my colleague and said "I want to prove people wrong".

So I get up from my desk, and I prop open our store door.

An open door looks far more inviting. We were still open for business.

I stood by the door for the majority of the afternoon.

I do suffer greatly with anxiety, and I knew what people were thinking when they saw me standing in the door way of my Thomas Cook store, in my uniform. It was like a pity party, and I hated it, all the judging eyes. I really wanted to come through and laugh in everyone's faces for ever doubting us.

Most people were smiling, though. It feels like the whole world is watching you struggle. It felt like the whole world slowed down. Many people revelled in our sadness, and uncomfortable struggle. Especially with our store already agreed to be closed on the 24th September, it became clear to me that many people liked to see us go under.

"Still as dead as ever then".

"Like a ghost town"

"They not shut you yet then?"

Some of the passing comments. I daren't mention the press, whom - if we had made it through, by some miracle, would've dragged our name through the mud to the point that nobody would've booked with us anyway.

But on Saturday, a man got in my face and verbally abused me, whilst I was standing in the doorway of my store.

"You should be ashamed of yourself!" He bellowed at me, wagging his finger in my face.

I remained calm. I am pretty good at being calm when I'm really, really angry. I don't know where I learned that from, but it served me well in this particular scenario.

"Why is that, sir?" I asked, in lowered voice. I stood proud. I was sick of being pushed around by people. It proved to get me no where.

"You shouldn't be trading". He yelled, pointing at me in the face, as if all Thomas Cook's business decisions fell on my shoulders.

"If you have a problem with Thomas Cook, you should take it up with the CEO."

"I don't know who the CEO is." He screamed.

"That shows how much you know about my company". I walked away. I had to. My fists were clenched at my sides. I knew I had to stay professional, as best as I could. It was really hard.

That was the worst of it. Everyone else was really supportive. We had an ex-Monarch employee, after their collapse in October 2017 - an operator which I helped re-book customers onto different flights or holidays or to assist filling in their CAA claim forms - we had a lovely box of chocolates given to us.

I think all of the girls put on about 17 stone after all the chocolates we had received and scoffed from our customers.

I locked the door at the end of the day. 5pm. I don't realise this is the last time this will ever happen, this is the last time I’d ever be allowed back into my workplace.

Even with all the speculation, I still had hope. If you lose hope, you have nothing.

Sunday 22nd September 2019

In the evening of Sunday, imagine a stress pot in human form, in a dressing gown with a mug of tea, cooling. I’ve literally had my fingers crossed for the good part of the evening, flicking between news channels.

Everyone talks about Sunday nights - how they are the most depressing nights of the entire week - with the forth coming week of work looming ahead of us, filling us with dread -we'd much rather stay at home.

However, Sunday night - this was a different story for myself, for my friends and colleagues and for the rest of Thomas Cook. We were refreshing our feeds, checking the news, hoping to be put out of our misery.

I tried to keep myself in the travel loop, even at home, to help with the knowledge I could offer my customers, so I was part of a lot of travel agent organisational groups whom would keep us posted with everything travel related. For Sunday evening, these groups were like my camping ground. I was refreshing them every second, hoping for something.

By 10pm, I knew it was over, despite not being officially announced. Peter Fankhauser, our CEO, had left meetings at 5:30pm. 4 and a half hours later and still no statement.

If I owned Thomas Cook, if it was a positive outcome, I would have wanted to reassure my staff and customers as soon as possible. I knew it was bad news because he didn’t reassure us.

At midnight, I go up to bed. I lie there for another hour. I try to shut my eyes but I'm too nervous. I was mostly nervous for my colleagues, I couldn't stop thinking about them, I knew I would be fine. I live at home, I'm young, have minimal financial responsibilities. My colleagues had children to provide for, they had houses, mortgages.

I drifted off by pure exhaustion of worrying the entire weekend, my body physically ached.

Then, I woke and it was still dark outside my window. I looked at my phone, the time was 5:47am. I knew it was decided for me, for us all, once I unlocked my phone and checked the news - the fate of Thomas Cook, for my friends livelihoods, my next months pay check and redundancy package - had already been sealed whilst I was fast asleep.

"Thomas Cook has collapsed. All flights and package holidays are cancelled".

Type www.thomascook.com into google and it's been taken over by the CAA.

I burst into tears.

I messaged my colleagues, I apologised.

My skin felt like it was crawling. Acidic. I had goosebumps, and not the good kind.

I knew I wasn't going to get my agreed redundancy pay. I would have to claim for my wages this month, my holiday leave, all now being taken over by the government.

We were beckoned on a conference call at 10am. With over 1,800 people on the call, it was overwhelming the "special managers" who had to answer over hundreds of questions from grieving staff.

My now ex-colleagues were sobbing into the phone whilst asking questions they really never thought they’d ever have to ask.

One woman had recently lost her husband, just 6 weeks ago. I felt sick for her. I had never met her but I wanted to give her a cuddle and make her a cup of tea - a small gesture that would've helped very little in an already, very helpless situation.

My colleagues and I met at the shop at 2pm, where we were granted access by a man whom we'd never met before, to give us authorisation to go and collect our belongings from the store.

Everything was untouched from when we had left it. It felt like a crime scene, i didn't want to move anything, it's like I wanted to preserve what was left.

It felt like we had all been evicted from our homes. The washing up was not even done. I felt rude and impolite leaving it there in the sink. Mugs and glasses half full.

Then eventually we all hugged goodbye and this was it. It was over.

During the aftermath, I wrote a letter to my local community, thanking them personally for their repeat business and customer loyalty over the years. I've been taking it upon my own shoulders to help customers who may have booked with us in store, or online who will be greatly affected by this loss.

I have helped a fair few people after Thomas Cook went into administration in the early hours of Monday 23rd September and as I write this I am currently helping a 19 year old boy who has booked all elements of his holiday separately. Unless booked in store, or it's a package holiday - only then are you ATOL protected. If elements of the holiday have been booked separately - they are not ATOL protected. Unfortunately, I have just told him and his party of 11 people in Cyprus, that he may need to make his own arrangements home and pay out for new flight tickets.

I hope that this will be a wake up call to a lot of travellers. Thomas Cook was a travel giant, and will most likely be the longest running physical travel agency to ever exist - with the take over of the internet destroying the high street stores, I believe in years to come everything will be booked online. Even though Thomas Cook is no more, a lot of other tour operators have been greatly affected by the liquidation and tragic news - I want to express my pride in all the travel operators out there who are working harder than usual to get all customers home. There is a big hole in the travel industry, the same feeling was felt when Monarch collapsed - except this is on a far larger scale.

I am so proud of being part of such an amazing and communal industry such as the travel industry. The support that myself and all my Thomas Cook colleagues have received from other travel agencies, TUI, Hays Travel, If Only, to name very few - cabin crew from Virgin, Easyjet, Ryanair, almost every airline you can think of have been posting vacancies or even holding recruitment fayres for ex- Thomas Cook staff only. It made me emotional.

People don't realise when things like this happen, it is a grieving process. Nobody has died, but there is a void. And yes the world will continue to turn, this won't kill us. It is a sad day for British heritage - and to one single man, Thomas Cook, himself - for he was a real person who started it all. And today, I stand among some of the most amazing and resilient people and staff - who ended it all.


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