Two of the keys to business success, that I regularly write and speak about from a business development perspective, are ‘differentiation’ and ‘quality of service delivery’. It was music to my business ears therefore when Jeremy Ellis, Marketing Director of TUI UK, spoke to me so knowledgeably and passionately about Thomson’s existing and future strategy being built around these two pillars of business development.

In the highly emotive, competitive and challenging holiday sector, differentiation is not at first sight an easy commodity to create. That was why, I was so impressed with Jeremy Ellis’s vision and the way Thomson Holidays … part of TUI UK that sells 5 million holidays a year across their various brands and products … seek to deliver on these concepts.

About Jeremy Ellis

Jeremy has been with Thomson Holidays for over 20 years. Starting out as a Marketing Assistant, he eventually moved on to head up a Product Development team in 1993, charged with the task of how to add value to the standard package holiday experience, and how to differentiate Thomson from their competition. Now he is Marketing Director and in the hour and a half I was with him, it is not difficult to see why.

Holidaymakers throughout the land will be pleased and relieved to know that this is a man who really ‘gets it’. Let me explain, what I mean. Too many senior sales, marketing and business development people I meet, hide behind ‘executive waffle’ and see and understand nothing but corporate targets and numbers. This is not Jeremy. He is down to earth, easy going and a real pragmatist about what people want and expect from their holidays. He totally understands the package holiday industry and absolutely ‘gets’ the fact that holidays are about ‘people’ first and foremost and giving them a great experience so that they want to buy more and tell others how great Thomson are.

Here are the key highlights of a fascinating interview with Jeremy in his own words. I asked him about the Thomson approach to business development and customer service and how that influences the development and delivery of their various products and brands, which include Thomson and First Choice:

How does Thomson Holidays differentiate themselves from other holiday tour operators?

Jeremy Ellis – “The standard traditional holiday package is built around the flight, hotel and transfer. The Thomson strategy however in recent years has been to develop a range of exclusive holiday products, brands and experiences, which are carefully built around the very specific needs and requirements of our prospective and existing customers. This is our strategy of differentiation. We carefully identify what our different types of holidaymakers want and then create a brief that our hotels and suppliers can meet. The basis behind this thinking, is the fact that people on holiday like to be with people like themselves.

A few examples of this strategy are:

Thomson Family Collection – This is where every single detail of what we offer on these holidays is built around the needs of families. So people can expect family sized bedrooms, the possibility of adjacent rooms, buffets with kids meals, children’s entertainment facilities, trained children’s staff, baby equipment etc. etc.

Sensatori – This is very much one of our flagship holiday products in recent years. These are the ultimate purpose built resorts with 5 star accommodation for individuals and families who are looking for very high standards. We designed this concept ourselves and had these resorts specially built as exclusive Thomson resorts. We opened a few years ago in Crete and then added resorts in Tenerife, Egypt and Mexico. They all have swim up rooms, several lagoon style and infinity swimming pools, spas if you want to be pampered, restaurant choices and gourmet food if you want it and fantastic live West End style entertainment. The resorts are zoned so that they have family and couples sections so that everyone can ‘find their own space’.

Based on sales, customer service feedback and repeat bookings, the launch of the Sensatori brand has been hugely successful. So much so that we are opening and launching a Sensatori in Turkey in May 2013.

Thomson Couples and Thomson Gold – These are holidays built around the needs of a couple wanting a high level of consistent standards in an adults only exclusively Thomson environment.  The popular Thomson Gold programme offers lots of activities and entertainment in popular 4 star hotels and gives us a high average customer repeat and retention rate of 50%. The newer Couples programme has similar objectives but does so in 4 and 5 star more ‘laid back contemporary hotels’. We have had a very successful product launch with this, which has grown to over a 100,000 passengers in a short space of time.

What is the Thomson customer experience strategy and thinking?

Jeremy Ellis – “People are attracted to certain holidays by the ‘hardware’ … the pools, great hotels, resorts etc … but by the end of the holiday are influenced more by the ‘software’… the memories driven by the great personal service interactions.

A great example of this is with our Thomson Cruises brand. We are the first to admit that our cruise ships are not as new and glossy as some of the big cruise lines and perhaps don’t have some of the physical facilities.  However, the personal service on a Thomson cruise is absolutely second to none, with a very high repeat bookings rate. Those who have tried it, including those who have been on other cruise lines are blown away by our service delivery. Customers also like the fact that tips are included in the price and that they don’t feel pushed into paying a levy at the end of the trip.

So how do we do it? There are a number of key aspects of our strategy which have been designed totally with customer service experience in mind:

Recruitment and training – We recruit our staff across all our operations based on interpersonal and behavioural issues not just technical skills. Skills we can train but personal behaviour is different. Now we look for people in the first place who have the ‘service focused’ behaviour we want.

Customer service training – We have created our own in house customer service training which is scenario based and all our staff receive their own tailored approach to it. This includes our shop people, our resort staff and even our telephone bookings team. We are constantly using our data to try to find areas where we can recognise customer loyalty in order to go above and beyond what they are expecting.

Staff incentives: service not sales – There was a time when our holiday representatives were driven by ‘sales’ in resort. This is a thing of the past. We now incentivise by service feedback. Hard selling is not what people want on holiday. Of course we want people to buy various products and services from us … we are a commercial business after all … but my approach is that people are more inclined to buy where there is a high degree of trust.

Empowering resort staff – We have empowered resort staff to deal with any issues customers might have whilst in resort and still on holiday, rather than having to always take things up when they get home.

Senior management getting close to customers – All our senior management, me included, have to spend some time getting closer to the customers. We do this by ensuring that from time to time managers experience working in a Thomson shop for a day, or at an airport or in resort. This is much better than us just looking at the statistics.”

How is quality service delivery standards maintained?

Jeremy Ellis – “Firstly, all holidaymakers are asked to complete a Customer Service Questionnaire on their return journey home. These get a high response rate of around 30% and we genuinely use them as a way of maintaining standards. If we see that guests are mentioning problems at a particular hotel, we insist hoteliers improve, fix it, or we drop them.

We arrange mystery shopping of our high street premises, to monitor performance. It is interesting to note that the shops that deliver the best service are the ones that meet their sales targets.”


So how does this all translate into results?

Ian Cooper – Well, despite all the challenges of a difficult economy Thomson has shown healthy results and is a brand that continues to innovate and lead the package holiday sector. Its success in recent years has been driven by what is essentially a ‘masterclass of strategic thinking and creative product differentiation’. 

Copyright ©2013 Ian Cooper