September 25, 2019

Five Lessons from a Failure: What the Thomas Cook Bankruptcy Can Teach Zoo & Aquarium Leaders

We recently witnessed the spectacular failure of Thomas Cook, a British travel company. It got me thinking: How does a 178-year-old company with over $12B in annual revenue and 600,000 customers traveling the day of bankruptcy go under? I heard a comment in response to that question: ‘Very slowly and then very fast.’ (Thus, the hundreds of thousands of stranded travelers.)

But what does that have to do with those of you running a zoo or aquarium? More than you think. It could be a cautionary tale of how a business, steeped in history, with name recognition and many customers (do some of these characteristics sound familiar to your organization?) could go so far astray.

Here are five things Thomas Cook got wrong and what you could learn from them:

1. They lost touch with the market. They had a business model which had appeal to the ‘traditional’ (read: old school) travel consumer and didn’t pay as much attention to the next generation of travelers—a generation who is traveling and spending more than Cook’s long-time audience.

Lesson #1 – Take time to recognize what consumers want; understand the trends and shifts in market dynamics.

2. They didn’t adapt and lost relevance. Closely tied to #1. Even as the demand for travel grew, they didn’t change what they sold. In a world searching for the ultimate social media-worthy individualized experiences, consumers no longer wanted the all-inclusive holiday packages they offered.

Lesson #2 – Don’t fall into the trap of ‘We’ve always done it this way’; continually reinvent yourself and your offerings. Consumers are changing. You need to change along with them.

3. They didn’t keep up with technology. They continued to sell from brick and mortar stores or through cumbersome websites in an age of frictionless one-click purchases.

Lesson #3 – Invest in technology. It could be your smartest and best investment with the greatest ROI. Make it simple and easy for the guest to give you their money.

4. They strayed from their core. Running a travel business when consumer tastes are shifting at the speed of sound is hard. Running a profitable airline is almost impossible. It may have sounded like a good idea to be so vertically integrated, but the financial wherewithal to pull it off distracted them from what they really did.

Lesson #4 – Focus on what you do best which is animal care, saving wildlife, and inspiring conservation action. Use your resources wisely.

5. They failed to see the future of travel. Every industry is changing, but travel, like technology, is transforming at a record pace. Rapid shifts in the business—like the rise of AirBnB and Uber; when taking a vacation to Vietnam is commonplace; and micro-brands (ACE Hotels, The Standard) compete with likes of behemoths such as Marriott with their 30+ hotel brands – underscore the need for constructive nonconformity[1].

Lesson #5 – You always need to be looking at not only what’s going to be happening next year or the year after, but way beyond. Be prepared—at least be thinking—for what the future has in store. Break the rules and challenge the status quo.

Don’t be a Thomas Cook. Stay relevant in a changing world.

Zoo Advisors is well positioned to help your organization navigate what the future has in store. Through our planning, economics, and leadership offerings, we can help create the vision for where you want to go and lay out the steps of how to get there.  #strategicplanningexperts #knowwhatstrending


[1] HBR Article – Let Your Workers Rebel; Francesca Gino.

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