Thomas Cook has gone from being a legacy tour operator selling “totally out-of-date product” to a holiday company “using the best technology”, according to chief executive Peter Fankhauser.

Yet Thomas Cook’s first attempts to enter the digital world “fell apart”, Fankhauser told the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) global summit in Buenos Aires.

He said: “Thomas Cook was at the edge of a cliff in 2011. We had lost our focus on customers. We talked about ‘pax’ [passengers]. We had totally out-of-date product.

“We sold mostly self-catering in the UK and sold it through 50 brands. We were a mess – with spaghetti processes and spaghetti IT.”

Fankhauser said: “A new leader came in and said: ‘Let’s become digital’. The problem was no one could explain what it meant. It fell apart.”

He told fellow travel leaders: “How do you lead an out-of-date, legacy tour operator into the digital age? You need to give people meaning.

“We put an absolute focus on the customer. We developed bold customer promises and empowered people on the frontline.

“We introduced totally new values. We embraced the best technology, not for the sake of the technology but for the sake of the customer.”

He insisted: “This was not about closing shops. We closed about 50% of shops, but it was not about that. It was about innovating the product.

“In a digital world, you have to know what you are best at and you have to be clear. You can’t have 50 brands. We streamlined to two.”

Fankhauser offered fellow chief executives two pieces of advice, saying: “First, in a world of information overload, be as simple as possible. The strategy of Thomas Cook now fits on one page. Every colleague has it as a screensaver.

“Second, be true to yourself. Thomas Cook is not a technology company doing holidays. It is a holiday company using the best technology.”