Thomas Cook’s decision to wind down the brand triggered a wave of nostalgia for many in the trade. Juliet Dennis takes a trip down memory lane

Mention Club 18-30 to many leading figures in the industry and their eyes will sparkle.

Former employees of the iconic brand, due to be shelved at the end of this month after more than 50 years, have fond memories of the “good old days in travel”. But they also remember the hard graft.

Club 18-30 was founded by Horizon Holidays under the slogan “Your granny wouldn’t like it”. From its early days as part of Horizon, and eventually under the helm of Thomas Cook, it built a reputation as the party holiday brand.

It thrived at a time when reps were a vital part of a tour operator’s business. In effect, reps and managers ran mini businesses in resort, from organising excursions, signing hotel contracts and writing hotel descriptions that ended up in brochures, to daily “meet and greets” and client entertainment.

In the pre-internet days, reps recall the “company mail”, a box containing passenger information, arriving on the airport’s baggage carousel. Without it, reps had no idea who they would greet the next week.

Reps were known for being “creative”, whether it was solving the overbooking problem by taking wardrobes out of rooms or bribing lads to sleep on the hotel roof in return for a free bar.

At Club 18-30, employees could also rise through the ranks without qualifications.

Former rep Danny Talbot, now chief operating officer of Tourvest’s global sports division, said: “It was the commerciality of the holiday business that was taught to us and made us all mini managing directors at a far earlier stage than you would have had elsewhere. Plus, as a rep, your wages were your commissions so you had to get good at selling – or you were in trouble!”

Andy Tidy, managing director from 2001 to 2006, recalled: “It was one of the few places where you could genuinely go from the bottom to the top irrespective of formal qualifications.

“Many people ‘graduated’ from Club 18-30 to have highly successful careers.”

The operator was widely admired for attracting hardworking, ambitious individuals. If Only managing director Andy Freeth, who worked for rival Escapades, said: “As a non-Club 18-30 rep, we admired their work ethic from afar.”

So, what happened? Rewind the clock a few months to when Cook announced its strategic review. Many knew the writing was on the wall. Following media publicity fuelled by ITV’s Club Reps TV show in 2002, Cook sought ways to adapt the brand to a more sophisticated youth market. Ironically, bookings increased after the show, but, in 2004, Thomas Cook boss Manny Fontenla-Novoa admitted the brand had “reached maturity”.

Attempts to reinvigorate the brand did little, with passenger numbers falling to about 45,000 a year from highs of 100,000 in its heyday.

Brian Young, a Club 18-30 rep from 1988 to 1992 who is now managing director of G Adventures, said: “Hotels have evolved. Club 18-30 needed to change, but didn’t.”

Vertical Travel Group business development director Damian McDonough, at Club 18-30 from 1986 to 1993, said: “People now want cool beach bars not organised trips. Tastes have changed and Club 18-30 is no longer relevant.”

Rather than slugging warm Sangria out of a jug, the new “social” generation of millennials wants something different – edgy, cool, adventurous, cultural, unusual and, above all, ‘Instagrammable’. For Club 18-30, the party is well and truly over.

‘It was brilliant – we worked hard and played hard’

Deborah Potts, director of business consultancy Summit Advisory, part of accountancy firm Elman Wall, met her husband working for Club 18-30

I joined straight out of Cambridge University in the early 80s thinking I would just do a summer season, but ended up ski repping as I had language skills – although I’d never skied until my first day.

I progressed to regional manager for France and Spain, and overseas personnel manager, giving travel industry veterans like Denis Wormwell (chairman of VisitEngland) his first rep job. I even ended up marrying a fellow 18-30 manager, Alan Potts, and am still friends with many colleagues from those days.

I remember being asked at interview what I would do if a customer tried to rip my bikini top off at a party. I think I answered “Kick him in the b*****ks!” It must have been the right answer as I was on the coach to the south of France the next day.

I had a brilliant time working at the Club. We worked incredibly hard, played hard and there was an unforgettable team spirit that has led to lifetime friendships.

I’m sad to see its demise but there is still demand from young people for fantastic holidays away from parents and new companies are reinventing the concept.

paul-riches-18-30

‘I met inspirational people – and some nutcases’

Paul Riches (far left above) worked for Club 18-30 from 1982-88, as a rep in Benidorm and Majorca and a resort manager in Ibiza and Tenerife

The Club 18-30 brand is a bit like the Sixties: if you remember it, you weren’t there.

So was it really all sun, sand, sangria and shenanigans? For me, it started like that. The chance to spend six months in the sun, with people my own age, having as much fun as possible, seven days a week.

Then reality kicked in: staying out until the last clients went to bed and getting up before the first ones rose in the morning, spending time with people you had nothing in common with and regular 12-hour airport delays.

It’s been well documented that at Club you learnt a great deal about running
a ‘mini business’. But most important of
all was the ability to put a smile on your face, when all you wanted to do was collapse in a heap.

I met some complete nutcases  (mostly other reps!) but also some inspirational people, many of whom I keep in touch with today. It certainly is a special ‘Club’ and will remain so, for those fortunate enough to be in it.