Comment: It's way too soon to jump to conclusions on summer 2012

Comment: It's way too soon to jump to conclusions on summer 2012

The industry came together to celebrate at last night’s Globe Awards against the background of market conditions that Travel Weekly Group chairman Clive Jacobs described as “the most challenging any of us have experienced”.

He wasn’t exaggerating. Almost on cue we had news the UK economy shrank in the last quarter of 2011.

A GDP decline of 0.2% might not sound much, but it followed a 0.6% expansion in the previous three months and was the first quarterly decline in a year.

The figure is preliminary, of course, and could be adjusted either way, but it gave substance to the sense of increasing tightening in the market in the second half of last year.

There is irony in the fact that unseasonably warm weather during October to December was blamed for a 4.1% drop in electricity and gas production that contributed to the GDP decline. A year previously, the coldest December in a century was blamed for a 0.5% fall in GDP. It seems GDP is prone to fall in the final quarter whatever the weather - or that factors other than the weather might be involved.

However, it’s worth noting the fact we have been here before. It isn’t Armageddon. Economists appeared largely unfazed by the news, predicting a short downturn so long as the eurozone does not implode. The chief economist at the Institute of Directors offered a neat line in summarising the outlook as a “jobless, feel-bad recovery”.

So the sector could need all its resilience. Advantage chief executive John McEwan was only articulating what must be plain to many when he described the mainstream market for summer 2012 as 10% down on a year ago in the first weeks of January.

He reported a 4% shortfall at New Year, leaving the market 6%-7% down overall year on year. That isn’t great, but it would broadly match the UK capacity cuts at Thomas Cook and Tui Travel and by no means be a disaster. At the same time McEwan stressed: “There is good growth for specialists.”

We should note that the January-to-January comparison presents a somewhat distorted picture because the trade enjoyed an unexpected surge at this time last year.

Analyst GfK Ascent reported an initial 18% rise in bookings in January 2011 against January 2010. Sales were 9% up in the second week of the last year and by the end of week three bookings for the season to date were running 4% up on 2010. Volumes did not stay like that, of course.

The point is January 2010 gave the trade its best start to the year since the financial meltdown of 2008. It led to hopes that the worst of the downturn was behind us. This time around there is more caution in the air.

The accuracy of the figures in a Financial Times report on UK booking levels at Thomas Cook and Tui Travel on Monday has neither been contested nor confirmed. However, there are good reasons to contest the conclusions leapt to in some copy-cat media reports - such as ‘Thomas Cook bookings dive’ (the BBC) and ‘Thomas Cook bookings slump’ (The Evening Standard).

The leaking of the figures, presented in isolation and out of context, was not helpful to a company fighting for its survival. It is hard to escape the conclusion, given Thomas Cook’s vulnerability, that it was intended to wound.

Yet if Cook makes 90% of its operating profits outside the UK this year (as it did last), gets its UK capacity right, avoids one-off costs and write downs and matches analysts’ expectations, those early-January UK sales figures will be an irrelevance.

The group needs to present a convincing update on trading early next month and turn in consistently sound sets of figures. To use a somewhat unfortunate metaphor, it can’t afford to list.

In the meantime, anyone in the trade lacking a sense of perspective on Cook’s difficulties has only to look to the island of Giglio to see a real disaster.


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