After a year of consolidation for Freedom Travel Group and Co-operative Personal Travel Advisors, it’s time for the retail consortium and homeworking network to expand. Juliet Dennis speaks to Kelly Cookes, to find out about the plans.
Kelly Cookes may not be a familiar face to many in the trade, but having started her career in Thomas Cook’s graduate trainee scheme, she is well known in her own organisation.
Just over a year ago, she took the helm of Thomas Cook’s consortium business, Freedom Travel Group, and its homeworking network, Co-operative Personal Travel Advisors (CPTA). The former boasts 142 branches, while there are currently 130 of the latter.
Her appointment did not come at an easy time, following a few years of financial upheaval for the group and speculation that Freedom was up for sale – something Thomas Cook never confirmed.
There was also intense rivalry from other consortia, with some members choosing to jump ship rather than ride the storm.
During Cookes’ first year, Freedom became an Atol accredited body, switching to a financial trust account model. It was the last of eight bodies to become accredited last year, after the May 2014 deadline was extended to November.
Reflecting on the past year, Cookes says: “It has been the most challenging year of my career but also the most rewarding because of how far the businesses have come.”
As for membership, fewer agents have left in the past year than previously, and Cookes is optimistic about growth in both groups.
“There are always movers,” she adds. “Most people who left had given notice before I joined. The positive feedback is the highest I have known it.
“I want members to belong to Freedom, as long as it’s the best business for them to be in. Members are really confident – and so am I. There is always natural movement between consortia.”
When first appointed, Cookes was adamant that she be given the backing of the Thomas Cook parent company, which took control of Freedom and CPTA as part of the joint retail venture with the Co-operative Travel Group in 2011.
She says both the board and Thomas Cook now have increased understanding of the groups’ operating models.
“The commitment is there from the board and the Thomas Cook group,” says Cookes.
“We have plans on how to carry the business forward, both for the next five years and long term. The understanding of how Freedom and the CPTA work has never been higher.”
And she says members’ morale is at the highest level she has known. “We feel in such a good place."
However, there has been a bedding-down period, during which Cookes has expanded her management team and asked for feedback from members.
“We went very quiet when I took over, which was a conscious decision. We wanted to sort out our back of house,” she says.
“We went through a big period of change where we reassessed our strategy.”
Both businesses are now bigger than a year ago and thriving, according to Cookes.
“For the year to date, more than 75% of our members are in growth versus last year,” she adds.
For Cookes, what sets the groups apart from others in the market is the relationship between members and management.
“I know all the members. Our big thing is using feedback from them to drive business forward. It’s not unusual for me to be on the phone to a Co-operative advisor at 11pm – and all my team do the same.”
Cookes plans to introduce a “full marketing suite” for members to access, including merchandising for in-store or e-shots. This would be part of the package offered to homeworkers, but Freedom members would have to opt in for a “small fee” to cover costs.
• Where is your favourite holiday destination?
The US – one of my ambitions is to visit all the states
• What was the first CD you bought?
I am proud to say it was PJ and Duncan’s Psyche
• What is your favourite sweet treat?
• If you could have a special power, what would it be?
Flying, so that I could head for the sunshine whenever we have a rainy weekend in the UK
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