Can Thomas Cook become Thomas Cool without Club 18-30?

Simon Calder
Different world: Thomas Cook Summer Sun brochure from 1975, when Club 18-30 was young: Thomas Cook Archive

Thomas Cook is the man who industrialised leisure travel by delivering good value, well-organised experiences for the masses – starting in 1841, with a day trip from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance meeting, and reaching scale in 1851, when the pioneering tour operator took 150,000 people to London for the Great Exhibition.

By 1998, the company that bears his name was providing holidays for great exhibitionists: young men and women who signed up for Club 18-30 packages and the accompanying raucous pub crawls and wet T-shirt competitions.

The brand that promoted, er, short-term holiday romances has had a 20-year affair with Thomas Cook. But that will end with a final flight back from Magaluf on 30 October 2018.

So if you want to zip across to Zante for “banging nightlife and wild activities at any time of the day or night”, or sign up for Sunny Beach’s “Celebs in the Sun” night out (“Free one litre cocktail upon entry!”), this is the last summer to book a Club 18-30 holiday with Thomas Cook.

For me, that particular inflatable banana boat has sailed: I no longer technically qualify, even though the age range has broadened to 17-35. And perhaps when some guests are legally old enough to be the parents of the youngest, the party may be over – even the outdoor foam party in Kavos (“Two hour free flowing bar”, Wednesdays).

The news that Thomas Cook is to ditch the best known brand in youth travel was buried on page six of the firm’s half-year results: “We also intend to discontinue the UK market’s Club 18-30 holiday brand after Summer 2018 as a result of the continued strategic review of our differentiated holiday offer.”

Money talks, and the move makes sense for a long-established company seeking to grow in a fragmented, ultra-competitive market where two rivals, TUI and Jet2, now sell more package holidays from the UK.

While Club 18-30 is easily the most recognised brand in the youth sector, it is looking tired; people who went on its holidays in the 1970s are now in their seventies, and long ago swapped lager for Saga.

Club 18-30 is fuelled by cheap alcohol, and that commodity is no longer the sole preserve of Mediterranean resorts. Stag and hen parties are now heading for Eastern European cities whose names are difficult enough to pronounce even when you are stone-cold sober. Still, who cares whether you’re in Szczecin or Rzeszow, so long as you can save the cost of the air fare if you drink enough?

Expect a sigh of relief from some parts of the Mediterranean. Even though resorts such as Magaluf, Malia and Ayia Napa have prospered from slaking the thirsts of young Britons over the past few decades, many communities no longer relish the reputation of “hosting the wildest party holidays”, as the Club 18-30 brochure puts it.

Thomas Cook wants to attract people to a different kind of club.

“The modern day wanderer craves more, and we think it’s high time to offer something extraordinary,” says the firm.

“This summer, escape the ordinary and dive into Cook’s Club; a new generation of hotels for a new generation of travellers.”

Starting in June, Club 18-30 and Cook’s Club will coexist in Crete. You can fly from Manchester to Heraklion and head along to a standard Club 18-30 location at Malia, paying £414 to stay at the Nataly Apartments and enjoy “the biggest paint party in Europe”.

Just six miles before the resort, though, some passengers paying only £401 will turn left and head for Cook’s Club in Hersonissos for “a casually cool paradise where everyone is welcome”.

“We focus on good music, great drinks and fantastic food in an atmosphere where you’ll be able to mingle with like-minded people and create your dream holiday,” says the firm.

Cook’s Club, promising “a melting pot of cultures, textures and flavours,” is certainly a better match than Club 18-30 to the ideals of the founder.

“Thomas Cook was a religious man who believed that most Victorian social problems were related to alcohol,” says Thomas Cook (the company) in its corporate history. His vision was to employ “the great powers of railways and locomotion” for the benefit of the wider world.

The original tour operator needs to convince a new generation of travellers that the product at the core of its business still delivers good value. Let’s see if style prevails over sangria, and if the company really can transform to become Thomas Cool.