Hugely intriguing move at Thomas Cook, one of Europe's biggest vertically integrated tour operators, with the discovery that customers who build their own package holiday online are in fact going on an Expedia trip.
Thomas Cook has yet to officially announce the change but Tnooz has learned that any customer who books a bundled deal (flight and hotel) is already being serviced by Expedia white label offshoot Worldwide Travel Exchange (WWTE).
The partnership is not simply a technological one - customers on a bundled deal are financially protected under an ATOL belonging to Travelscape (a little-known Expedia name often used to front its white labels), rather than the Cook's ATOL bond.
Casual visitors to the Thomas Cook website will have no idea that Expedia is behind the dynamic packaging/build-your-own service and is also holding the protection bond. The company is never mentioned by name and Terms and Conditions only refer to WWTE.
Any only hint of a partnership will only be picked up by the slightly more trained eye with the presentation of search results almost identical between the two brands.
[caption id="attachment_7041" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Thomas Cook"]
[caption id="attachment_7042" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Expedia"]
The service also runs off the WWTE domain and servers.
Thomas Cook has chosen to take a low-key line over the partnership and will not comment on a number of aspects of the deal, saying in a statement: "Relationships with our suppliers are commercially sensitive and therefore we cannot confirm details.
"We work with a number of partners across our ecommerce business, eg bedbanks and technology companies. Thomas Cook's relationship is with Expedia affiliates only and is one of these partnerships."
Cook's stresses that it is "very strong" in the dynamic packaging sector through its myriad of other brands such as FlexibleTrips, Hotels4u, NetFlights and MedHotels.
Nevertheless, Cook's decision to partner with a major company from an area of the industry (OTAs) it says it wants to move into will raise a number of eyebrows, or at least trigger some rueful smiles.
Following the company's November 30 2009 preliminary results, chief executive Manny Fontenla-Novoa was quoted as saying:
"You’ll also see Thomas Cook competing with Expedia, Priceline and lastminute.com in their space as well, and we’ll have a much bigger presence in that market."
The reason for the partnership remains intriguing and largely unknown one at this stage given that Thomas Cook has an airline, the ability to charter seats elsewhere, existing bedbanks and has dynamically packaged product for some time.
One clue might rest in the collapse of Thomas Cook's reservation system software provider BlueSky last year. When the BlueSky deal was announced in August 2006, creating a system to handle dynamic packaging across the Thomas Cook portfolio was one of the original components.
The financial failure of BlueSky and subsequent re-examination of Cook's technology requirements may have changed the wider dynamic packaging strategy, triggering the need for a partnership with Expedia.
However, those close to the BlueSky saga say that the original vision for the Globe project changed in terms of the dynamic packaging software as individual brands within the group had different requirements.
Another reason could be simply to get access to Expedia's accommodation and flight inventory, including 80,000 hotels and 450 airlines around the world - content that Cook's air partnerships and existing bedbanks and owned stock are unable to match.
Dynamic packaging is a major play for Thomas Cook, especially if it is to reach its stated target of becoming a leading OTA in Europe - ironically alongside Expedia et al.
From the company's financial statements in November 2009:
Independent travel passengers increased by 18% through investment in dynamic packaging capabilities, significant focus on our ecommerce operations and expansion of our product offering. With the strength of our retail brand, access to inventory and a true multi-channel capability, our strategy to develop an international online travel agent represents a compelling customer proposition.
Questions remain as to why a partnership with another white label flight+hotel provider, such as lastminute.com, didn't materialise after both companies said they would be exploring other opportunities following the transfer of Med Hotels between the two in 2009.