God on Monday
'The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it' (Psalm 24.1)
Welcome to the twenty-seventh God on Monday reflection on ‘purpose’!
Western airports are recording the highest number of passengers since the pandemic began. This take off for a crippled industry is an opportunity to consider the origins of mass travel. These lie principally in Thomas Cook, the oldest travel brand.
This company pioneered affordable holidays for the mass market. While nowadays such holidays are (often unfairly) associated with lager-louts, they were originally designed to promote temperance – an unlikely start for a company that for almost 180 years became synonymous with leisure.
As the average lifespan of companies has long been in decline, it is helpful to revisit the foundations of a company that grew to a global travel group with a turnover of £9bn/year, around 20m customers, and 22,000 employees. What clues to company longevity can be found in the values of its devout Christian founder, Thomas Cook?
Foremost amongst these was his social vision. Having worked as a child for two alcoholic employers, Thomas came to regard excessive alcohol consumption as a social evil. This compelled him to provide a positive alternative to the distraction and escape of drink.
His alternative was exciting group travel that would increase friendship, broaden the mind and lift the spirit. It may not sound exciting today but his first such excursion was a train trip from Leicester to Loughborough. It proved a resounding success and more extensive tours followed, all designed for those unable to afford any form of transport.
It was only after Thomas was confronted with the need to provide for his young family that he began to run such tours on a commercial basis, extending them to Europe, the Middle East, the USA, and eventually around-the-world. By travelling with his passengers, he aimed to be directly accountable to them, and attentive to their needs.
The declared purpose of Thomas’ tours was to bring people closer to one another and to their creator. By making it affordable for ordinary people to enjoy the wonders of nature and culture, he sought to make ‘God’s earth with all its fullness and beauty’ accessible to all (reflecting Ps 24.1, cited above). His efforts were recognized by Prime Minister William Gladstone, who observed that ‘whole classes have, for the first time, found easy access to foreign countries, and have acquired some of that familiarity…which breeds not contempt but kindness’.
Economic inclusion, closeness to nature, kindness to strangers, friendship, and the expansion of the soul; these are purposes more readily associated with charities. But they were foundational to this company’s longevity and success. For its founder, Thomas Cook, they were what on earth he was here for.
Peter S Heslam, Director of Faith in Business
Peter Lupson’s article ‘Men of Purpose: Seven Christian Giants of Business’ in the current edition of Faith in Business Quarterly, gives attention to Thomas Cook. The journal's editors have kindly made that article available for free download here.
The Thomas Cook Group went into liquidation in 2019 but the brand continues as Thomas Cook UK. Thomas Cook India operates as a separate company.