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Navigation lessons for Uber? How Victorian upstart Thomas Cook grew mainstream

Turning stigma into acceptance: the Victorian story of the Thomas Cook travel agency holds parallels for modern-day disruptive companies such as Uber, finds new study at Cambridge Judge Business School.

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Christian E. Hampel

A new academic study sounds topically familiar: a brash upstart offers fresh transport options to the public, increasing mobility through a simple new tariff system – and attracting fierce resistance from the entrenched establishment.

Sounds a lot like Uber, the app-based ride company that has faced acrimonious opposition from traditional “black cabs” and regulators who accuse Uber of lowering standards and upsetting time-tested conventions.

But the new study from Cambridge Judge Business School, just published in the Academy of Management Journal, focuses on a much older company – the Thomas Cook travel agency.

Founded in London in 1861, Thomas Cook’s success in overcoming vitriol and fear in Victorian England offers fascinating lessons for today’s disrupters such as Uber – by showing how an innovative company moved from condemnation to acceptance by blunting reactionary opponents and a hostile news media to sway the public.

“The study provides a real lesson in not only dulling criticism but actually overcoming it and winning public opinion over to your side,” says co-author Christian Hampel, a PhD candidate at Cambridge Judge.

Initially vilified by mainstream newspapers in the early 1860s as an “unscrupulous man” catering to “uncouth hordes” by offering cheaper tourism to the masses (in an era when the elite took leisurely “Grand Tours” of continental Europe’s cultural riches), Thomas Cook was able within about 15 years to earn praise from those same newspapers for providing “invaluable services” and joining the “rank of public benefactors.”

How in the world did he do it?

Professor Paul Tracey

Professor Paul Tracey

The new study developed a new two-step model to explain Thomas Cook’s successful strategy: reducing “overt hostility” by showing it posed no risk, then gaining support from even the staunchest critics by demonstrating its positive role in society including helping modestly paid professions such as Victorian clergy to travel.

The study – entitled “How organisations move from stigma to legitimacy: the case of Cook’s travel agency in Victorian Britain” – is co-authored by PhD candidate, Christian Hampel, and Paul Tracey, Professor of Innovation & Organisation at Cambridge Judge.

“Previous studies had looked at how organisations might reduce stigma, but this study instead focuses on how they can eliminate stigma altogether and actually convert stigmatisers into advocates,” says Hampel. “By winning over his critics, Thomas Cook transformed the image of a new tourism industry.”

And what a transformation

“While today’s travel agency is seen as an innocuous form of organisation, when it emerged in Victorian Britain it was considered by some to be morally reprehensible,” the study says. When Thomas Cook began, travel was for aristocrats and other elite, whose months-long tours served as a “finishing school” to study European culture, language and history. They called themselves “travellers” – never common “tourists.”

Cook quickly changed all that. He initially launched what he termed “conducted tours” for 40 to 150 people at reasonable prices. Such trips were immediately blasted as “excursion mania” by the establishment, who were concerned about travel destinations being overrun by what one leading journal termed “low-bred, vulgar and ridiculous” tourists.

After one of Cook’s groups had visited Italy, the local correspondent of the Daily News wrote: “That modern Attila, Thomas Cook … has been here with his swarm of followers, who, like the barbarian hordes of old, have been ravaging the fairest provinces of Italy.”

Cook never backed down. He “vehemently fought vilification” every step of the way, and instituted several key strategies that fairly quickly turned the tide of public opinion in his favour, the study found.

He adopted traditional travel practices such as allowing customers to check into hotels on their own, rather than in a group, and began emphasising artistic and cultural richness; he staunchly defended his tourists, showing they were welcome in foreign countries to counter British elite snobbishness toward them (the French Emperor “graciously acknowledged the cheers of the visitors,” said Cook’s magazine, The Excursionist); and he depicted opponents as a “misguided minority” who lacked “genuine nobility,” writing that “those who were confident about their class position would support people from lower classes to improve themselves.”

Cook also showed his benefit to society, highlighting tourism’s role in promoting peaceful international relations and allowing respected professions such as teachers and clergy to travel abroad – writing that “there is no class of men to whom a good tour could be more beneficial than to hard-working ministers.”

After public opinion turned his way, Cook then was able to “ingratiate” himself with his former press critics – by providing them with valuable foreign news gleaned from his customers. So just a decade after the Daily News condemned his “barbarian hordes,” the newspaper refuted rumours that the Danube had been closed to passenger traffic by assuring its readers: “Messrs. Thomas Cook and Son have received the following telegraphic reply: ‘Danube route open. No fear of its being closed.'”

The authors based their research on historical records including 360 Victorian-era press articles and books from the British Library, and archived editions of The Excursionist (which was published up to 10 times a year) from Thomas Cook’s archives in Peterborough, England.