Profile: Alexis Coles-Barrasso, Thomas Cook

Alexis Coles-Barrasso, one of the UK’s most experienced travel industry communicators, is now back where she belongs – at the helm of our best-known holiday brand. But the past year has been anything but a vacation.

Coles-Barrasso returned to Thomas Cook, Europe's second biggest holiday company, in August just as CEO Manny Fontenla-Novoa was tipped to lead a UK MBO of the company (this didn't transpire). She had just got married, acquiring the second half of her surname. And at the age of 41 she had also become a mother to a beautiful baby girl.

As if that was not enough, Coles-Barrasso has also had to cope with the loss of both of her parents.

'People say they are surprised I am not having a nervous breakdown,' she smiles. 'I reply that I will probably be in therapy by the end of the year.'

Coles-Barrasso is friendly, bubbly and naturally candid. She speaks with a London accent but hails from Somerset. And it was geography that led her to leave Thomas Cook in 2003 after 11 years. The company was moving its headquarters from London – where she had worked her way up from PR executive in 1992 to director of worldwide PR and comms – to Peterborough. At the time Coles-Barrasso wanted to stay in the capital. 

But now she is back, the family having moved to Rutland – just 20 miles from Peterborough – although given that Thomas Cook was her main client while she freelanced in the interim, you might say she never left.

As an independent consultant, Coles-Barrasso was behind last year's appointment of P&O Cruises communications chief Bronwen Griffiths to head of PR – 'because of her crisis management experience' at the cruise line.

'It is important to me that people in our team can deal with a crisis if one happens,' Coles-Barrasso says.

Since her return to a board-level post, nothing has come of reports that German airline Lufthansa and retailer KarstadtQuelle were set to sell the company. Indeed, recent reports suggest the latter may even increase its stake.

But Coles-Barrasso has had plenty to fill her three-day week. Last year, following a painful restructuring that began after the 9/11 attacks, Fontenla-Novoa returned the company to a £51m profit (it made a £50m loss in 2001). In the next few months Thomas Cook will unveil results that Coles-Barrasso says will be 'the most successful in our history'.

The company is also celebrating the 140th anniversary of the package tour pioneered by its eponymous founder, ironically now under threat from low-cost airlines and independent travel.

Staff morale at such a symbolic juncture is critical. By handing her additional control of the three-strong internal comms team, Fontenla-Novoa has shown faith in Coles-Barrasso.'I have a very good relationship with our CEO and it is good to be on the board where I can give my view on how a decision will affect company reputation,' she says. 'They [the board] trust me implicitly.'

'She has to win over all of the company's employees,' says John Donaldson, who was Thomas Cook CEO during the 2000 sale of its financial services arm. 'Staff have to give great customer service with a smile. Alexis is good at keeping you informed about what is going on.'

Coles-Barrasso is pleased that Thomas Cook has not suffered crises on the scale of other operators. But she volunteers the 1999 South African coach crash, which claimed 26 lives, as her 'worst professional moment'.

However, Thomas Cook is not immune to the squeeze from internet travel firms. Although Coles-Barrasso says the company will not repeat the restructuring that axed 2,000 staff in October 2002, she admits 'you can't completely avoid these things these days'.
The company is adapting to meet the challenge. Online marketing spend is up 85 per cent and its website now accounts for 15 per cent of total business.
Thomas Cook has edged back from the abyss. But the company remains under pressure. As one who knows it better than most, Coles-Barrasso must nurture the necessary changes.
Tom Williams

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