There was a bit of a cock-up within the British package holiday industry over the last week, which could easily have gone un-noticed. Then a national British broadsheet decided to pen a large article, even flagging it on the front page of the entire newspaper…using information this cock-up generated. Oops! Allow me to explain.
Package Holidays 101
In the 80s a system called Viewdata was set up. All of the major operators would feed their package holidays into the system, which at the time would be accessed by high-street travel agents to book their punters’ holidays. Amazingly, the antiquated system (something akin to teletext) remains to this day. Rather than replacing it, the industry has been bolting on technology to keep it chugging along- such as specific feeds from individual operators. Now, of course, thousands of websites use the info alongside the high street agents- they simply take the package info from viewdata and reprocess and re-brand it to appear on their site.
For example, Thomas Cook whack a £129 7-night package in Magaluf onto Viewdata, Lasminute.com would receive the feed, then bundle it onto their site decked out in their own branding (presumably taking a cut for being the middlemen).
What went wrong?
As one would expect with a system that has been consistently bandaged up since the 80s, it messed up. The feed from one specific operator, namely Thomas Cook (I have had this confirmed from three separate sources), went dodgy. They were plugging in package details to ViewData, but the feed it churned out was something different altogether.
The Viewdata cock-up meant that only basic prices were produced in the feeds. 7-night holidays in Ibiza were coming out as £5 all-in. A weekend in Corfu for £7. The airport departure tax, passenger levies, in-flight meal costs, luggage prices and the like were all excluded from the feed, despite (one assumes) Thomas Cook having initially put them into the Viewdata system.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, there seems to have been no screening process in-between the agents (online and offline) receiving the dodgy feeds and plonking them onto their sites. Thus the error chain went all the way- the £5 packages were appearing on Lastminute.com, latedeals.co.uk, statravel.co.uk and the rest.
The Telegraph piece
This is when it gets funny. Just as the cock-up reached the industry front line, the Telegraph, clearly eager to run a piece on the freefalling operators literally giving away packages to get bums on seat and in hotels (it’s a popular peg at the moment), ran a piece entitled ‘Mediterranean Holidays on Offer for £5’, even flagging it up on the front page of the entire newspaper.
Virtually every price they quote is from the dodgy feeds, and therefore non-existent. They even did a ’20 Package Holidays from under £80’ sidebox to accompany the piece- all using the dodgy info from various sites. (For another giggle, try clicking their links the the dubiously-named package-holiday.co.uk or packageholiday.co.uk. Cock-up upon cock-up upon cock-up.)
What has happened?
Slightly suspicious, I went haywire yesterday trying to find these £5 deals, finding pages of unusually cheapo offers on lastminute. But when I tried to book them…nothing was available. Alas, I didn’t do a screenshot, as all of said deals have been wiped away today. When I rang up the callcentre, a rather confused agent informed me that in fact the cheapest all-in deal you could get from them came in at about £180. So only £175 off then. Oops.
As I type, I imagine much of the industry is currently busy scrubbing off the dodgy deals, Thomas Cook are having to explain to everyone that it wasn’t their fault, the Telegraph are feeling a bit shafted, and the techies at Viewdata are checking their contracts for redundancy details. And I'm finding the whole thing rather hillarious.