Thomson the Dog

Argus title : Why my holiday was a disaster

I have just returned from a holiday at an idyllically beautiful spot on the north east of Ibiza.

We had been assured that despite Ibiza’s reputation, this part of the island was “quieter” and suitable for families. In order to be sure we didn’t stray accidentally into a hub of drunkenness and lechery, we chose a hotel which – according to the Thomson’s brochure we found it in – was “designed exclusively for families”. It was one of Thomson’s Superfamily range of holidays, with a crèche for small children and clubs and activities for older children and teenagers.

We noticed the brochure’s reference to “day time and evening activities”, but were soothed by the reassurance that we could be “as active or relaxed as we liked”. We assumed the invitation to adults to “have a little me time, while the kids are enjoying themselves” meant we could relax and read while our daughter spent time with other young people. It didn’t.

Almost from the moment we arrived we were assaulted by noise. When we opened the door to our balcony on our first day, the tranquil beauty of the view across the bay was disrupted by the sound of amplified music and the tortured rumble of an obviously ailing air-conditioning system. Thomson’s poolside “entertainment” could be heard in almost every part of the hotel.

In all the time I was there, I never worked out why the entertainment had to be so ear-splittingly loud, particularly when much of it was aimed at small children and adults positioned close to the entertainers – nor why evening entertainment for children never ended before10.00pm. Though all entertainment stopped by midnight, it must have been hell for any parent trying to get children to sleep.

When we closed the door to deaden the sound, our room became stiflingly hot. The Thomson brochure had informed us that there was “air-conditioning” in bedrooms. According to the hotel information folder we found when we arrived, the room’s air conditioning system was time-switched to stay on for two hours. In fact, it lasted for one hour.

My bed was closest to the air conditioning switch, so during the night it was my task to reset it. Half asleep I’d twist around, stick my leg out of the bed, slam the switch with my big toe, then flop back onto the bed to sleep fitfully – until the next sweaty awakening.

As time went by, we began to feel quite sorry for our rusty over-burdened little air conditioning system. It wheezed and spluttered and spewed out water into a strategically placed plastic bucket on our balcony. The charming Spanish lady who cleaned our room advised it was best to empty it down the loo, but it became apparent that many other families simply flung the water over their balconies.

Overall, it was hard to escape the heat. The hotel was packed with hundreds of guests. According to hotel reception staff, it can accommodate 806 people.

Though the hotel did, as the Thomson’s brochure promised, have 3 lifts, one was little more than a luggage lift from the lower ground to the ground floor. Two narrow, stiflingly hot lifts, each with a capacity to carry 6 people, served the other 4 floors.

Many guests chose to use the stairs, but others who did not speculated anxiously about the health of the overworked lifts, one of which banged ominously. Passengers were heard to estimate about how long someone could survive if they jammed. I heard one guest advise someone to have water available and another speak quite seriously about the need, in the event of an incident, to reduce heat by removing light bulbs and strip lighting.

Sunbeds were packed so closely side by side and row on row that it was often diffcult to find a route to the pool. The pool was so crowded that it was difficult to swim, a problem exacerbated by the uncontrolled use of inflatables and dinghies – and the fact that for 4 hours of the day a section of the pool was partitioned off for the use of those who had paid Thomson’s instructors for swimming lessons. Twice during the two weeks we were there the pool was closed due to faecal contamination.

Despite the obvious dangers of such overcrowding, the hotel’s lifeguard system seemed inadequate. A Thomson representative reassured me that Thomson’s swimming instructors were fully trained. This was evidently true and they were highly professional. However, they were part timers, focussed upon the needs of their young pupils and, because of the pool’s design, unable to see its deep end.

In addition, swimming instructors clearly had no authority to stop dangerous play around the pool, of which there was a good deal. I was staggered to see the hotel’s lifeguard don a wig and chase several young boys around the poolside, brandishing the detached metal pole of a sun umbrella like a spear.

We were also shocked to see a female member of Thomson’s staff carried spread-eagled in a dinghy for several yards and then thrown fully clothed into the pool by a group of male guests. She cried out in distress and apparent pain, but no one came to her assistance. This was perhaps unsurprising given the conduct of some male staff. Just a day earlier, I had seen a Thomson’s entertainer throw a clearly reluctant and fully clothed female colleague into the pool.

Some of the Thomson’s staff were remarkably talented – and exceptionally good with young people. However, entertainers’ access to the static and mobile loud speaker systems gave them extraordinary power to affect atmosphere and influence behaviour.

Some male employees’ grasp on gender equalities seemed tenuous. Two men led aquarobics sessions, involving many children, dressed in women’s wigs and big-breasted padded outfits. On one occasion, they suggested a female colleague – a professional masseuse – might attend male guests’ rooms to massage “every part” of their bodies. On another, one of them remarked that a female colleague was better able to float “because she has her own airbags”.

One individual, in particular, seemed to encourage sexist behaviour and laddish play. On several occasions during activities or performances we saw him interfering with his younger female colleagues, interrupting them and touching their clothing and bodies in a way they appeared to find unsettling.

We had seen the same man behave flirtatiously with young female guests. On 2 occasions we witnessed him grab or kiss one particular bikini-clad teenager. On another occasion we saw him lift the same girl – this time fully clothed – and threaten to throw her into the pool.

One day, my daughter attended a session for around 20 teenagers, and was stunned to hear a female Thomson employee complain that the same man had come to her door at 4.00am that morning, laughing, naked and touching his penis. We later heard from another female employee that he had also entered her room, but she had pretended to be asleep.

My husband and I formally complained, both about manhandling of women by the pool and alleged sexual harassment of female staff. We stressed that such conduct by adult male employees had the potential to negatively influence young men and put young women at risk.

At first Thomson’s management failed to offer feedback. When we insisted upon it we were told that 6 other guests had been selected at random and their view of the employee “differed” from ours. When my husband inquired about the alleged incident in staff quarters, he was firmly told this was “none of (our) business.” My husband expressed continuing concern about the safety of young people. We were informed that staff had been interviewed and that the employee had been told not to throw female colleagues into the pool.

The die had been cast. Shortly before we left, I noticed a teenage boy manhandle a girl across the poolside, throw her in and when she had climbed out, “jokingly” attempt to remove her bikini bottom.

Thomson Holidays market Superfamily holidays as safe for children. They are branded under the family-friendly logo of loveable “Thomson the Dog”. Every evening of children’s entertainment ends with the song “Thomson the Dog” and every competition prize is a branded item.

On these holidays, there are moments of genuinely great entertainment and songs of inspired lunacy, which delight children and make adults cry with laughter. It was, at times, an amazing sight to see grown men laughing uninhibitedly and singing and playing like children. However, these moments were overshadowed.

Firms like Thomson’s have the power to be an influence for good. But if they are to be so, they will need to clean up their act.

Note: An Argus journalist spoke to Thomson. Their spokeswoman said: “Thomson is proud of the fact our award-wining family holidays provide entertainmentfor children and families alike. We have a strict policy as to how our staff interact with guests and take seriously any reports of incidents where customers are not wholly satisfied with their experience. We will certainly be looking into the points made in this letter (sic). We receive excellent customer feedback for this hotel with more than 90% of customers stating their holiday was good or excellent.”

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