Optimistic: Dame Irene Hays says 2022 will be a good year for travel
Dame Irene Hays, the owner of Britain’s biggest independent travel agent, believes 2022 could finally be the year Britain gets a proper holiday. As soon as Boris Johnson scrapped stringent Covid tests for holidaymakers heading overseas, the phones started ringing off the hook at Hays Travel.
With staff at her 455 shops now rolling their sleeves up to handle the surge of bookings to holiday hotspots from Spain to the Maldives and Caribbean cruises, she says: ‘When the announcement was made, it was such a sense of relief that this barrier and constraint has been removed. The feeling at Hays Travel was one of jubilation.’
Bookings are up 53 per cent since the Prime Minister confirmed on Wednesday that predeparture tests and quarantine on arrival would be scrapped for healthy vaccinated passengers from 4am last Friday. Lateral flow tests will replace PCR tests on arrival from today.
As a sign of the huge pent-up demand and lockdown savings, Dame Irene says her sun-starved customers are spending £478 more than before the pandemic. An average family has splashed out £2,698 on a holiday over the past few days compared with £2,220 in 2019.
Hays adds: ‘The testing, particularly the PCR test two days before returning to the UK, has been a barrier for people because of the worry that if they tested positive they would need to go into quarantine and the costs and disruption associated with that if they needed to come back and work.’
Almost half the bookings taken this month are for summer holidays – led by trips to Spain, Greece and the US – followed by soaring demand for long-haul winter sun destinations such as Sri Lanka and Barbados and a 34 per cent increase in bookings for cruises. Barring further restrictions, Hays believes this could be the turning point for the travel industry, after a rollercoaster two years when travel companies have endured endless false dawns due to changing rules.
She says: ‘The travel industry has responded very well to Covid and put in place safety measures to ensure people feel safe when they go abroad.
‘Providing people are able to look after their health and comply with the arrangements in resorts and returning to the UK, then the sky’s the limit. The latent demand is enormous, so as long as there are no more constraints, it could be a fantastic year for travel.’
Dame Irene, a former city council leader, is one of the travel industry’s most respected figures and a ‘godmother’ to P&O’s biggest cruise ship, Iona, which she christened last May alongside former Take That singer Gary Barlow.
Yet the 67-year-old’s journey through the pandemic’s choppy waters has been tougher than most.
Having coped with the strain of saving the family business after revenues plummeted in February 2020, when some of Hays Travel’s customers were trapped on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan due to a Covid outbreak, her husband of 23 years, John Hays, died when he collapsed in the office in November the same year.
The pair, both from mining towns in the North East of England, had built up the business John founded in the back of his mother’s babywear shop in County Durham in 1980, and were hailed as the ‘heroes of the high street’ when they bought 555 travel agents from bust chain Thomas Cook in October 2019, saving more than 2,000 jobs.
Less than a year after the rescue deal, the couple were forced to announce that Covid travel bans meant 878 jobs at Hays Travel were at risk – which they called ‘the worst day we have ever had in our 40-year history’.
They eventually cut redundancies to 494, by redeploying 384 staff to virtual call-centres and homeworking roles.
‘It’s been a rollercoaster,’ says Dame Irene, who is now running the Sunderland-based business as chairwoman alongside chief operating officer Jonathon Woodall-Johnston. But in a sign of her inner steel as she fights to rebuild sales, she insists the crisis has presented ‘massive opportunities’ for the company. ‘This pandemic has been awful,’ she adds. ‘But it has given us time to innovate and diversify.’
Hays Travel is developing more unique holidays for customers keen for a taste of post-lockdown adventure: motorbiking on Route 66 in California on Harley Davidsons, for example. And from this month, it has launched direct flights to the Caribbean from six regional airports, including Bristol, Newcastle and Edinburgh, saving holidaymakers a trek to Heathrow or Manchester and a stop-off in the US. The direct flights are already sold out for 2022.
Dame Irene says the business is also coming through the pandemic ‘strongly’ – thanks to the flexibility of its 4,300 staff as they adapted to working from home and its ‘peace of mind’ guarantee offering customers a full refund if they cancel or change the date of their trips six weeks before departure.
Dame Irene says 53 per cent of its sales now come from customers booking holidays with the firm for the first time, compared to 19 per cent before the pandemic.
‘This is a tremendous outcome,’ she says.
‘People are coming to us because they want to know they will be looked after before they travel, if they are stuck in a resort, and when they come home.
‘Obviously there is a place for online bookings, but for anything with a high value or a bit of complexity, we are finding people want someone to help them find their holiday and to know who to go back to if there is a problem or worry.’
Hays Travel has 455 high street shops after axeing 89 former Thomas Cook travel agents in 2021, which were either in a bad state of repair or had high rents. That was part of a review that started before the pandemic. ‘We are very happy with our retail estate, and still believe it is part of a wider service we can provide for the customer,’ she says.
The group’s latest financial results show a £34million loss for the 18 months to the end of April 2021. Sales fell to £747million, down from £1.1billion in 2019.
Hays says the business remained loss-making until July last year but returned to profit from August. The losses are small compared to the billion-pound sums lost by other travel firms, she adds. ‘One of the reasons why Hays Travel lost ‘only’ £34million was because we invested heavily in promoting and supporting all our cruise operators to give ‘seacations’ around the UK. That’s given people a taste of cruising and many have come back and booked an international cruise.’
Before the pandemic, Hays enjoyed ‘sensational’ holidays, she says. Now overseas travel is roaring back, she is planning a cruise of her own on the Amazon in South America.
She had planned to go with John, who said presciently before he died: ‘Eventually there will be a vaccine – and the first thing people will want is a holiday.’
Looking emotional for the first time in our conversation, Hays says: ‘It was always something that John and I were going to do – so I’m going to do it on my own in April. I’ll raise a glass of wine to him.’
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