This blog follows a presentation by Irene Hays to the Tees Valley Business Club.

People do business with people’ and the success of Hays travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agent, is proof positive of that.  It has not only survived COVID 19, but is expanding and has returned to profitability thanks to a combination of business acumen and a model of capitalism based on values, innovation and customer-service.  

Ever since John Hays established the business 40 years ago Hays Travel has invested in its people: Testament to this is the fact that over 45% of the senior managers (prior to taking on Thomas Cook staff in 2019) began their careers as apprentices – an employee group that’s been a feature of Hays for 38 years and a contributor to the company’s consistent appearance in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For listing.

Hays has always prided itself as a values-driven business that cares about the communities it serves, but that wasn’t held in favourable balance by the pundits when co-founders John and Dame Irene Hays were approached to take of the ailing Thomas Cook in 2018.  The fact that they had sales of £1billion at the time didn’t prevent those pundits referring to the couple as ‘country bumpkins’ but as Irene said at a recent Tees Valley Business Club event, ‘My John had the brain of an elephant, we’ve never been greedy and we’ve dealt with a lot of travel related natural disasters over the 40 plus years we’ve been in business. At the time of the takeover we hadn’t taken a dividend for 10 year and our reserves were strong enough to carry us through the pandemic. We’ve now diversified and strengthened our offer’.

Unlike the former bloated and greedy Thomas Cook empire Hays Travel has always prided itself on standing for a very different sort of capitalism.  It is a big business that’s a worth creator, putting money back into the communities in which it’s based and helping keep our high streets alive.  

Hays prides itself on its SMILE values: Supportive, Motivational, Innovative, Loyal, Excellent and this approach meant that members of the Hays team stepped up to help the company save costs and diversify during the pandemic.  Unlike companies that could access furlough early, Hays had to swallow staff costs to keep customers informed of travel restrictions, renew bookings and/or give refunds.  An unexpected benefit of staff retention was the ability to diversify into the call-centre market to help repatriate UK citizens stranded overseas.  Dame Irene Hays said: “During the pandemic we wrote to everyone who worked for Hays Travel and asked for their opinions and ideas, we had some astonishing ideas back.  I cannot pay enough of a tribute to our people.” The diversification into call centre work came about because of a chance conversation ending with a ‘my boss needs to speak to your boss’ opportunity.  In my view that sort of thing doesn’t happen unless staff feel valued and that their opinion counts. 

People often say that ethical and responsible business practice gets tougher when market conditions are almost impossible to navigate. The pandemic has shown that to be true in some cases, but Hays kept anchored to their SMILE values throughout the difficulties faced by the travel industry and followed the Thomas Cook takeover with the purchase of all 20 Tailor Made Travel shops as well as retaining around 100 of their employees. 

Today, Hays Travel has huge buying power and invests heavily in state-of-the-art technology. The company has an award-winning in-house training programme, won Best High Street Large Agency at the Agent Achievement Awards, and is recognised in the Top 100 Apprenticeship Employers list

 Only 62% of UK travel agents have survived the pandemic, but Hays has not only survived but thrived, returning to profitability this August.   The Hays story is one that demonstrates to me beyond doubt that ethical and values driven business is good for business.

Irene and her late husband, John, have received countless of awards and accolades over the years but when I asked her  what she was most proud of Irene said: “Watching young people of all backgrounds flourish by the opportunities we can provide, we have created an environment for people to succeed.”

That’s the sort of inspirational business leader we need and those of us in business should aspire to.

Caroline Theobald – Director, NIBE