Optimist: Dame Irene Hays says 2022 will be a good year for travel

Dame Irene Hays, owner of Britain’s largest independent travel agent, believes 2022 may finally be the year Britain has a great holiday. As soon as Boris Johnson lifted the strict Covid tests for vacationers traveling abroad, phones started ringing at Hays Travel.

With staff at its 455 stores now rolling up their sleeves to handle the surge in bookings to vacation hot spots from Spain to cruises in the Maldives and the Caribbean, she said: “When the announcement was made, it was It was such a relief that this barrier and constraint was removed.The feeling at Hays Travel was one of jubilation.

Bookings have increased 53% since the Prime Minister confirmed on Wednesday that pre-departure testing and quarantine on arrival would be removed for healthy vaccinated passengers from 4 a.m. last Friday. Lateral flow testing will replace inbound PCR testing from today.

A sign of huge pent-up demand and foreclosure savings, Dame Irene says her sun-hungry customers are spending £ 478 more than before the pandemic. The average family spent £ 2,698 on holidays in the past few days, up from £ 2,220 in 2019.

Hays adds: “The tests, especially the PCR test two days before returning to the UK, have been a hindrance for people due to concerns that if they were positive they would have to go into quarantine and at cost. and the associated disruption if they were to return to work.

Almost half of the bookings taken this month are for summer vacations – leading trips to Spain, Greece and the United States – followed by growing demand for long-haul winter sun destinations like the Sri Lanka and Barbados and a 34% increase in cruise bookings. . Barring further restrictions, Hays believes this could be the turning point for the travel industry, after a two-year roller coaster ride when travel companies suffered endless false dawn due to changing rules.

She says: “The travel industry has responded very well to Covid and has security measures in place to ensure people feel safe when traveling abroad.

“As long as people are able to take care of their health and comply with the arrangements at the seaside resorts and return to the UK, then the sky is the limit. The latent demand is huge so as long as there are no more constraints it could be a fantastic year for traveling. ‘

Dame Irene, former president of the city council, is one of the travel industry’s most respected figures and a “godmother” of P&O’s largest cruise ship, Iona, which she named last May alongside from former Take That frontman Gary Barlow.

Still, the 67-year-old’s journey through the choppy waters of the pandemic has been more difficult than most.

After facing the compulsion to save the family business following the drop in income in February 2020, when some of Hays Travel’s clients were trapped aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan due to a Covid outbreak, her 23-year-old husband John Hays died when he collapsed in the office in November of the same year.

The couple, both from mining towns in northeast England, had started the business John had founded at the back of his mother’s baby clothing store in County Durham in 1980, and had was hailed as the “heroes of the main street” when they bought 555 travel agents from the Thomas Cook bust chain in October 2019, saving more than 2,000 jobs.

Less than a year after the bailout deal, the couple were forced to announce that travel bans for Covid meant 878 jobs at Hays Travel were at risk – what they called ‘the worst day we’ve had never had in 40 years of history ”.

They ultimately reduced the layoffs to 494, redeploying 384 employees to virtual call centers and work-from-home roles.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” says Dame Irene, who now runs the Sunderland-based company as president alongside COO Jonathon Woodall-Johnston. But in a sign of her inner steel as she struggles to rebuild sales, she insists the crisis has presented “massive opportunities” for the company. “This pandemic has been terrible,” she adds. “But it gave us the time to innovate and diversify. ”

Hays Travel is developing more unique stays for customers eager to taste the post-containment adventure: motorcycling on Route 66 in California on Harley Davidson for example. And from this month, it launched direct flights to the Caribbean from six regional airports, including Bristol, Newcastle and Edinburgh, saving holidaymakers a trip to Heathrow or Manchester and a layover in the United States. . Direct flights are already full for 2022.

Dame Irene says the company is also going through the pandemic “strongly” – thanks to the flexibility of its 4,300 employees who adjust to working from home and its guarantee of “peace of mind” giving customers full reimbursement. ‘they cancel or change the date of their trips six weeks before departure.

Dame Irene says 53% of her sales now come from customers booking vacations with the company for the first time, up from 19% before the pandemic.

“It’s a great result,” she said.

“People come to us because they want to know that they will be looked after before they travel, if they are stuck in a complex and when they return home.

“Obviously there is a place for online reservations, but for anything that has a high value or a bit of complexity, we find that people want someone to help them find their vacation and know who to return to. if there is any problem or concern. . ‘

Hays Travel has 455 street shops after laying off 89 former Thomas Cook travel agents in 2021, who were either in poor condition or had high rents. It was part of a review that began before the pandemic. “We are very happy with our business park and still believe it is part of a larger service that we can provide to the customer,” she says.

The group’s latest financial results show a loss of £ 34million for the 18 months ending April 2021. Sales fell to £ 747million from £ 1.1bn in 2019.

Hays says the company remained in deficit until July of last year, but returned to profit from August. The losses are small compared to the billion pounds lost by other travel agencies, she adds. “One of the reasons Hays Travel has lost ‘only’ £ 34million is that we have invested a lot in promoting and supporting all of our cruise lines to give ‘vacations’ across the UK. United It gave people a taste for cruising and many came back and booked an international cruise.

Before the pandemic, Hays was enjoying a “sensational” vacation, she says. Now that overseas travel is back, she is planning her own Amazon cruise in South America.

She had planned to go with John, who said foresighted before her death: “Eventually there will be a vaccine – and the first thing people want is a vacation.”

Looking moved for the first time in our conversation, Hays said, “It was always something John and I were going to do – so I’m going to do it myself in April. I’ll raise him a glass of wine.”

Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on it, we may earn a small commission. This helps us fund This Is Money and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.