Colleagues and friends share their memories of a true travel industry giant
It’s been almost a month since the industry was rocked by the news that John Hays – founder of the Hays Travel empire – had died. But the truth of it feels as raw as ever for many, with tributes continuing to pour in for the man affectionately known as “The Gaffer” by colleagues, and admired across the industry.
The respect comes not just for John’s countless achievements in business, but for a man who cared fiercely about his staff, was philanthropic to the last, and would always lend an ear when he encountered someone who needed it.
Crowds lined the streets of Sunderland on the day of John’s funeral last month to pay tribute, with city landmarks illuminated in the blue and orange Hays colours in his honour.
Here, four Hays Travel Independence Group members – industry leaders in their own right – recount their fondest memories of John.
I first met John in 2003 on a ski trip to France – part of a larger senior industry annual jaunt. I was still relatively new to the sector at that time and was extremely apprehensive about spending time with such an accomplished group of individuals.
Although John never mentioned it, I think he could detect my nervousness, and from that moment made it his mission to ensure I felt at ease. I was hoping during the trip that I would learn more about him and gain some advice and guidance, but instead his conversation would often focus on his wife, Irene (Hays Travel chair) and her achievements.
He was clearly in awe of her, and you’d be forgiven for thinking they were newlyweds enjoying the honeymoon period of their relationship!
I would finally meet Irene several years later, along with John, at their London apartment. After selling my first business, I was looking to start again, and wanted the support of a consortia group. I was never in any doubt as to who I would approach for this.
If I had to take one thing away from my time with John, it would be the absolute dedication of his team and how they supported him. They were part of a family, with John at the head of the household, and they all wanted to make him proud. This closeness and camaraderie really struck a chord with me.
At Imagine we are launching a One Life campaign soon, which happens to perfectly encapsulate John’s attitude to life: Live it, Love it, Share it.
Rest in peace, John.
The news of anyone passing suddenly is a shock, but losing someone like John is a huge loss. To me, he’s always been ageless, and I’ve known him 25 years. I thought he would always be around.
He was a man with tons of talent, a brilliant businessman, a sportsman and an amazing analyst.
Working for John in the short time I did, his meetings could last hours and I was often frustrated!
In fact, he drove me to wine! I was apparently “the most impatient woman he ever met”.
But just listening to how meticulous he was, how he conducted himself and invested in his people, taught me so much. Without him I wouldn’t have opened my own travel agency.
John always backed me 100%, although I knew how much he had on his plate, so I didn’t like to bother him.
But you always knew you could pick up the phone and bend his ear. In 2018, it was an honour to be a guest speaker at the Hays IG conference, and he presented us with the Member of the Year award.
That was one of my proudest moments – to be up on that stage with him. We were both beaming.
John was a great friend, for whom I had the utmost admiration. Taken far too soon.
Our partnership with Hays Travel as members of the Independence Group has been pivotal to the growth of Holidaysplease over the last 15 years – John was the reason we joined in the first place.
At the time we hardly had two holiday sales to rub together and yet when we visited Sunderland for the first time, John gave us hours of his time. We gave him the sales pitch of our lofty ambitions – no doubt he didn’t believe a word – but nevertheless he humoured us, encouraged us and backed us.
The last time we met with John, in 2019, it was exactly the same. A one-hour meeting was soon four as he generously shared thoughts and advice on aspects of the Hays business that were working well, that we were not making the most of. It was typical of John.
Instead of hoarding his success, he would share it. Plus, he treated us to a Greggs for lunch – good, honest sustenance to get the job done. There’s a lesson there that we didn’t miss!
Despite all he achieved, John was always more interested in talking to you about your business rather than bragging about his. He had that unique ability to make you feel comfortable and relaxed in his company, and was always complimentary about what you were achieving, however small that achievement was in comparison to his own.
We have much to be grateful to John for professionally and, for Charles, personally, as he has a wife and two kids as a result of John asking us to speak at an IG conference!
John will be greatly missed and long remembered.
We first met John in 2016 having been a Hays IG member for a few years. We had some success, and once we got over the £10 million in sales mark, we were invited to Sunderland for a meeting with John.
Until this point we had purposely flown under the radar, as we wanted to do our own thing. Travelling there, we felt like two naughty kids being summoned to the headmaster’s office and didn’t know what to expect. But we liked John straight away, and he liked us! We found him to be genuine and fair.
As we grew, we met more frequently with John, and having heard our story, he agreed to act as a mentor and sit on our advisory board. It was great to be able to pick his brilliant brain on business matters.
He attended a few of our annual conferences, as he liked the vibe, the atmosphere and, of course, the party!
During this period we explored many opportunities together, which was due to the trust we have between our companies and with John and Irene as individuals.
We were in shock when told of the news of John’s passing, it’s still hard to take, but it’s comforting to see the response – from inside and outside travel – and it is thoroughly deserved for such a well-liked guy.
All our thoughts are with Irene and the family.
Is it a coincidence that as soon as John has gone “upstairs”, the travel industry has started again?