Hays Travel will “definitely” open all 555 former Thomas Cook shops in the coming days, boss John Hays has vowed.
Hays’ move for Cook’s entire retail network was warmly welcomed last week, with terms struck just 24 hours after the deadline for bids closed – scuppering some independents’ plans to take over Cook shops in their local areas.
Founder John Hays though was unapologetic: “It was a really good deal for the government,” he said. “The fact we could take all the shops was really appealing. Others could have bid for all of them the way we did.”
The deal guarantees jobs for former Cook staff in the near future. “We are definitely opening all the shops,” said Hays. “We’ve paid the rent for all of them at least until 24 December, and we are trying to get leases for all of them as well – that is a sign of [our] commitment.”
Hays has a nine-month “licence to occupy” period in which it can negotiate lease extensions. And while Hays admitted there would be duplication in some areas, he said it was “far too early to know” what would happen with these shops.
He added that while there was an opportunity to grow Hays’ in-house tour operation, the firm “was not interested in the Thomas Cook name”.
Several agents told TTG of their shock upon hearing Hays Travel was taking on all of Cook’s shops, but were full of praise for the Hays’ efforts to save hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs.
Simon Morgan, chief executive of Tailor Made Travel, had been negotiating directly with landlords to take over some of Cook’s shops before the Hays deal was announced.
“John has pulled out a real corker,” Morgan told TTG. “We have Cook shops in our towns, and we welcome the competition.
"John will be a formidable competitor but I think he will be sensible in the peaks and not offer huge discounts. The trade is going to adjust to this. It’s exciting times for the industry.”
Miles Morgan, managing director of Miles Morgan Travel, added: “It’s yet another vote of confidence for the independent agent based in bricks but thriving by adding clicks.
"The omni-channel and high street combination is a very strong one. Good luck to John and Irene and great news for so many retail travel agents.”
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the Advantage Travel Partnership, said: “Instead of having a multiple with 550 shops on the high street, they are being replace by the Hays brand. While Hays is independent, it’s ultimately like-for-like.
“What it demonstrates is the complete faith in the high street – that gives confidence to our members and shows there’s a future.
“There’s a heartwarming element to this. While nobody makes a business decision purely on the human factor, it’s fantastic that so many ex-Thomas Cook staff will be taken on in new roles.”
But some retail analysts have raised some doubts about how Hays’ move might play out.
Julie Palmer, Begbies Traynor’s restructuring partner, said: “While this looks like a savvy deal, you have to wonder what Hays’ plan is and how they can make it a success.
"Has the travel firm been gung-ho in trying to secure a cheap deal without assessing the viability of taking on these stores?"
Nick Cooper, head of insights and analytics at branding consultancy Landor, said Hays had "reasons to be optimistic", even though the deal "represents a real commercial risk".
“It is set to become the dominant player in the retail travel sector, providing an opportunity to establish Hays as its leading light,” said Cooper.
“While scale is no guarantee of success, it can certainly drive brand awareness. The high street may be dying, but it’s not dead yet – the historic performance of Hays suggests they know how to run a retail travel business.
“John and Irene Hays have set themselves a challenge, not least by rebranding everything to Hays.
"By removing a famous, industry-leading brand, albeit a now damaged one, and replacing it with one that has regional traction but no national recognition, creates a significant – and difficult – task.”
It’s the feel-good story we’ve all been hoping for ever since Cook collapsed last month. When John and Irene Hays’ beaming smiles first lit up the lunchtime, then the six o’clock and then the ten o’clock news bulletins on Wednesday, it felt like the whole nation was right behind them. Cook’s demise has caused our sector untold pain, but this dramatic vote of confidence in the high street is an important step on the road to recovery.