From humble beginnings, John Hays built a travel agency empire that continues to grow despite the odds.
Today the travel industry was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of the Hays Travel founder and managing director.
Testament to John’s popularity and respect among the industry, TTG has been inundated with words of tribute, from fellow industry leaders to independent agents and employees.
John, whose wife Irene is co-owner and chair of Hays Travel, opened his first agency in the back of his mother’s clothing shop in Seaham, County Durham, in 1982.
He opened his second in Sunderland, where Hays still has its headquarters, and has since grown the business to one which celebrated reaching sales of more than £1 billion in May 2018, across a varied portfolio of business arms.
True to his character (described by Carnival UK chairman David Dingle as an "icon of social responsibility"), to mark the occasion John presented every staff member with a £100 bonus for each year of service with the company.
John’s – and the company’s – ambitions didn’t stop at the £1 billion mark. In October 2019 he and Irene were hailed “heroes of the high street” after announcing that Hays had purchased all 550 of the collapsed Thomas Cook’s retail stores, pledging to provide re-employment opportunities for up to 2,500 former Cook staff who had been made redundant. It took Hays’ retail network to 745 across the country.
Beyond the business, John’s philanthropy was far-reaching, with the group investing heavily in apprenticeships. And in 2015, John and Irene launched a charity, the Hays Travel Foundation, designed to back registered charities with a focus on education and medical issues. True to form, the pair provided it with a £300,000 kick-start.
So loved was John by the people of Sunderland, that despite having already being presented with a Freedom of the City of Sunderland award in 2016, following the Cook acquisition news a Facebook group was launched calling for John to be given the honour again.
By the end of November 2019, Hays stated that it would hire an extra 1,500 staff, in addition to the 2,330 who previously worked for Cook.
In March 2020, following the purchase of Thomas Cook, Hays Travel was named as one of the Top 100 Employers in the United Kingdom.
Sadly when coronavirus hit, Hays was among many travel companies to announce redundancies. But on 5 September, Hays acquired Tailor Made Travel, saving yet more jobs.
On a personal note, I’ll always remember John for his sense of humour and modesty.
Despite being new to the industry in 2015, during one of my first Abta Travel Conventions I remember John spending a good few hours chatting away to me about his life, sprinkling in amusing anecdotes about his time at Oxford University, where he studied maths.
In future years when I interviewed him at various Hays IG conferences and other events, I was always grateful for his frankness, warmth and both his and Irene’s hospitality.
Attending such conferences, the love and respect for John from IG members and colleagues was palpable, and the evenings would always end with John and Irene on the dance floor.
John and Irene seemed as close as ever in recent years, with the pair always appearing on the news together – bouncing off one another. A true team.
John is a huge loss to the travel industry, and as evidenced by the many tributes pouring into TTG, an industry "giant" who will be sorely missed by many.
Everyone at TTG’s thoughts are with Irene, all of John’s family, and his numerous friends and colleagues.