A family-run Sunderland-based travel agent is about to become a major household name after it bought the entire retail network of the collapsed travel firm Thomas Cook.
Hays Travel acquired all 555 stores direct from the liquidators at 11.53pm on Tuesday evening. By Friday morning, it had already re-opened several, mainly in the northeast, Yorkshire, Northern Ireland and Wales.
In the coming days, Hays Travel has promised to re-open every one of the Thomas Cook stores and says it has all but promised jobs to the defunct firm’s 2,500 retail staff. More than 1,200 ex-Thomas Cook staff have already been recruited.
Within days it will start renaming and repainting Thomas Cook’s stores in the Hays Travel blue and yellow signage, which will become a familiar site in virtually every major town and city across the country.
So who are Hays Travel? In fact, even prior to the purchase of the Thomas Cook stores, the company, which is owned by husband and wife John Hays, aged 70, and 65-year-old Irene, was the UK’s biggest independent travel agent with 190 shops, employing around 1,700 people and turning over more than £1 billion a year.
In addition to the stores, it has a network of around 240 travel agents who work from home, selling holidays from their laptops. It also owns Hays Travel Independence Group, a consortium of independent travel agents which trade under their own names but benefit from Hays’s buying power.
Founded by John from the back of his mum’s children’s clothes shop in Seaham, County Durham, in 1980, Hays Travel steadily expanded across the northeast, adding one shop a year until 1987.
In 1990, Hays opened a call centre, and five years later it set up a consortium of independent agents to further expand the Hays Travel brand.
Still largely based in the northeast, it saw an opportunity to expand into the southwest of England in 2013 through the acquisition of the region’s largest independent travel agency, Bath Travel, which more than doubled its number of shops from 43 to 103 overnight.
Crucially, the acquisition of the more upmarket Bath Travel also gave Hays a foothold in the lucrative and expanding cruise market. Today it sells a wide range of holidays, flights and cruises, both via its website haystravel.co.uk, its stores and via its homeworkers.
Still owned by the Hays family, the company – unlike Thomas Cook – isn’t affiliated to any particular tour operator and so the re-opened shops are likely to offer a greater choice of packages. John Hays said this week that the stores would sell "every accredited tour operator".
While John and Irene have been hailed as the saviours of Thomas Cook’s staff and loyal travel agency customers, it remains to be seen whether they will succeed in keeping all 550 Thomas Cook shops open.
Hays Travel has already paid the leases on all the shops until Christmas Eve as part of the deal with the liquidators, but as each one comes up for renewal, no doubt Hays will have to decide whether they’re worth keeping.
In some towns there is an overlap with existing Hays Travel stores and John Hays admitted that "like any business" they will have to evaluate each one. However, he said he was "quite optimistic".
"We are a successful business and because we are independent and we offer all tour operators, we are optimistic we will trade well," he said.
Nevertheless, Hays’s sudden high street expansion has raised some eyebrows in the travel industry, not least because one of the reasons given for Thomas Cook’s failure was its large number of shops, combined with the fact that more and more people are choosing to book online.
However, John said Hays Travel’s website drives customers into its stores, with at least seven customers a day turning up to book face to face with a travel agent after first browsing online.
Some of the Thomas Cook shops were losing money, but Hays insists it's going to try to turn these loss-makers around. It says that without the high overheads of Thomas Cook’s Peterborough office and its huge debt to fund (Hays didn’t borrow any money to buy the stores), it is in with a fighting chance.