Work Hard

Dame Irene Hays shares her secrets to running a successful business

For the travel titan and hero of the high street, work at Hays Travel is about harnessing a passion for people.

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 29.04.2023

Sunderland is synonymous with a few things now. Be it shipbuilding or glass blowing, the Black Cats, Nissan or the Sunderland Empire, the city has a wealth of heritage, culture and industry.

And another key name we’d add to that list? Hays Travel.

For the last 42 years, Hays Travel has grown from humble beginnings in Sunderland to become the largest independent travel agent in the UK – all spearheaded by powerhouse couple, John and Irene Hays.

And what came across loud and clear when we were lucky enough to meet Dame Irene Hays DBE DL was that, for her, work is a passion.

A passion for people.

Whether it’s enabling young people to realise their potential or supporting innovators to re-energise the industry; giving her employees a call to personally congratulate them on good performances or simply helping her customers to get the best deal for their next breakaway, Dame Irene’s zest for helping others feel important, motivated and fulfilled is inspiring.


The Hays Travel culture is very different for a big corporate – we all roll our sleeves up and just get on with it.

To use a footballing analogy, it’s only the person who’s got the ball that can score.

Imagine me in a smart suit working in head office, and then picture a member of our staff in front of a customer in a Hays Travel branch: at that moment in time, who’s the most important? It’s no contest.

And we split the rewards, too.

The first time we reached £1 billion in sales, we decided to give £1 million to our staff.

That was before we acquired Thomas Cook. We gave everybody in the business £100 for every year they had worked with us. So, it didn’t matter if you were the FD or someone who helps keep the shops clean, everybody got the same.

It’s this philosophy of paying tribute to the fact that everybody in Hays Travel is equally as important. We try hard to live that.

Our drive towards excellent customer service starts with our staff.

Every day, our job is about responding to what the latest guidance is and what is ‘hot’, then making sure we communicate that to our customers.

We’ve got this huge body of responsibility to our customers, and we’re driven to let them know as soon as we know when things chop and change. And we have the best staff in the business.

For us, those two cohorts of people are intrinsically linked. You can’t look after your customers if you don’t look after your staff.

A huge part of our culture is that we want to be an active part of where we work.

We give every branch across the country a pot of money to contribute to their local community.

The teams in the shops do some of the most amazing things – they’ve sat in bathtubs full of baked beans to raise money for local hospices, they’ve jumped out of airplanes, they’ve done bungee jumps, they’ve put an exercise bike in the shop and cycled the distance from here to Paris… They raise thousands and thousands of pounds for the places where they’re based.

They can choose what they do and where the money they raise goes, too. The most extreme one I’ve heard was raising money for a hedgehog hospital!

We have always had a passion for young people.

For 42 years, we’ve ran apprenticeship schemes at Hays Travel and, before we acquired Thomas Cook, around 43% of our senior managers joined the business as apprentices.

The aim of the Hays Travel Foundation is to help young people across the country to realise their full potential across the board: in sport, the arts, academia and with their health. We’ve recently put a young woman from Newcastle through ballet school, for example.

It’s extending on this belief that young people are the future. They’re definitely the reason for Hays Travel’s success.

We’ve seen small businesses grow to become multi-million pound businesses with us, and I love that.

In addition to the retail estate, we run the back office for independent travel agents.

These independents might be great at knowing their niche destinations or tours, but may not be so knowledgeable about regulations, bonding, purchasing or the supplier payments. We are.

That’s why we set up The Hays Travel Independence Group. I love watching other businesses flourish and grow.

We’ve always supported the North East and will never move our head office away.

We believe that the work ethic of the people here in the North East is phenomenal. When you can harness that talent, it’s more powerful than anywhere else in the world.

One of the proudest moments that John and I had when we acquired Thomas Cook was that people were coming up to us and saying how fantastic it was that it was a North East company who were able to take Thomas Cook over. That made us really proud – that people in our region were thinking: ‘yes! It’s one of ours!’

No matter how big the business, continue to understand what it’s like for the people on the frontline to do what you’re asking them to do.

Never, ever lose touch with the people who are making your business successful.

Successful businesses are never down to one person. They’re about a team of people who have a shared belief, culture and values around the way they do things.

So, my advice would be to pay attention. Pay attention to the people who look after your customers. If you lose that or feel like you’re too important, you should pack it in!

Hays Travel have branches across the country, including in Sunderland, Newcastle upon Tyne, North Shields, South Shields, Gateshead and Washington

To find out more about their holiday offers or career opportunities, visit Hays Travel’s website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram

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