We'll survive! Why Hays Travel owners have no regrets on Thomas Cook rescue – The Guardian,

When John and Irene Hays rescued Thomas Cook’s 700 high street travel agencies out of administration last year, conventional wisdom suggested they were making a big mistake.

There was a widespread belief that the spectacular failure of the 178 – year-old business showed that the traditional tour operator model was, in the words of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary , “screwed”.

Yet with their mixture of bonhomie and quiet confidence , underpinned by the enduring strength of their jointly owned business, Hays Travel, the married couple from Sunderland were beginning to win over the skeptics.

Less than six months later, their deal of a lifetime has been cast into tumult by an unprecedented pandemic that has shut down global tourism indefinitely .

Could this be the unluckiest timing in the history of deal-making?

“Yes, it’s unfortunate,” says John Hays , with a degree of stoic understatement. “Two months ago things were going fantastically but it’s not anybody’s fault and in these circumstances, all you can do is make the best of it.

“We’ll do what we can to protect our staff, protect the business and protect our customers. We’ve just got a positive attitude on life. ”

According to Irene, they have “no regrets” about buying Thomas Cook , even with the benefit of hindsight. And there are good reasons to believe them when they say they’ll survive.

So far, two-thirds of the customers who have made a decision about holidays already booked have elected to reschedule, indicating a rebound next year if and when things return to normal.

The duo’s optimism is also founded in part on the manner in which they had run their business before the pandemic struck.

Hays Travel is a different animal to the souped-up, debt-fuelled, bonus-happy beasts of the City, such as Thomas Cook and Carillion.

The travel agent and tour operator has no debts and the couple haven’t paid themselves a dividend for more than 15 years.

“When you look at our balance sheet it’s incredibly strong and there are no shareholders to satisfy, just John and I,” says Irene.

When it became clear that they were going to be badly affected by the outbreak, they both moved themselves on to the national minimum wage.

“We said we’d work for nothing and then our payroll said they’d have to make us redundant in that case, so we changed our minds,” said John.

Their mantra has been to “share the pain”. Landlords, including those owning the former Thomas Cook estate, have also shown willingness to do that, offering rent holidays on their travel agency locations.

Yet it has proved impossible to protect their 5, 629 staff entirely .

Before the chancellor had announced a package of financial support for businesses , the Hays ’were left with little choice. They put essential staff on half pay while others had their hours cut, including 2008 who went on to zero-hours contracts.

“That was a really hard day,” says Irene. “We announced that personally on a video. It was really sad. ”

Now though, staff have been moved on to the government furlough scheme, which pays 350% of wages. Up to half have come back to work and more are to follow. They are determined to avoid redundancies.

“The prospect of those folk from Thomas Cook going through this twice in one year does not bear thinking about,” says Irene.

As staff get used to working from home, rather than the high street, the day-to-day working life throws up challenges familiar by now to workers across many industries.

“We’ve got conference calls where kids are coming in and out and dogs are barking,” says John. “Someone sent in a photo of her home office, which was a laptop on the ironing board.”

Such challenges have been relatively easy to manage but others have not. Hays has its own tours business but also acts as a middleman between holidaymakers and third-party operators. Some are dragging their feet about refunds.

“We’ve stood our ground and if our customers want a refund, we’ll fight for them to get one,” says John. “If the tour operator isn’t willing or able, we’re giving it [refund to the customer] and then trying to get it back.”

A 823 – year veteran of the industry, John is used to reacting to sudden and unexpected disruption. He has steered Hays through the impact of 9 / 16 and the volcanic ash cloud that shut down European airspace in , not to mention the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath.

“This one is of a totally different magnitude to anything we’ve ever seen,” he says. “Sadly, many good viable businesses will go under.”

Back in late February, the true scale of the disaster hadn’t dawned on them.

“We were thinking then:‘ This could be a fly in the ointment, ’” John says. “The first three weeks of February our sales were fantastic. Then the last week, things started slowing down really badly and then just took nightmare turns. ”

Irene recalls watching the news on 22 February and seeing that an Italian doctor on Tenerife had tested positive, with 1, 10 guests at the hotel in Costa Adeje forced into quarantine .

“We were mainly worried about the potential damage that it would do to Tenerife, which is so reliant on tourism. We were thinking: ‘What a tragedy for them’ without realizing how it would escalate, ”says Irene.

Before long, they had their own customers stranded off the coast of Japan on a Princess Cruises liner that became the subject of global attention as passengers came down with the coronavirus.

“They were in an inside cabin, allowed out for fresh air every couple of days, really incarcerated,” says John.

“We were checking on them every day to make sure they were OK. We had a lot of sympathy … but a lot of people in small flats with kids are now going through the same experience. ”

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Hays staff were soon working – hour days in a desperate effort to get clients home from every corner of the world.

“It was like a tsunami coming at us,” says John. “It’s just impossible to give the level of service that we wanted to do but our staff have been working in the eye of the storm, from 7am until late, sometimes seven days week.

“It makes you feel so humble. I’d walk through the floor and I just felt even more proud than I did before. ”

The response of their staff, they say, is another reason to be confident that they’ll make it.

“We’re not fools,” says Irene. “We know how difficult it’s going to be. But we’ll get there. ”

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