A husband-and-wife team who built their tourism business from the ground up say they hope to save the jobs of all 2,500 former Thomas Cook staff, after buying the collapsed tour operator’s 555 shops.
John and Irene Hays, who run Sunderland-based Hays Travel, the Just Go Travel operator, snapped up Thomas Cook’s UK travel agency business for an undisclosed fee, in a takeover sealed at 11.53pm on Tuesday.
Trade unions said the deal proved parts of the business were viable, despite the government refusing to provide financial support to keep it alive, while Labour called for a full public inquiry into its collapse last month.
The shops will be rebranded under the Hays Travel banner, meaning the 178-year-old Thomas Cook name will disappear from the high street in the wake of its high-profile implosion.
The Hays, who have already hired 597 former Thomas Cook staff, said they hoped to double the headcount of their family business by taking on the tour operator’s entire 2,500-strong workforce.
“These people didn’t do anything wrong, one day the company went into liquidation and their jobs had gone,” said John Hays, the managing director of Hays Travel.
“When we’ve been offering them new positions, they’ve been really emotional. A reasonable percentage have actually cried.”
Irene Hays, who chairs the business, said some new recruits “gave us a cuddle even though we didn’t know them from Adam” after a presentation welcoming them to the company.
The couple insisted they could make a success of the business where Thomas Cook’s previous management had failed.
Irene Hays rubbished a claim by the Ryanair chief executive, Michael O’Leary, that the number of people booking flights and hotels online meant the package holiday industry was “screwed”.
“No, we do not agree with Michael O’Leary,” she said. “There’s been a huge resurgence in package holidays in recent years.”
Tour operators trade body Abta said 51% of people it surveyed in July said they had taken a package holiday in the past year, up from 48% in 2018.
According to statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of package holidays taken in the UK has been rising steadily since 2014, reaching 18.2m last year.
The Hays said they had no immediate plans to shut any of the 555 stores, although John Hays acknowledged some closures might become unavoidable in areas where there was an overlap.
Hays has 190 shops and will almost quadruple in size following the takeover, which was agreed with the receiver, the government official overseeing Thomas Cook’s liquidation.
John Hays opened the first branch of his travel company at the back of his mother’s childrenswear shop in Seaham, County Durham, in 1980, recording sales of £812 in the first year.
Since then the business has expanded across the UK, employing about 1,900 staff with a turnover of more than £1bn last year. To mark the £1bn milestone the company shared a £1m pot with its employees, who each received £100 for every year they had worked at the company.
Despite the vast expansion plan, Irene Hays said her husband, 70, had no plans to hand over to a successor and was “not going anywhere soon”.
“I’m tired because we’ve put in a fair shift since Thomas Cook went down,” said John Hays. “I found the sofas at head office are quite comfortable for sleeping on. But we’re still passionately engaged and we’ve got a strong senior management team.”
The pair said they were locked into lease agreements with Thomas Cook’s landlords for nine months but could seek to renegotiate rents in future to cut costs.
However, they insisted that a network of bricks-and-mortar high street shops could still be profitable in an internet-dominated world.
They pointed to the fact that, unlike Thomas Cook, Hays is free of debt even after the cash-funded acquisition, and operates from lower-cost headquarters in Sunderland.
John Hays also said the company’s business model was better suited to the internet age, with web enquiries leading to customer visits on the high street.
“The web was their [Thomas Cook’s] enemy, whereas a Hays Travel member of staff would say the web was their friend,” he said.
Thomas Cook’s spectacular failure last month, after the government refused to provide a bailout, stranded 150,000 holidaymakers overseas, landed the government with a repatriation bill expected to exceed £100m, and put 9,000 jobs at risk.
The trade union Unite said the deal with Hays showed that “various parts of the business were viable”, calling into question the lack of financial support from the government.
“It is clear that the government’s assessment that providing any financial assistance would risk ‘throwing good money after bad’ has been proven to be entirely false,” said the assistant general secretary, Diana Holland.
The union urged ministers to call a halt to the insolvency process of Thomas Cook’s “profit-making” airline.
Labour’s shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, called for a “full public inquiry into the government’s handling of this scandal”.
Business Secretary @AndreaLeadsom: “I welcome the news that Hays Travel will be purchasing Thomas Cook’s real estate, and hope this will provide significant re-employment opportunities for former Thomas Cook employees." @HaysTravel #ThomasCook https://t.co/SGXLHNpuGQ— Dept for BEIS (@beisgovuk) October 9, 2019
The business minister, Andrea Leadsom, who has been criticised for a lack of involvement to try to save Thomas Cook, welcomed the sale to Hays, saying it would provide “significant re-employment opportunities”.