Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s general view was that the 178-year-old company’s spectacular failure showed that the traditional tour operator model was “screwed up.”
However, with their mixture of bonhomie and quiet confidence, supported by the lasting strength of their joint venture, Hays Travel, the married couple from Sunderland began to seduce skeptics.
Less than six months later, their life contract was upset by an unprecedented pandemic that has ended global tourism indefinitely.
Could this be the most unlucky moment in the history of the conclusion of agreements?
“Yes, it is unfortunate,” said John Hays, with a stoic euphemism. “Two months ago, things were going fantastically, but it’s not anyone’s fault and under these circumstances, all you can do is make the most of it.
“We will do what we can to protect our people, protect the company and our customers. We just had a positive outlook on life. “
Irene says they have “no regrets” for buying Thomas Cook, even in hindsight. And there are good reasons to believe them when they say they will survive.
So far, two-thirds of customers who have made a decision about already booked vacations have chosen to postpone, indicating a rebound next year if and when things return to normal.
The duo’s optimism is also based in part on how they ran their business before the pandemic started.
Hays Travel is a different animal from the swollen animals of the city, such as Thomas Cook and Carillion.
The travel agent and tour operator has no debt and the couple have not paid a dividend for more than 10 years.
“When we look at our balance sheet, it’s incredibly solid and there are no shareholders to satisfy, just John and me,” says Irene.
When it became clear that they were going to be hit hard by the epidemic, they both switched to the national minimum wage.
“We said we wouldn’t work for nothing, and then our payroll told us they should fire us in this case, so we changed our minds,” said John.
Their mantra was to “share the pain”. The owners, including those who owned the former Thomas Cook Estate, have also shown their willingness to do so, by offering vacation rentals on the premises of their travel agency.
However, it has proven impossible to fully protect their 5,700 employees.
Before the Chancellor announced a package of financial support for businesses, the Hays had little choice. They put essential staff on half the salary while others saw their hours reduced, including 880 who signed zero-hour contracts.
“It was a really tough day,” says Irene. “We announced it personally on a video. It was really sad. “
Now, however, staff have been transferred to the government leave scheme, which pays 80% of salaries. Almost half have returned to work and more will follow. They are determined to avoid layoffs.
“The prospect that these Thomas Cook folks are going through this twice in a year is not worth thinking about,” says Irene.
As staff get used to working from home rather than the main street, daily working life poses familiar challenges to workers in many industries.
“We have conference calls where the kids come in and out and the dogs bark,” says John. “Someone sent a photo of his home office, which was a laptop on the ironing board. “
These challenges have been relatively easy to manage, but others have not. Hays has its own tour business, but also acts as an intermediary between vacationers and third party operators. Some people are dragging their feet about refunds.
“We have resisted and if our customers want a refund, we will fight to get one,” says John. “If the tour operator does not want or cannot, we give it [refund to the customer] then try to recover it. “
An industry veteran for 40 years, John is used to reacting to sudden and unexpected disruptions. He led Hays through the impact of September 11 and the volcanic ash cloud that closed European airspace in 2010, not to mention the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath.
“This one is on a scale totally unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” he says. “Unfortunately, many good viable businesses will disappear. “
At the end of February, the true extent of the disaster had not appeared to them.
“We were thinking then, ‘It could be a fly in the ointment,’ says John. “The first three weeks of February, our sales were fantastic. Then last week things really started to slow down and then turned into a nightmare. “
Irene remembers watching the news on February 22 and seeing that an Italian doctor in Tenerife had tested positive, with 1,000 guests at the Costa Adeje hotel forced into quarantine.
“We were mainly concerned about the potential damage it could cause to Tenerife, which is so dependent on tourism. We thought: “What a tragedy for them” without realizing how it could degenerate, “says Irene.
Shortly after, they had their own customers stranded off the coast of Japan on a Princess Cruises ocean liner that became the subject of worldwide attention as passengers alighted with the coronavirus.
“They were in an interior cabin, allowed to breathe fresh air every other day, really incarcerated,” said John.
“We checked them every day to make sure they were fine. We had a lot of sympathy… but many people in small apartments with children are now having the same experience. “
Hays staff soon worked 12 hours a day in a desperate effort to bring customers home from all over the world.
“It was like a tsunami hitting us,” said John. “It is simply impossible to provide the level of service we wanted to do, but our staff worked through the storm, from 7 am until late, sometimes seven days a week.
“It makes you feel so humble. I was crossing the ground and I felt even more proud than before. “
The response of their staff, they say, is another reason to be confident that they will get there.
“We are not fooled,” says Irene. “We know how difficult it will be. But we will get there. “