Dame Irene Hays, head of the Hays Travel Group, tells Mike Hughes about her own journey around the business world – and why she is looking forward to speaking at the BUSINESSiQ Awards


When you are looking for someone to be in the spotlight at a business awards, passing on their wisdom to a room full of outstanding leaders and soaring businesses, Irene Hays is the sort of person you want to be able to turn to.

She is a powerhouse, powering the rise of the legendary travel business that bears her name through economic turbulence, a pandemic, a major takeover…. and then the cruellest blow of all with the shocking loss of her husband John, who collapsed while working at the firm’s head office in Sunderland.

She is as down-to-earth, committed and polite as ever and shows no signs of taking things easy. Talking to her, you can tell she enjoys her works so much it has become a way of life for her – a preference rather than a demand.

So who better to stand in front of a very experienced audience at our own 2024 BUSINESSiQ Awards and say ‘this is how I do it’.

After huge success last year at our inaugural awards, we are back at Ramside Hall on April 25 with host Alfie Joey and Dame Irene has agreed to share her story as our keynote speaker.

On the back of impressive results that showed the business has tripled its profits, she told me that the business was built around the people on both sides of the counter.

“If ever there was a time when that confidence in who you are booking your holiday with came to the fore, it was during Covid, which is why I think we have seen such a strong bounce back,” she told me.

“I think that is a direct result of the way our people looked after their customers and were actually proactive in contacting people who they knew were due to go away on holiday because they had been sitting on call lines for an hour during Covid worrying about what was going to be happening to their dream holiday.

“My view is that, yes, online is very strong and I think quite good for a simple transaction. But with anything which is high value or has any degree of complexity, people really want to know that the people at Hays have got a good track record and they can be confident that their expertise will come to the fore and if anything should go wrong, they know exactly who they booked with - it was Mary on the High Street.

The Northern Echo: Dame Irene HaysDame Irene Hays

“And they also know that if Mary’s not in the shop, then John or Susan will look after them.”

Bringing it right back to people is an instinctive thing for Dame Irene Hays - she was conferred as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2020 New Year’s honours list for services to training and education – because that is how her and John built and grew the business.

She had earlier apologised for being a few minutes late for our chat, but had three thank-you letters from happy customers, so had taken the time to ring each of the managers mentioned to pass on the message.

That’s a very ‘Hays’ thing to do – as was the time she recently spent behind the counter:

“I absolutely love having the chance to do that,” she said.

“I literally went back to the floor because the staff were so, so busy and we had some sticky marks on the floor. So my first job was to clean that up.

“But I came back with two pages of things that we could do better because there is always a learning opportunity in a business like this, and the staff want to let me know what is working well and what needs looking at. We’re not corporate at all, we’re a very ‘flat’ organisation, so my staff feel very comfortable telling me what they think.”

She is still pulling together some thoughts for her speech at the BUSINESSiQ Awards on April 25th, but certainly that people-centric approach will form the core of her message.

“The thing that I’m most passionate about is making sure that we have a fantastic apprenticeship and graduate programme because this is the future of the business. Last year I employed 546 apprentices, so we make a huge commitment and got an ‘Outstanding’ from Ofsted for our work with young people - and if those young people complete our apprenticeship programme, they will have a job for the future.

“Our retail director who looks after 470 shops joined with us as an apprentice and our Chief Operating Officer who runs the operational aspects of the company overall also started as an apprentice and then moved all the way up.”

She loves being busy, but in her role there is no shortage of options for travel. It’s no surprise that her own preference is still for adventure.

“But it depends what I’m doing while I’m there,” she tells me.

“So if I’m away with family and grandchildren, I like a villa in Europe, but if it’s for me personally, I like going to new places.

“Next year, for example, I’m going to do the Amazon on a small cruise ship and I know it’ll be fantastic. You pick up a cocktail, and then you hear from a world expert about what you’re going to see. Then in the morning you’ll be put on a tender to see all the flora and fauna.

The Northern Echo: Back to the floor with Teesside Park manager Libby Gray Back to the floor with Teesside Park manager Libby Gray

“I like new and I like different, but if I’m going away with the family then I find a villa works best for me because when the children are safe in bed you can go down by the pool or have a barbecue.”

The loss of John just over a year after he and Irene bought Thomas Cook sent shockwaves around the region because it was so sudden, but also because this lovely couple meant so much to us. They had worked the long hours and made the big investments to build an instantly recognisable and trusted brand, so proud of its North East heritage. At previous business events it felt like they should be applauded on arrival. They were the best of us.

“It was so tough, but not for a nanosecond did I think that would be the end of Hays Travel from a personal point of view,” she says.

“I think it’s in times of trouble when somebody needs that continuity of leadership and I didn’t think it was the right move for somebody whose name was eponymous with the organisation.

“It would not be the best thing for the people in the business to feel confident about so I came straight back into work and continued to build on the legacy that we had.

“Hays has a very talented team and a very strong balance sheet with zero debt. We didn’t need any debt to buy Thomas Cook and we did not use any debt during Covid. I took a facility with Barclays, but I never touched a penny and then at the end of the financial year 2021-22, I told them I did not want the loan facility any more.

“So we have no external investment which means that the majority of the money in the business stays in the business and it means when we have a strong performance like last year, we can reinvest. “

Reinvesting in the business gives an instant emotional RoI from staff who trust her as much as her customers trust their local Hays office. But it is also an investment in the North East and the future of its people.

A region so keen to grow and develop what it has to offer will be really looking forward to that speech on April 25…