The perfect blend of career progression, reward, flexibility and fun is the secret to this travel giant’s success, as Sam Ballard discovers.
Last May, John Hays stood in front of a small group of staff and customers at Hays Travel’s first store in Seaham, County Durham, and announced on Facebook Live that the company’s annual revenue had just broken the £1billion mark for the very first time. To celebrate, a clearly elated Hays announced that each member of staff would receive a £100 bonus for every year that they had worked for the company. The video racked up more than 262,000 views.
“The staff are the biggest reason we reached £1billion,” says Hays, speaking to ABTA Magazine. “We have second-year apprentices who were awarded £100 right up to a number of people who have done 30 years with us and received £3,000. In total we spent £1million celebrating – and the bulk of that went to our staff.”
Having been founded in 1980, Hays Travel has come a long way to being the travel giant it is today. The company opened its second store in 1982 in Sunderland and was operating seven stores in the northeast by 1987. Fast forward to today, and the company’s network of stores is due to hit 180 before Christmas (with 10 opening between now and then) – all of which is bolstered by more than 250 homeworkers.
However, with the recent demise of many venerable high street names, as well as constant noises – mainly from outside the industry – that travel agencies are struggling, what is the secret behind Hays Travel’s success?
“My view on the high street is that some things are timeless,” says Hays. “High-quality, personalised service – and it must add value. I always ask my staff a rhetorical question, which is, ‘Why should a customer book with you?’ There has to be a reason.”
Hays Travel is also an industry leader when it comes to motivating its staff – proven by its regular inclusion in The Sunday Times’ list of the 100 best companies to work for. Part of that comes in the form of initiatives such as this year’s big bonus; however, that is only part of a wider strategy to develop a happy workforce. For John Hays, it all starts with the company’s apprentices.
“Our apprenticeship scheme has been going on for years – almost since the start,” he explains. “Over the years, we have developed a good reputation for developing apprentices, giving them good training and the opportunity for a good career. This year we took 150 more apprentices on and received more than 3,000 applications for those positions. That’s 20 young people for every advertised position.”
That is extraordinary. As well as being testament to the lure of the travel industry – and the opportunities that it brings – it also points to the fact that an apprenticeship with Hays Travel could be the beginning of a long career, something that John Hays says lots of his staff have benefitted from.
“We have a company policy of always promoting from within whenever we can,” he says. “When you look at how many new shops we’re opening up, you can see how many opportunities exist for our staff to grow.
“Those opportunities keep the team motivated. In a lot of our shops, I would say more than half, every single one of our team – from the manager down – would have joined us as an apprentice straight from school. When apprentices see that clear career progression, it really helps.”
One of the biggest drivers of Hays Travel’s success has been how the company has managed to adapt to changing trends within the industry. Homeworking is the best example of this, with more experienced individuals wanting to work to their own schedules and be their own bosses, without having all the resources to handle back-office functions.
Hays explains: “We have two models for our homeworkers. One is for more mature, experienced professionals who want to work from home and start their own company. They are often, although not always, people whose kids are at school and who want to build their business around their home life, rather than commuting and doing set hours.
“The second is for either employed or self-employed specialists where we don’t currently have shops but are still generating leads. It might be a specialist area such as cruise, where we are having a recruitment drive right now.
“We want to grow the numbers, but we’re also quite picky. We’ll support them but they need to be a self-starter. We’ll only have people who take it seriously. They’re operating under the Hays Travel brand and if they don’t tick the right boxes in terms of culture and motivation then we don’t want them.”
It’s a policy that seems to be working. The division now boasts multiple homeworkers who have earned more than £100,000 in gross commission from clients so far this year – upon which Hays pays out 60 per cent.
Arguably the most impressive thing about Hays Travel’s homeworkers, however, is that while they have continued to increase the numbers, they have also seen their profitability increase by 20 per cent year-on-year.
Regardless of what part of the business Hays is talking about, it always comes down to the quality of his people and the culture that he promotes within the business. One small example is that every summer since the company launched, Hays has hosted a regular summer party for his agents. Since its first incarnation when “eight people were invited and six showed up” to now, the event has morphed into something very different, with musicians, marquees and Portaloos – not to mention 540 members of staff. All of whom were hosted in John Hays’ garden.
“I’ve got a tennis court in my garden, I love playing,” says Hays. “This year, we had a band in the garden and hundreds of people dancing on the tennis court. It was brilliant. But hundreds of people in high heels took its toll. My tennis court looked like Glastonbury on Monday morning. I didn’t mind though. It was great fun.”