Why Hays Travel is committed to Sunderland
From humble beginnings to an empire spanning 550 branches and more than 7,500 employees, Hays Travel is the UK's largest independent travel agent, and has called Sunderland its home for the past 40 years.
Since opening the first small retail shop at the back of his mum's children's wear shop in Seaham, County Durham, in 1980, the late John Hays fell in love with the travel industry and set out to expand across the North East, opening five further branches before the launch of the first Hays Travel call centre in 1990.
Going from strength to strength, the business diversified into homeworking in 1997 and was recognised as one of the Sunday Times' 100 Best Companies to Work for in the UK in 2006.
Founder, Mr Hays, who sadly died in November 2020 'doing the job he loved', was a much-loved businessman in Sunderland and across the UK, and was honoured with a wealth of awards and accolades, including an honorary doctorate from Sunderland University, a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Agent Achievement Awards, Outstanding Achievement Award at the Globes, inauguration into the British Travel Industry Hall of Fame, the prestigious Investors in People Gold standard, and was awarded the Freedom of the City of Sunderland.
Throughout its success, Hays Travel's head office has always been based in Sunderland city centre and Mr Hays, alongside his wife and co-owner Dame Irene Hays, continued to invest in the city and its people. As the business grew, employees spread over four city centre buildings until, in 2019, the Hays Travel family united under one roof, in new headquarters at Gilbridge House, Keel Square.
Speaking about the move in 2019, Mr Hays said: "We're a family business and we've been rooted in the North East for over 40 years, so when we knew the time had come to relocate, the destination was a no-brainer for us.
"We wouldn't be where we are today without our amazing workforce and we knew they were keen for us to remain in the city. Add to that the city's fantastic transport links, colleges and university, and it just made perfect sense."
Already local celebrities in the city, John and Irene were propelled into the national media after the move to the new headquarters, when they announced Hays Travel was to acquire Thomas Cook's entire retail estate following its collapse, providing re-employment opportunities to thousands of former staff who were made redundant across the country. This included 100 new jobs at the Sunderland HQ.
The heart of Hays Travel has always been in Sunderland and wider North East, and it's community spirit has helped propel it to become a renown positive place to work, with many loyal employees referring to teams and colleagues as 'family'.
After the tragic passing of Mr Hays last year, thousands of messages were shared from loyal employees, local residents and businesspeople who had been impacted by the work Hays Travel had carried out over the years, especially within Sunderland.
When speaking to the BBC shortly after her husband's death, Dame Irene Hays, said: "We've had more than 220,000 messages for John and tributes locally. Sunderland City Council kindly lit up all of our monuments in the Hays Travel colours.
"But what that's done for me and for all of the staff, we're a very close-knit family within Hays Travel, has given us added motivation and determination to carry his wonderful legacy on into the future."
The company is committed to the development of its employees and has always strived to give young people in the area the chance to get involved in the travel industry, regardless of experience.
In 2008, Hays Travel collaborated with Sunderland College to launch the fully ABTA bonded CitySun Travel, which is the college's successful travel agency and went on to partner with the college again in 2015 to open a new training academy for travel and tourism students.
Ellen Thinnesen, chief executive of Education Partnership North East and chair of Sunderland Business Partnership, said: "We have always been well supported by Hays Travel and we're proud to partner with such a well-established Sunderland-based company to deliver exceptional teaching and practical training to our students.
"Thanks to this longstanding relationship, our travel and tourism students have a greater range of learning opportunities that can lead to employment opportunities within the industry and at a leading national travel agency."
Looking to the future, Irene - who received her damehood in the New Year's Honours 2021 list for services to training, education, and young people - will continue to support people with the Travel Academy and apprenticeships. When she received the honour, she told the BBC: "I feel this really isn't an award just for me, it's for all the people who have created the right environment for all those people to succeed and the apprentices and the young people themselves."
Irene has also received a number of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to the economic development of the North East region and supporting businesses.
Boasting a loyal workforce that is proud of its city and wears the iconic orange and blue uniform with pride, it's no surprise the roots of Hays Travel have stayed firmly planted in Sunderland.
As businesses of all shapes and sizes continue to invest in our changing city, there's no doubt that Hays Travel will continue to lead by example and shine a light on the city's diverse business landscape and the lasting success that can be achieved here.