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The man setting sail with the future of Bath Travel
FOR a man who heads a travel empire with an annual turnover of £625million, John Hays’ approach to business is ‘unbelievably simple’.
It’s about providing top quality holidays at competitive prices with first class service to clients.
And that’s probably why he has built up one of UK’s most successful independent travel businesses.
That success has also enabled him to become the new owner of Bath Travel, founded in 1924 and owned by the Bath family until late last Monday night.
“It’s a great move for us,” said Mr Hays. “I have known Stephen Bath for many years and have always had great admiration for him, the company and its ethos.”
The two men signed off on the deal – four months in the making – in a Bournemouth solicitor’s office at 10pm.
Mr Hays, founder and owner of Hays Travel, which is based in the north east, said: “We are keeping the branch strength of Bath Travel and its culture and we are plugging in our own buying power. It’s pretty simple.
“There have been rumours in the trade press that Bath Travel has not been trading profitably but it has.
“The firm has been doing very well. They’ve been doing a great job and we want to enhance that.”
Born in County Durham, Mr Hays is the son of a colliery joiner and the first member of his family to go to university.
He studied maths at Oxford and then an MBA at Manchester Business School.
Afterwards he spent a short time in the city as a merchant banker but realised it wasn’t for him.
“I didn’t like the culture. It was all about the money. Nothing else seemed to matter in that environment and it wasn’t for me.
“I am a people person.”
So he returned home jobless and sketched out a business plan on a blank piece of paper.
“I basically wanted a business that didn’t need much working capital, something that was a growth industry and was going to be fun.”
The business had truly humble beginnings.
John had a table in his mother’s clothing shop in their home town of Seaham, with the table made by his joiner father out of kitchen surface laminate and garden trellis.
“It was a bit naff,” he laughs.
“At that point there wasn’t a travel agent in the town of 25,000 people so he thought he was onto a winner.”
There was a delay in trading while ABTA refused him a licence on the grounds that he wasn’t trading from his own premises.
He appealed, citing Harrods in London as a precedent because the department store had a Thomas Cook branch inside – and won.
But by the time he was cleared for take-off in 1980, another travel agents had opened in the old butcher’s shop opposite.
“It was touch and go for the first year or so, tough going.”
He opened a branch in Sunderland in 1982 and then rolled out other offices across the region.
Hays Travel now has 43 retail branches but has also diversified – the company also has 200 home workers across the UK, call centres, a busy website and a tour operation, Hays Faraway.
“Only about 25 per cent of our turnover comes though the retail branches,” he said. “It’s just one part of the business.”
Bath Travel has more than 60 branches across the south, a familiar name on most high streets.
He said Bath Travel was ‘mystery shopped’ by the travel trade press twice in the four months that the deal was being negotiated.
“They came exceptionally well both times and I was delighted because it just goes to show how good the staff are.”
Three Bath family members, brothers Stephen and Andrew and their sister Christine, have left the board to be replaced by John, Hays’ retail and training director Jane Schumm and group commercial director Andrea Kendal.
Long standing Bath Travel directors Tony Hunt, Dawn Jordan, Colin White and Roger Barker remain on the board.
“What we bring to the party is the buying power of a much bigger company,” said Mr Hays.
“We can get the best rates for hotels worldwide and the guaranteed lowest air fares with all the major airlines.”
Hays Travel also has its own hotel transfer company.
Mr Hays said: “Bath Travel is a great firm which is why we decided to buy it. We are just going to improve it, make it even better – that’s all.
“It’s a fantastic brand and we are really proud to be custodians of it.”
Recent swing in favour of high street
REPORTS of the death of the retail travel agent, rather like the newspaper, have been greatly exaggerated.
It wasn’t long ago that observers predicted the internet would all but eclipse the traditional agent.
But in recent years there has been a swing back to the high street and away from the computer screen.
John Hays says there are various reasons. These are uncertain times and people want some certainty, not just in financial terms, though that’s clearly important.
“Clients also increasingly want to know that if they are stranded abroad in a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, there will be someone to bring them home. With companies like us, that’s taken care of without question and clients are looked after. If you have made your travel arrangements through the internet, then you are pretty much on your own in these circumstances.”
He added: “The web is growing and will continue to be important but it’s not the only route to market. People still want face to face contact and the reassurance that brings.”
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