‘People still want to book with a human being’: human element still a major draw in travel bookings, says Dame Irene Hays

Dame Irene Hays, chair of the UK’s largest independent travel agent, has said she believes that the option to book holidays with a real person is still a major draw for customers, despite the popularity of online travel booking tools such as AirBnB and Sky Scanner.

Her comments come as Hays Travel announces its best ever trading year, with results boosted by a post-pandemic surge in holiday bookings.

Dame Irene said: “I believe there will be a growth in online sales for simple transactions such as booking a flight, but anything that is high-cost or complex, the evidence we have is that people still want to book with a human being and know who they have booked with and at which shop.

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“I think there is a degree of confidence and reliability in people knowing their money will be looked after by a person.”

Dame Irene Hays, chair and owner of Hays Travel.Dame Irene Hays, chair and owner of Hays Travel.
Dame Irene Hays, chair and owner of Hays Travel.

In its latest annual accounts for the year ending April 30, Hays Travel reported pre-tax profits of £51.6m, a 259 per cent increase on the previous year. The group also posted a total transaction value of £2.19bn, a 103 per cent increase on 2022.

Dame Irene added: “Looking back on the last year, I think one of the reasons why it was so good for us is because all of our people looked after the customers so well during Covid, and they stayed with us during the bounceback.

“The glut of the money that we made during this financial year has gone back into supporting the staff and our customer service technology platform. The good result also gives us an opportunity to invest in new shops and refurbished shops across the country.”

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Earlier this month, Hays Travel opened a new store in Leeds centre. The firm has around 75 branches within the Yorkshire region.

Dame Irene noted that despite an economic downturn, customers are still spending money on holidays. She said: “Clearly, when the economic times are tough people prioritise value for money, but 72 per cent of our customers are spending more on their holidays than they did the previous year and travelling more frequently and travelling further afield.

“We see a shift away from people wanting to buy things, and instead wanting to buy an experience. People appreciate their holidays and I think people are enjoying these experiences more than they ever have before.”

Dame Irene also noted that despite the continued popularity of travel, the industry is still vulnerable to outside issues.

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She said: “Most businesses that operate globally believe there are challenges around volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. That uncertainty in the travel industry can come from the economy, and from issues such as wars and political unrest, as well as natural disasters.

“I know what the challenges will be on the horizon, what the outcome is, I'm less certain.”

Hays Travel has recently began recruiting for a new cohort of apprentices. The firm has run apprenticeship schemes for 41 years.

Prior to acquiring Thomas Cook in 2019, 47 per cent of Hays Travel’s senior managers started their careers through the apprenticeship scheme. The firm’s current head of retail and chief operating officer both began their careers as apprentices.

Dame Irene added: “We want to do everything we can to make sure young people can get their foot on the ladder.”

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