The couple, owners and founders of Sunderland-based Hays Travel, were interviewed by Nicky Campbell and Rachel Burden on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast show on Thursday, January 16.
They discussed their acquisition of Thomas Cook’s stores and staff following the company’s collapse at the end of 2019, and what the future holds for high-street travel shops.
Joint owners John and Irene offered permanent contracts to more than 2,300 former Thomas Cook employees following the firm’s liquidation – and they continue to recruit today.
On the radio show on Thursday, John said Hays now have around 3,000 staff on the books – and added that they may have only been well-known in the North of England prior to the purchase of Thomas Cook’s assets.
The businessman also spoke of the wider reaction when news of the Thomas Cook acquisition was announced.
Host Rachel Burden asked the couple: “What was the reaction from wider business when you took over?”
John said: “There was a lot of scepticism. I think there probably still is but we were pretty big beforehand.
“We had sales of over £1billion and we’re the UK’s largest independent travel agent.”
Burden also asked whether they had detected any “snobbery” in reaction to the takeover.
John told listeners that when Hays bought the South coast’s Bath Travel six years ago, there was some criticism because it was an “affluent” and “up-market” company.
He said: “When we acquired them, the headline in the trade press was ‘Greggs buys Patisserie Valerie’.”
John continued: “Five years later when Patisserie Valerie went down, it just happened to be that Greggs had record profits and we just happened to be in the same paper so for the person that had written it, I took a photo and sent them a text.”
Burden added: “Everyone loves a Greggs.”
Hays Travel’s head office is based in Sunderland’s Keel Square. On the radio, John also described the city as a “great place to locate and have a business”.