Chief operating officer speaks candidly about his career progression and sudden promotion in the wake of John Hays’ death. Juliet Dennis reports
If the 16-year-old Jonathon Woodall-Johnston had been told he would one day be chief operating officer of Hays Travel, he wouldn’t have believed it.
“I wouldn’t have thought I could,” admits Woodall-Johnston, now 34. “I wasn’t academic and had to resit maths and English while at Hays!”
As a school-leaver he had set his sights on being a holiday rep or cabin crew. “I’d only just turned 16 and you couldn’t get those jobs at that age,” he adds.
So he joined Hays’ Peterlee branch as an apprentice in 2004. “I thought Hays would give me a step into travel and then I could move on,” he says.
Woodall-Johnston is an example of how young talent can flourish given the right support and opportunity. He embarked on a two-year customer service and travel and tourism NVQ while working at Hays, which at the time had just 30 branches.
The fact that many others at Hays started as apprentices and were encouraged to work their way up has been a factor in his own progression.
“My Peterlee manager started as an apprentice. She told me, ‘You may have apprentice on your business card but you’re one of us. I want you selling by December.’”
In fact, he was selling by November. He even recalls his first booking: an Alpha Travel coach holiday to Weston-super-Mare.
“I still remember celebrating with the team and getting a box of Roses for doing the booking,” he laughs.
But it is the late John Hays he credits for learning what he needed later in his career to get him where he is today. “I am forever grateful; I wouldn’t have been able to get to where I am now if John hadn’t given me the opportunity.”
Woodall-Johnston’s career progression included becoming assistant manager at Hays’ original Seaham store before being recommended for a finance role at head office.
Despite the “culture shock” of switching to the group’s “behind the scenes” internal audit division, this soon led to him studying two nights a week over three years to become a qualified accountant and promotion to finance manager.
“Internal audit was the grounding for where I am today. When I was promoted to finance manager in 2012, I could see my future at Hays. I was responsible for overall payments to over 300 suppliers,” he says.
The next step was far more nerve-wracking. He recalls: “In 2016, John asked if I’d consider a new role as head of commercial and of the Hays Travel Independence Group. I kept thinking of what could go wrong. I had my comfort blanket taken away.”
Woodall-Johnston was only in his mid-20s but now reported directly to John, who became a friend as well as a boss. “He was so invested in us; he wanted everyone to succeed. He’d always listen and give good advice.”
When the Covid pandemic hit and the UK went into lockdown, Hays Travel had just acquired Thomas Cook’s shops, boosting its store network to 650.
The company furloughed most of its 5,000 retail staff to safeguard jobs, only to invite them back a month later to work from home as call volumes rocketed with cleint demands for refunds and amendments.
“We introduced a ‘Save the Sale’ app and encouraged staff to retain sales so they wouldn’t have to do refunds,” says Woodall-Johnston.
A recommendation from a staff member also led to Hays Travel pitching for government contracts to deal with the Covid-19 crisis from early in the pandemic until May this year to generate extra income.
Woodall-Johnston recalls: “Everyone was working remotely. We trained our staff once we got the contracts and supported customers to book Covid tests or vaccinations.”
In the middle of the Covid crisis, on November 13, 2020, the sudden death of founder and co-owner John rocked the company.
“It was a shock. I’d had a one-to-one with John that morning on the phone,” recalls Woodall-Johnston.
His promotion to cfollowed in the days after John’s death as co-owner Irene Hays sought to secure the running of the company while coming to terms with her husband’s passing.
“Irene said it was always in the planning and she’d be in the business to support me, which she has. Irene and I work closely together,” says Woodall-Johnston, who stresses: “I wish the circumstances had been different.”
Becoming chief operating officer during one of the most challenging times in the company’s history was never going to be easy but Woodall-Johnston wasted no time getting stuck in. He joined the board a few days later. “The board and staff pulled together. The drive for all of us was to do this for John and the business,” he says.
Woodall-Johnston continues: “The industry had little visibility of what was happening within travel. There was no day-to-day guidance. However, we were fortunate in that we had cash in the business because John and Irene had not taken a dividend for 10 years.”
Hays Travel shops
Hays Travel’s high street presence has seen large-scale growth in recent years, largely due to the addition of Cook’s shops. It was bolstered further in the pandemic when Hays bought Tailor Made Travel in Wales.
In 2021, the firm closed 86 shops, mainly ex-Cook, as national lockdowns and travel bans took their toll on the sector. The retail estate now stands at 460 shops, but the group continues to be on the lookout for more – chains and standalone independents – to plug gaps in its network nationwide.
“We’re not about being the biggest, it’s about the right locations,” says Woodall-Johnston.
The group is also continuing to invest in its existing network, with a plan to roll out digital LED screens across all shops by March 2023.
“The screens offer us speed to market so we get deals to the shops quickly,” he adds.
Homeworking and IG
The group’s homeworkers number well over 500 and span three divisions – Premier, Personal Travel Consultants and Explorer Travel.
The Hays Travel Independence Group has more than 130 members – high street, online and homeworking agents – and attracted 18 more during Covid.
A 25% increase in the size of the homeworking network is targeted in the next 12 months, while a three-strong on-the-road support team has been introduced for Hays IG.
The ultimate aim is to move more homeworkers to Hays IG. “If we can get our homeworkers into the IG arena they are more successful; that’s better for them and for us.”
Increasing sales of cruises has become a strategic focus post-Covid.
Woodall-Johnston credits the decision of cruise lines to operate domestic itineraries during Covid for boosting demand and bookings.
“Cruise has become a bigger part of the business. It’s one of the areas that’s seen the biggest growth,” he says, insisting it has not been to the detriment of other sales but “incremental business”.
To capitalise on the growth, the group is running 12 exclusive charter flights for escorted cruises in the Caribbean this year and next year in a tie-up with P&O Cruises, and expects to run more in 2024-25.
Like the rest of the industry, Hays Travel endured one of its toughest-ever trading periods in 2020-21 but has enjoyed “really buoyant” trading this year. “The feedback is we’re outperforming the market. We’re delighted,” says Woodall-Johnston.
He has good reason to be upbeat, as the percentage of new customers has risen from 19% of overall group customers prior to the Cook acquisition to 52% now.
Clients are not only booking but also spending more on multiple holidays. Top sellers include Dubai, the Maldives, the Far East and the US.
While Woodall-Johnston says the cost of living is not impacting sales, he admits scheduled airline changes are hiking up pressure on agents.
“In the pandemic, you had time to process amendments and refunds for customers given there were travel restrictions. Now we’re seeing significant schedule changes and you have to do it to a deadline.”
The company will host its first retail managers conference for three years in November and Woodall-Johnston is as enthusiastic as the staff about the chance to network and let his hair down. “It’s going to be nice to get back together,” he says.