The former Thomas Cook store, in Norwich’s Tesco Extra, has weathered the pandemic and is now collecting supplies for Ukrainian refugees. Samantha Mayling reports.
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster ride since September 2019 for Becky Skoyles at Hays Travel in Tesco Extra, Norwich.
The branch withstood Thomas Cook’s collapse, thanks to Hays’ takeover, then the pandemic and sudden death of Hays’ founder John Hays – and now the staff are playing an important role collecting vital supplies for Ukrainian refugees.
Assistant manager Becky started the appeal on March 1, asking for medical items, food and toiletries after seeing a Facebook post about a Peterborough-based initiative called Support Ukraine UK.
It has “snowballed”, says Becky, admitting the generosity of clients has moved her and colleagues to tears. “The generosity has been overwhelming, amazing. People have donated so much; it’s heart-warming, but heartbreaking that we need this.”
Some have volunteered to help with driving and the local air ambulance service donated an ambulance to collect items. So far, the agency has filled eight large metal cages and 10 car loads of donations.
“We had a ‘pizza and packing’ night to box up – we did two cages in two hours,” she tells me.
“It looked like a jumble sale. Our regional manager Charlotte Hallam and her daughter Maddie, and Shez Bucknell, the community champion from Tesco, helped too.” She adds: “We always do a Christmas collection for local causes and get a good response, with about two car loads. But this is phenomenal.
“We’ve had everyone coming in, from young mums to great-grannies. People want to help, to do something.
“Our Facebook post has been seen about 20,000 times and it was shared widely.”
The generosity has been overwhelming, amazing. People have donated so much; it’s heart-warming, but heartbreaking that we need this
Becky volunteered to help pack the donated items, collecting cardboard boxes from shops around Norfolk and making lists of what is in each box. “We’ve had 1,000 tubes of toothpaste already,” she comments.
The Ukraine crisis comes as travel emerges from Covid restrictions and bookings are keeping them busy.
“Lockdown and working from home during the pandemic was demanding, but we all have a great sense of humour – we’re the jokers of the region,” says Becky. “I held disco nights on Zoom, keeping things fun and light-hearted. And Irene Hays is amazing, really lovely.
“She and John posted video updates during lockdown, and they were so relatable. His death [in November 2020] was such a shock and devastating.”
The shop reopened fully in April 2021 and has been busy since August as restrictions eased and confidence returned. “Business has been almost constant, we’re lucky,” she tells me. “We have been going from strength to strength, especially since the pre-departure test was scrapped.”
There is plenty of space in the shop for brochure racks, featuring everything from Tui beach breaks to Antarctica cruises. “We sell everything – there were a lot of US bookings when their borders reopened and cruising and Spain are popular,” she says.
Business has been almost constant, we’re lucky. We have been going from strength to strength, especially since the pre-departure test was scrapped
“Greece bookings are up, especially now they have scrapped their PLF for vaccinated travellers. People are desperate to get away and our monthly direct debit scheme is great for big holidays.”
Becky’s noticed how clients want a real-life agent as some had problems with online agents and refunds in the pandemic. “If something goes wrong, we can spend five hours on the phone to an operator, if necessary,” she says. “A lot of customers need reassurance about QR codes and PLFs and older folks don’t all have mobiles.
People are spending more as they missed out for two years and have more money set aside, so they are going for longer durations or a better view from their hotel
“One gentleman came in with no email address and an old tablet from a friend, so we updated the tablet and sorted him an email address – you won’t get that online.”
The shop updates its Facebook and Instagram pages about three times a day, with deals, inspiration or information about holidays. The social media channels also show the window card offers. “The deals do very well, especially with Norwich airport departures, and we offer Stansted and Luton, which has cheap parking,” she adds.
“People are spending more as they missed out for two years and have more money set aside, so they are going for longer durations or a better view from their hotel. It’s great to relight the fire and get people travelling again.”
Up close and personal with Becky Skoyles, assistant manager
Thomas Cook collapsed two-and-a-half years ago but talking about it still brings tears to Becky’s eyes. She and four colleagues are former Thomas Cook agents and recall the shock of its failure in September 2019.
Becky worked for the chain for almost four years, having started her career as a Travelcare apprentice. She moved to Tesco Travel Money at the Tesco Extra for more family-friendly hours, but then went to work for the in-store Thomas Cook branch “as travel is in my blood”.
“The collapse was such a shock. I was up at 2am hearing the announcement,” she recalls.
People say they come into Tesco for a loaf of bread and leave with a two-week Caribbean holiday
When she collected her belongings from the store, the receiver was there. “I wanted to apologise to clients but we couldn’t touch our computers; we felt as if we’d done something wrong,” she says.
However, Hays Travel took over 555 Thomas Cook agencies the following month and Becky quickly signed up.
“It was amazing, as it had been a big worry not having a job,” she adds.
The busy store is open seven days a week and hopes to restart events for clients again – and operator reps have returned too.
“People say they come into Tesco for a loaf of bread and leave with a two-week Caribbean holiday,” she smiles.
Sam’s day at Hays Travel
One of the biggest supermarkets in Norwich, Tesco Extra is just four miles from the city’s airport, so it’s not surprising there’s a steady flow of customers into the store, which has a prominent location by the entrance.
I chat to assistant manager Becky Skoyles, while sales consultant Sadie Watson takes bookings and apprentice Brooke Hatchett studies in the foreign exchange booth.
One of the biggest supermarkets in Norwich, Tesco Extra is just four miles from the city’s airport, so it’s not surprising there’s a steady flow of customers
Others who work in the store but are away are Linda Barnard, sales consultant; travel consultants Laura Gallagher, Rachel Newton and Emma Cossey; and manager Barney Mixer, who is covering at another store.
A visitor arrives with a leaflet about a jumble sale in aid of Ukraine – and Becky says they have plenty of donated bags of clothes that she can deliver.
Brooke studied travel and tourism before going travelling – until Covid hit. She began her apprenticeship in April 2021 and hopes to complete the course.