The franchise owner of Hays Travel Dundee and Broughty Ferry John Stewart tells Samantha Mayling about setting up after Thomas Cook’s collapse.
Q. How and when did you start in travel?
A. I started in an independent agency in Dundee in 1985 and quickly moved to Lunn Poly, where I picked up my high retail standards before joining Thomas Cook in 1988 as a sales consultant. I was promoted to assistant manager at Aberdeen (Bon Accord shopping centre) then, at 20, I moved to Edinburgh (Cameron Toll shopping centre) to become the youngest Thomas Cook manager. I also managed Edinburgh (Gyle) and a flagship store in Newcastle, aged 23. I returned to manage Dundee and start my family. I was East Scotland regional manager but missed the front-end action, so managed Dundee and deputised for regional sales managers. My wife Joanne left Lunn Poly to join me in Thomas Cook.
I started in an independent agency in Dundee in 1985 and quickly moved to Lunn Poly, where I picked up my high retail standards
Q. What were the highlights?
A. We were the most profitable shop in the network for 20 years and picked up lots of awards. We developed many people into leaders and I still receive messages of thanks. I was privileged to visit many destinations, including Australia and Thailand on the Eastern & Oriental Express. I hot air-ballooned in Arizona, took helicopter trips to the Grand Canyon and around the Statue of Liberty, and went on safari at Kruger National Park. I’m blessed to be in the best business.
Q. What challenges did you face?
A. I’ll never forget the International Leisure Group collapse in 1991 – I was an assistant manager and was called in from my day off. Others were the Gulf War , 9/11 attacks , Icelandic ash cloud  and Cook’s financial struggles in its last decade. Travel is resilient and we always rise above challenges.
I’ll never forget the International Leisure Group collapse in 1991 – I was an assistant manager and was called in from my day off
Q. How did you cope during Covid?
A. We diverted calls to staff with laptops at home – no long wait times for customers; local service by local people. Hays Travel was a massive support, and we wouldn’t have survived without them. We redeployed some of our team into different roles, furloughed some others and remained operational with some working from home. Our service levels were exceptional and word spread. I’m convinced this explains our huge growth after Covid. Happy valued staff deliver happy customers.
We’re exceeding all records and suppliers are delighted to work with us and treat our team to trips and nights out
Q. How is trading now?
A. We’re exceeding all records and suppliers are delighted to work with us and treat our team to trips and nights out. Future bookings look very healthy. We took on the Broughty Ferry shop in Dundee in December 2022 and now have 20 employees. Some customers will happily treat their family to very nice holidays, spending more than £50,000 a year. We book a lot of tailor-made and cruise holidays, along with mainstream beach. After my team visited a cruise ship, we had a huge surge in cruise sales. They have also had trips to Mauritius, Qatar, Ibiza, Majorca, Turkey, Portugal, Bulgaria and Guernsey, plus river and ocean cruises. As an independent, I can ‘out-local’ the nationals and being a Hays franchise with the power of the Hays brand I can ‘out-national’ the locals.
We work with a local college to create opportunities and roles for travel and tourism students. This provides an opportunity for us to find employees
Q. How do you find your customers?
A. I’ve been an entrepreneur for a long time and worked with local media, football clubs, trading associations, schools, suppliers, businesses and social media to target customers, with great success.
Q. What other opportunities and challenges are you seeing?
A. We work with a local college to create opportunities and roles for travel and tourism students. This provides an opportunity for us to find employees, and give students real-life experiences. I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in February 2015. This was the start of a new beginning, not an end. I received chemotherapy and other treatments from August to December 2022. I used the time to expand my business and create our best January marketing promotion ever.
I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in February 2015. This was the start of a new beginning, not an end
What did it feel like when Thomas Cook ceased trading in September 2019?
It was like a bereavement. My wife was in tears for days, as were my colleagues. We were like family and supported each other. I remained strong and moved quickly to protect our future. My wife Joanne and I set up John Stewart Travel on September 30, one week after the collapse.
I contacted a good friend, Don Bircham, who owned and operated Hays Travel North West. He supported me with setting up and I met the late John Hays in Sunderland the following month.
It was like a bereavement. My wife was in tears for days, as were my colleagues. We were like family and supported each other
A deal was agreed with John and Irene Hays for John Stewart Travel to own and operate Hays Travel Dundee as a franchise, which opened on November 4, 2019.
I issued contracts to every Cook employee, protecting long-service benefits including salary, annual leave, allocated educationals and paternity leave. My team was united again with 17 jobs saved.
It felt great to be back; my team and I were over the moon, as were our customers. John gave me the greatest opportunity of my career, like so many others in the industry.