John and Irene Hays recognised for contribution to northeast region

Dame Irene Hays and her late husband John have been recognised for Hays Travel’s longstanding contribution to the northeast region.

The pair were honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the Entrepreneurs’ Forum at the North East Entrepreneurial Awards, which celebrates entrepreneurs who stand out from the crowd and make a difference in the region.

They were credited with saving thousands of jobs as a result of purchasing Thomas Cook after its collapse in 2019 and for their work in the region, particularly in Sunderland where Hays Travel is based. Their acquisition of Cook led them to national prominence as they secured the jobs of 2,300 staff and trebled the size of Hays’ retail estate.

John, who founded Hays Travel in 1980, died last year at the age of 71. The agency, now the UK’s largest independent agency group, has sales of more than £1 billion per annum, 7,500 employees and around 450 retail branches.

John was praised at the awards ceremony for his contribution to the forum, having served on its founding board for five years. He also won its first ever Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2004.

Irene was commended for her work with the Hays Foundation, its apprenticeship scheme and her role in the Bath Travel and Thomas Cook acquisitions.

Accepting the award, she said: “John was very proud to receive the Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2004 and he would have been equally pleased to receive this award too. It is a huge honour for me to share the award and, as always, I pay tribute to the fantastic staff of Hays Travel who have helped us to achieve so much.”

James Robson MBE, the forum’s chairman, said: “Our North East Entrepreneurial Awards acknowledge the dynamic and innovative businesses based in the north east, and this year was no exception. Our Lifetime Achievement award recognises those who have shown huge commitment over a significant period to the region, making a major impact on our local economy. I can’t think of two people more deserving of the accolade.”

He added: “John and Dame Irene built Hays Travel into one of the region’s largest employers, while prioritising the development of their team, the experience of their customers and their contribution to the wider community through the Hays Travel Foundation. John was a fantastic entrepreneur and role model and together with Dame Irene, built an outstanding business.”

The event was attended by George Freeman, minister for science, research and innovation, and hosted by writer, comic, actor, and BBC Radio Newcastle presenter Alfie Joey.

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