P&O Cruises has named Hays Travel Group owner and chair Dame Irene Hays as the godmother of its new ship Iona.

Hays will name the vessel in a “landmark ceremony” in Southampton on May 16, with festivities including a performance from Take That frontman Gary Barlow who is music director of Iona’s 710 club.

The “contemporary and dazzling ceremony” will be broadcast to a virtual audience ahead of the ship embarking on seven-night, round-UK sailings from August 7.

Paul Ludlow, P&O Cruises president, said: “We are absolutely delighted that Dame Irene Hays will be Iona’s godmother in a landmark naming ceremony which will be the first stepping-stone on the path to the return of the UK cruise industry.

“Since the inception of Hays Travel, there is no-one who has been more supportive of cruising or been more of an ambassador for the travel industry than Dame Irene Hays. As such, there is no-one more appropriate to take centre stage on May 16 in this prestigious event, as we celebrate her achievements and pay tribute to her husband John.”


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John Hays died suddenly at the company’s headquarters on November 13 last year. He founded Hays Travel in 1980 and it has grown to become the UK’s largest independent travel agency group. Together John and Irene were instrumental in the expansion of the Sunderland-based company and particularly in the acquisition of Bath Travel in 2013 and Thomas Cook’s retail travel agencies in 2019.

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Ludlow added: “The travel industry as a whole has been paused for over a year and has been devastated by the events of the last 13 months. We are so immensely grateful for the support we have received from travel agents across the UK, all of whom have faced commercial challenges none of us could have imagined.

“With domestic cruising opening up from May 17 and our series of UK coastal cruises proving very popular for this summer, recovery is certainly on the horizon and Iona’s arrival into the UK and naming ceremony will be the ray of hope the cruise sector has needed for such a long time.”

Dame Irene Hays said: “This is a huge honour – I am overwhelmed to have been asked to be the godmother of this beautiful new ship and be part of her future.

“It is very pleasing to be told that the work our amazing travel agents have done over four decades has helped the cruise industry grow to the global phenomenon that it is today.

“So I am very excited about the naming ceremony and I am really looking forward to seeing Iona and being part of a very different naming ceremony next month.“

Ludlow said: “We also feel honoured that we are able to support the Hays Travel Charitable Foundation which encourages young people to be the very best they can be across education, sport, the arts and health. Being able to play a small part in securing the future of the next generation is indeed a privilege.”


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