Dame Irene Hays, chair of Hays Travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agency, speaks to Bev Fearis at the 2023 ABTA Convention in Bodrum, Turkey.
This is your 37th ABTA Convention. What do you get out of attending?
For me the measure of a conference is what business is done with our supplier partners. Over the course of the year we meet with our partners, they come to our offices in Sunderland or we go to see them, and occasionally we get a sticking point, which is a sticking point for months and months. Then we come to this conference and we meet them face-to-face, in an informal environment away from the workplace, and the deal gets done. It’s also about what I’ve learned from the conference and can take back to my business and sometimes it’s not just from the sessions and the panel discussions, it’s from those informal discussions.
AI was a big topic at the ABTA Convention this year. How are you using AI?
In last 18 months we have been trialling AI for our recruitment and to help create the content we share with our customers. We are using it to write job descriptions. You instruct it for the job you want – perhaps for a booking clerk or a product manger – and the AI will come up with a draft with all of the key skills required. Then clearly you have to personalise it. We’ve also been using it to write content for our customers, perhaps about a destination or an attraction, and previously we would have had people writing it, but now we are using AI.
But for both of these, at the moment we still have a human being who checks all of the information collected from the AI to make sure that it’s accurate and relevant. I wanted to see from the conference if other people are trusting it yet, but they don’t, but by taking away some of the tasks which are mundane and repetitive, AI frees people up to do other things where they can add value. It hasn’t taken any jobs away.
You mentioned creating content for your customers. Do they still read brochures?
Yes, it’s amazing how many people still love to take a brochure home and sit in bed on a Sunday morning, with a cup of tea, and read a brochure to see where they might want to go on their holiday. We do our own online brochures too – Best of Touring and Best of Cruising – and send them to the people in our database.
Are you finding that more people are travelling outside of the peak summer season?
The shoulder seasons have always been very been popular with our customers, and with the trend for people to take more, shorter holidays we are definitely seeing a rise in people taking holidays outside of July and August, particularly in the May and October half terms. Clearly in the half term this will be families but it also might be couples who don’t want to go in the summer when it’s too hot or when there are lots of children there and so choose to go in the spring or autumn. Christmas is also huge for us in terms of New York and Christmas markets and there’s a lot of airline capacity to service those winter markets. Lapland is also big for us this year.
Which destinations are booking well in the shoulder season?
Traditionally people will follow the sun, so it’s the Canaries and all the destinations that are still warm. In the spring we are selling a lot in the Maldives, which is lovely at this time of year. We’re still seeing a strong lates market. People were initially worried about a capacity problem but the airlines increased airlift and there are still some great deals around that will extend the season. And whether or not people should take their children out of school, because of the pricing, a lot of people still do.
Cruise is now firmly back since the pandemic. How are your cruise bookings?
Cruise is massive for us. Capacity is already higher than it was pre-Covid and there is a third more capacity coming into the market in the next four years. Cruise already makes up around 26% of our overall business and our ambition at Hays Travel is to take this up to one third. We are definitely seeing a change in the demographic, with lots of cruising for families now, lots of entertainment for children of all ages. It’s such a great way to see the world and cruise has absolutely exploded for us.
ABTA’s new Confidence Index found Brits are feeling confident about travelling next year, despite this summer’s wildfires and the NATS disruption. What are you seeing?
All of the evidence of the sentiment that we get in our shops, which I look at five times a week, suggests that people are keen to travel next year. It’s anecdotal not empirical – the managers will feedback to the regional sales managers what the sentiment is in the shops, based on what the customers are telling us. Customers will pop into the shop to chat with the staff or have a cup of tea and they’ll tell us what they’re thinking about their holiday plans, or ask whether they should be looking in January for this destination. The sentiment is that people are wanting to get away.
Which destinations do you think will be popular next year?
It will still be Spain, Turkey, Greece – Greece has been incredibly popular and despite the wildfires our customers want to go back. They want to go back to Rhodes and support the tourism industry there. I also expect America to come back next year, more than it has done this year, to places like Disney and Universal.
What about the situation in the Middle East? Are you seeing any evidence of how it might affect bookings to popular winter sun destinations like Egypt, Dubai and Turkey?
It’s an absolutely catastrophic situation and a major problem. Egypt has been very considered and bold by saying that they’ve just repaired their tourism industry and the last thing they want to do is have that damaged and they’re putting out lots of information about how safe the destination is, but the geo-political circumstances can’t be managed.
I hope for the sake of these countries, which have had a very torrid time and are very dependant on tourism for their livelihoods, that they are not affected but we are already seeing changes in cruise itineraries. Of course, sometimes people want to go to Israel as part of their cruise and so we’ve had a few cancellations. Our partners in the cruise industry are very careful and if anything was to flare up, they can move the ships very easily and people are very understanding about that.