New Year Honours 2021: Hays Travel boss Irene Hays made a dame

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image captionIrene Hays was appointed CBE in 2008 for services to local government

Hays Travel boss Irene Hays has been made a dame in the New Year's Honours.

The Sunderland-based travel agency made headlines in 2019 when it took on more than 2,000 former Thomas Cook staff.

The firm was founded by Dame Irene's husband John Hays, who died in November after collapsing at the head office.

Dame Irene said she was "absolutely overwhelmed" but the honour was "bittersweet" as she could not share the moment with her husband.

She also said the honour was in recognition of the firm's successful apprenticeship scheme over the past 40 years, adding: "I feel this really isn't an award just for me, it's for all the people who have created the right environment for all those people to succeed and the apprentices and the young people themselves."

Dame Irene said before the Thomas Cook acquisition that 47% of Hays Travel senior managers had started as apprentices at the firm.

"It's always been a real team effort," she said.

image captionIrene Hays runs Hays Travel which was founded in 1980 by her husband John

Dame Irene said: "For me it really does feel bittersweet.

"When I first heard I thought 'I can't wait to tell John', and obviously John's not here to tell. He would have been immensely proud."

Hundreds of mourners lined the streets of Sunderland to pay their respects to Mr Hays at his funeral, which also saw several buildings around the city lit up in the company's colours of orange and blue.

Before it took on hundreds of Thomas Cook shops, Hays had 190 stores, 1,900 staff, and sales of £379m, reporting profits of £10m.

At the time Mr Hays described the purchase as "a game-changer" which almost trebled the firm's number of shops and doubled its workforce.

However, in August, the couple warned almost 900 employees may lose their jobs due to coronavirus travel restrictions, which hit destinations such as Spain.

Hays Travel said it had a two-year turnaround plan in place, and that although 2020 "looked really bad", bookings for 2021 were already up on the same period in 2019.

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