Your Stories: How maternity leave inspired Rebecca Holt to become a Hays Travel franchisee

The manager of two south Yorkshire branches tells Samantha Mayling about coping during Covid and how trading is now

Q. How did you start in travel?
A. My original plan was to become a cabin crew member but I wasn’t old enough so I joined Lunn Poly as an apprentice in July 2004, aged 16, straight from school – near home in Hillsborough, Sheffield. After a year I moved to the busier Meadowhall branch, where I became a “super seller”. I was then deputy manager at Mansfield, before returning to Meadowhall. A friend who was at Hays suggested I should apply too – so 13 years ago, I became branch manager of Chapeltown, Sheffield.

My original plan was to become a cabin crew member but I wasn’t old enough so I joined Lunn Poly as an apprentice

Q. How did your Hays career progress?
A. We sold lots of bucket-and-spade and Benidorm holidays. Facebook made a big difference and we were one of the first Hays branches to use it. We turned the business around and now do loads of tailor-made and cruise as Facebook changed the way we worked and we’re getting younger clients. Initially, I had four staff and, before I left to be regional sales manager (RSM), it was up to nine. I was the youngest in the shop apart from the apprentice. You adapt to different personalities and see how people work – I’ve always been a team player. Being RSM for Yorkshire and Humberside felt like the natural next step, as I’d been at Chapeltown for 10 years. Following the Thomas Cook takeover, we had lots of new people, so I thought that was a perfect time to start, in November 2019.

We turned the business around and now do loads of tailor-made and cruise as Facebook changed the way we worked

Q. How did you cope with Covid?
A. It was a whirlwind. We worked with the shop staff to save the bookings. We aimed to transfer bookings to the next year, to ensure we kept as much business as possible. Then we dealt with coming out of restrictions: shops opening with social distancing stickers and screens.

Q. How did maternity leave inspire your new venture?
A. I left at the end of 2021 and had my little girl, Orla, in January 2022. I came back to the RSM role in February 2023. The role had never been normal, because of Thomas Cook’s failure, Covid and maternity leave. I thought: ‘What would really make me happy and where do I want to be five years’ time?’ Having a child put things into perspective. I missed the buzz of meeting customers and selling holidays. I’d always dreamed of having my own business, but knew that came with risks and challenges.

After I became a parent, I felt like becoming my own boss was more achievable than before. I looked into homeworking but decided this [franchise] would be better. Soon after returning from maternity leave in February 2023, I approached the Hays Travel board with a business plan. After a few rounds of talks, I started as a Hays Travel franchisee in November 2023, responsible for running the Chapeltown and Wombwell branches as my own businesses, with support from Hays’ back-office systems and head of franchise, Steven Reilly.

After I became a parent, I felt like becoming my own boss was more achievable than before

Q. How has the franchise been so far?
A. It’s been great. Stevie has been a big help; he helped me refurbish my branches and manage recruitment. Having your own business is more flexible, but it is daunting at times. You’ve got more freedom – I got my own local contractors to do the refurbishment. The hardest part was assembling the right team, but I’m so happy with the people I have now. I’ve worked with some of them for years and it’s great to be back together. Joining Hays was the best move I made; they’ve always supported me to be the best I can be and that led me to where I am today. I am taking on many of the Hays Travel ways of working and we have seen huge interest from customers since Christmas.

Being your own boss is not for everyone, but I love it. To have my own business was a pipedream; getting it was a ‘pinch-me’ moment. Now is a brilliant time to be in travel. A lot of it is like being a manager but it’s your shop; you’ve got nobody to report to. We have coffee machines and ‘Prosecco Fridays’ for the staff. I’ve got 11 staff between the two branches and two more potentially joining. I’ve got good childcare in place and my family is super supportive.

The hardest part was assembling the right team, but I’m so happy with the people I have now


What’s trading like now?

We’ve got a mix of holidays, cruise, US multi-centres, Lapland and Cape Verde. The most popular destinations are Tenerife and Lanzarote. Yesterday we sold a £24,000 cruise for three couples. Today we have a big family booking in the pipeline for about £18,000 with Jet2 to Turkey, and a family cruise for £15,000. People are prioritising their holidays and booking early if they couldn’t get the hotel they wanted last year.

We’re not training during peaks but will resume afterwards, opening later on Tuesday mornings at 9.30am. I want to get more suppliers to visit – just before Christmas we had Louise Bates [sales and relationships director] from Rush Insurance. I want to hold events for clients and definitely something around cruise. I’ve not been on a fam trip for ages because of Covid and maternity leave – I’ve been to places such as the Bahamas, Jamaica and Florida in the past – but we have family holidays two or three times a year. This year my focus is to get the branches to be the best they can, then maybe in the future I will open other shops.

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