HUNDREDS of staff from Hays Travel, the independent travel agent that bought the former Thomas Cook retail portfolio, took to the skies yesterday.

Four specially chartered Jet2 planes took off from Newcastle, Manchester and Stansted London airports yesterday morning, with more than 700 branch managers and suppliers on board, heading for the company's 30th – and biggest ever – annual retail managers' conference.

There was a VIP welcome at the airports for the Hays Travel passengers, attending their first conference since the company acquired Thomas Cook and saved 555 shops and more than 2,000 jobs a month ago.

Hays Travel now employs more than 4,000 people and this year's conference is three times bigger than before, with twice the number of planes and hotels needed to accommodate everyone.

Travelling with them to Antalya, Turkey, and serving snacks on board, were the owners John and Irene Hays, both wearing the Hays Travel uniform for the day.

Mrs Hays said: "We always make sure our managers have fun at the conference as they get together from all over the country. They pack in three full days with some fantastic speakers and workshops and they end up with a unique insight into the latest developments in the travel industry, and masses of information to take back to their branches.

"This year, we will have the added bonus of getting to know our new colleagues."