It’s fun in the sun for holiday bosses who’ve revelled in ‘work-cations’: As we battle flight chaos at UK airports, travel giant TUI’s staff were allowed to spend weeks in dreamy resorts while working, writes GUY ADAMS
Sitting by a turquoise pool framed by swaying palm trees and a glistening expanse of the Med, Andrew Willis appears to have few cares in the world.
He’s soaking up the sun in Ibiza, the Balearic holiday island famed for its spectacular beaches and hedonistic nightclubs.
Willis, who describes himself on social media as a ‘lover of travel, good food, wine and friendly people’, is dressed for fun: in shorts, boat shoes, and a short-sleeved shirt.
Yet, as the laptop next to him suggests, this is actually one of those happy occasions when business meets pleasure. That’s because Willis is lucky enough to work for the travel agency TUI.
Specifically, he’s one of its top HR people: head of ‘recruitment and workforce management’ for the ‘tours and activities’ division.
When this picture was captured, last September, he was taking advantage of a generous new perk which allows employees to spend up to 30 days a year on what is colloquially known as a ‘work-cation’ — a turbo-charged version of working from home.
During his stay in Ibiza, Willis devoted a portion of Monday to Thursday to the day job, and spent the rest of his time sunbathing and sightseeing, according to an account posted on the firm’s website.
‘When I finished my work at 5pm, the sun was still there until 8.30pm, so I had plenty of time to swim and relax,’ Willis recalled.
‘In the evenings, I could switch off wonderfully. We went out for dinner or spent time in the city.’
TUI’s ‘work-cation’ scheme allows staff to leave their dreary office and instead base themselves temporarily anywhere on Earth.
In the eight months since it was launched, employees have spent a whopping 4,500 days doing exactly that. Many have then boasted about the experience on the firm’s website.
And therein lies an unfolding PR disaster. For on Wednesday, Willis found his cheery holiday snap splashed across the news pages, amid growing anger over TUI’s inability to transport actual customers to the luxurious destinations senior executives had so recently enjoyed.
Rightly or wrongly, it was pointed out that many TUI staff had been taking advantage of the ‘work-cation’ scheme during the build-up to this week’s travel chaos, which brought scenes of carnage to airports.
As Jacob Rees-Mogg recently told home-working civil servants, being absent from the office during a time of even mild crisis is never a good look.
A few clicks of a smartphone will, after all, take angry TUI customers straight to the section of the website where staff such as Sanna Vare, who works in sales for the company, talks about being able to kiss goodbye to the office and whisk her daughter off to Lanzarote.
‘I took a dip in the pool during my lunch break and watched the palm trees from the balcony while I worked,’ she boasts.
Punters standing in huge queues, or waking to 2am text messages announcing that their holiday has been cancelled, can read all about the fun had by ‘business analyst’ Nathalie Jones, who spent a portion of her winter working from a log cabin in Scandinavia.
‘I was able to work during the day and see the lights dance through the sky in the evenings,’ she recalled.
Further salt is rubbed into wounds by an enterprising TUI marketing manager called Beate Nuxoll, who wangled a whopping 60 work-days in Majorca over the New Year by using her 30 days of 2021 and then her 30 days of 2022 (‘I rented an apartment in the Old Town of Palma’).
Meanwhile, Andrew Neville-Davies, a development specialist, high-tailed it to Morocco because ‘the prospect of working in 35c heat and occasionally jumping into the pool was very tempting’.
And IT manager Yolanda Dobson installed herself with an elderly aunt in a TUI hotel in Cyprus throughout October, later writing: ‘We spent pre-work hours chatting . . . while sipping fresh juices and coffee and eating fruit, eggs and pastries by a glimmering pool …
‘The hotel let me stay there all day in the sheltered warmth of the November sun, so I took my calls and worked while [my aunt] sat reading her book, sipping her coffee and occasionally chatting on how lucky we were to have this time together.’
Nice work if you can get it. But not everyone can. For while TUI’s executive class has been travelling to exotic destinations, thousands of their paying customers are stuck at home.
To blame is the ongoing chaos that has engulfed Britain’s airports this half-term, thanks to the travel industry’s woeful inability to cater for an entirely predictable upsurge in customers, following the end of Covid restrictions. Some fear the carnage will continue all summer.
As the country’s biggest tour operator, TUI is on the front-line of the crisis. A few days ago, it announced it would be cancelling almost 200 flights in June, affecting up to 37,000 passengers.
Victims of the wider mess — there really is no other way to describe it — include an entire planeload of TUI passengers who spent eight hours at Manchester airport (four trying to get through security and another four at the gate ‘waiting for a pilot’) only to be told their flight had been cancelled.
In a surreal development, this message was delivered not by a member of TUI staff (none seems to have been about), but by a police officer.
Other horror stories making headlines included the tale of a different officer who boarded a TUI plane to disembark passengers who had been delayed by more than four hours (reports stated that no TUI staff were present because the flight had been subcontracted to another airline) and travails of a family who spent eight hours at Bristol airport waiting for a plane to Paphos, in Cyprus, to take off, only to be taken via coach to an airport hotel for the night.
As the bus left the terminal, however, a TUI employee was spotted running after the vehicle shouting for it to stop. She then climbed on board and informed incredulous holidaymakers that not only was their flight the next day cancelled, but so was their entire holiday.
In a different, equally bizarre turn of events, a TUI pilot of a delayed Manchester flight was filmed on the Tarmac, physically loading bags on to the plane so that it could take off.
The cause of these travel nightmares is relatively straightforward: during Covid lockdowns, airlines, airport operators and tour firms dramatically cut staff numbers because of cratering demand for flights and holidays. TUI has, for example, shed a reported 10,000 roles in recent years.
Now that demand for travel has risen substantially, the same companies find themselves unable (with low unemployment in the UK) to recruit staff.
Baggage handlers, check-in staff and security officers are particularly thin on the ground. At busy times (and May half-term is one of the busiest) this leads to bottlenecks.
Perhaps not helping things is the fact that, across the wider industry, staff continue to be allowed to perform a significant portion of their duties from home.
In other words, we are facing a crisis caused by two simple facts: first, lots of people want to devote more time to being on holiday, and second, a decreasing number are happy to physically go into work.
While it’s impossible to say whether the ‘work-cation’ trend has made things at the company worse — TUI argues that it makes staff happier and therefore more productive — the manner in which staff have celebrated their exotic home-working entitlement seems, at best, poorly timed.
In one particularly galling online post, a TUI process analyst named Rafael Palou, who describes himself as an ‘avid surfer’, boasts how he swapped his home office for a holiday apartment in the Canary Islands, writing: ‘I got the idea to pack my surfboard, laptop and some shorts and fly somewhere where I could combine working and surfing. So I booked a flight to Tenerife and a flat near the sea.’
He added: ‘The flat was fully equipped and I had a good wi-fi connection, so I could work from the terrace — as if I was at home. ‘
TUI has insisted it’s ‘proud of the flexible ways of working we offer our colleagues in non-operational, office-based roles’, and stressed that the scheme does not affect the availability of front-line staff such as pilots or cabin crew.
The firm says it believes allowing staff to work from holiday resorts ‘is important for understanding the nature of our global travel business, alongside having a fulfilling career and improving overall personal wellbeing’.
Be that as it may, managing director Andrew Flintham has yet to explain publicly how he intends to fix things — a silence that is drawing fierce criticism.
‘Since TUI has been at the heart of ruining thousands of holidays through their incompetence, isn’t it time Andrew Flintham came out of the shadows to publicly explain how he/they got it so wrong?’ asked commentator Kelvin MacKenzie this week. ‘It’s called leadership.’
In fact, Flintham’s last public utterance came via a newspaper interview in mid-May, urging the British public to spend their hard-earned cash with TUI.
‘Those looking to enjoy a summer holiday this year should consider booking sooner rather than later to make sure they’re able to secure the holiday of their choice,’ he said.
Those who took his advice may be regretting it. Meanwhile, customers whose June holidays have been cancelled (ostensibly because of staff shortages) will doubtless be wondering why TUI seems still to be advertising cut-price holidays for exactly the same weeks — a practice which drew sharp accusations of profiteering when it emerged a few days go.
Doubtless Flintham is being kept up to date with developments, particularly those affecting TUI’s troubled airline.
For in an arrangement best described as unconventional from a corporate governance perspective, his domestic partner, Dawn Wilson, turns out to be on that part of the company’s payroll: she’s its chief operating officer.
Wilson, who is separated from her husband, was promoted to the position last year. She and Flintham — who took the helm of TUI’s UK and Irish divisions in 2018, when its share price (now ?1.85) was touching ?7.60 — live in a converted wing of a Grade II-listed Georgian stately home in Northamptonshire.
A company source insisted there was ‘no corporate governance issue’ surrounding their romantic affairs, because Flintham’s arm of the firm is separate from Wilson’s, and added: ‘They are in a long-term relationship and it’s not something they have ever hidden.’
The source said Flintham was leading the response to this week’s crisis: ‘He’s in the office in Luton, at the coalface, and very much in charge, writing to customers and taking leadership.’
Elsewhere, as its peak summer season ratchets up, TUI — or rather its ownership — is at the centre of an awkward investigation by regulators in Germany, where the firm has its global HQ. Authorities are attempting to establish how a sanctioned Russian oligarch, Alexei Mordashov — who owned 30 per cent of the company, worth about ?1.1 billion — managed to offload his stake in the firm in late February, following the invasion of Ukraine.
The holding seems to have been transferred to a BVI firm controlled by his wife, Marina.
Mordashov, 56, is the main shareholder in Severstal, Russia’s largest steelmaker, and a financial backer of Vladimir Putin.
Before the invasion, he was on the firm’s advisory board, but he stepped aside amid mounting public anger over his links to the Kremlin.
The share transfer — seemingly a bid to evade sanctions — has been effectively frozen until a probe by Germany’s economy ministry has concluded.
TUI has stressed that sanctions against Mordashov ‘have no impact on the company’. It added that TUI was not aware Marina Mordashova controlled the firm when the shares were transferred.
What does impact TUI, of course, is this spiralling travel crisis. On its website, its senior product development and implementation manager, Matt Alexander, recalled swapping his office for Gran Canaria, where he was able to ‘enjoy the beautiful Canary Islands weather’.
He added: ‘I’m back home in the UK on a grey, rainy day contemplating where my next trip might be.’
Sadly, tens of thousands of TUI customers are also stuck in the UK, tearfully contemplating the very same thing.