The marriage of heaven and Hull

Simon Calder: The man who pays his way
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The Independent Travel

"Smile!" instructs the sign on the door that leads to the shop floor of the Holiday Hypermarket, "you are now on show." To their credit, the eight staff on the night shift at the outsize travel agency on the outskirts of Hull managed to keep beaming through the early hours of yesterday morning - despite the absence of that crucial component of any successful retail operation: customers. After midnight, trade was so thin that the pair of security guards were pressed into service by the photographer to fill the wide open spaces at Britain's first all-night travel agency. They smiled.

"Smile!" instructs the sign on the door that leads to the shop floor of the Holiday Hypermarket, "you are now on show." To their credit, the eight staff on the night shift at the outsize travel agency on the outskirts of Hull managed to keep beaming through the early hours of yesterday morning - despite the absence of that crucial component of any successful retail operation: customers. After midnight, trade was so thin that the pair of security guards were pressed into service by the photographer to fill the wide open spaces at Britain's first all-night travel agency. They smiled.

I have seen the future of travel, and it resides on a trading estate on the northern edge of Hull. The holiday industry has finally woken up (or, more accurately, stayed up) to the fact that Britain has a "24-seven society", active 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Make that one day - opening around the clock, as the hypermarket did yesterday, was a one-off to see who turned up.

Opening all hours gives the travel agent's term "late availability" a whole new meaning. But what sort of people, I pondered on my journey north, would buy a holiday in the middle of the night? Shift workers, such as prison warders wanting an escape from Hull Gaol, or nurses aiming to follow in the flightpath of the local heroine, Amy Johnson, with a flight to Australia?

The longer I thought, the more the customer base widened: a minicab driver yearning to drive Route 66 rather than the A1079; an insomniac seeking therapy in one of the sleepier parts of the world, such as Dormans in France or Dull in Scotland; or maybe a bunch of drunk students who, rather than taking the usual closing-time route from the pub to the Taj Mahal restaurant on Anlaby Road for a late-night curry, can now leave the pub at last orders and stagger up the road to the travel agent to book a dawn flight to the real thing.

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Could any drinker who had stayed the course of the 21 pubs in the city's official Ale Trail actually have found the Holiday Hypermarket, though? I doubt it. Even stone-cold (very cold) sober, I tracked it down only with the help of Dave, a fellow cyclist. The former welder - "there are no shipyards in Hull any more" - has lived in the city all his 64 years.

In case I harboured doubts about how tough they are bred on the north side of the Humber, Dave demonstrated he was still capable of cycling straight into a vicious East Coast gale while simultaneously smoking and putting me straight on the city.

"This is Bransholme," he puffed, "the biggest housing estate in England." To emphasise the point, he exhaled a veritable thundercloud and added, "It's bigger than Bridlington."

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The holiday Hypermarket itself is definitely smaller than the East Riding's favourite resort, but its scale sees off High Street rivals. Imagine a barn whose walls are lined with polystyrene images grabbed from the world, with the Rialto bridge in Venice providing an implausible link between Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral and the Atomium in Brussels. You find the usual travel consultants seated in front of the usual computer terminals selling the usual holidays - but from the comfort of a mock pirate ship.

A dangerous tactic, you might think, given past unfortunate associations between the travel trade and the term "pirate", but for the first few hours after the normal closing time there was a steady stream of business - resulting in a handy £35,000-worth of holiday sales. By 11.30pm, the number of prospective customers had dwindled to two: Philip and Patricia Purvis, looking for a cruise but unable to seal the booking because the shipping company was closed. They were all in favour of late-night holiday shopping. "You don't feel rushed and crushed," said Philip. "I think it'll catch on," said his wife. And then they went home.

As with a good funfair, the greatest fun of the hypermarket resides with the sideshows. You can test your skiing skills for free on an "Alpine Racer" game, or try out driving on the right-hand side of the road in a Lincoln Continental fitted with a simulator; the screen takes the "driver" along the correct exit from Sanford airport in Florida, the prime US arrival point for package holidaymakers on fly-drives. And at five minutes to every hour, a strobe starts flashing urgently above the forboding sound of the Psycho theme tune, and a figure in a chair starts rocking beneath a neon sign advertising Bates Motel.

What on earth, I asked John Donnelly - the man who pioneered the Holiday Hypermarket concept, and now runs 31 of them - does that have to do with selling package holidays?

"If you go to Universal Studios in Florida or Hollywood, you will see Ma Bates in the house from Psycho - it's an attraction," he said. "Outside it's Hull, inside here it's Holidayland, and to make it Holidayland you have to put attractions in."

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The public's early-hours votes were unanimously in favour of Hull, not Holidayland. Manning a Customer Service Desk that manifestly had no clients, a smiling consultant named Jon had every right to feel forlorn at 4am. Instead, he hatched a plan: "Let's drag them out of Asda." There is a 24-hour supermarket adjacent, but all that came out of it was more Pro-Plus and Red Bull to help the staff make it through the night in Holidayland.

And what of Hull? PJ O'Rourke's funniest book was Holidays in Hell. The Humberside city has plenty of material for the obvious sequel: one prominent handout at Hull's tourist office shows a line of cones. It is called "Roadworks on the M1/A1/A19".

The performance of the local football team is cause to leave the country, too. "From glory days to a club in crisis," announced Thursday's Hull Daily Mail. If an unpaid tax bill forces the local football club to close, it will sadly mean the demise of the only League team whose name has no letters that you can colour in: Hull City.

simon.calder@independent.co.uk

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