This week on Talk Learn Connect, Journalist Yvonne Reddin asks Mary McKenna, CEO of Tour America, Cruise Holidays & The Travel Suite, to share some TLC
Can you give a summary of your business and when and how it all began for you?
I have always been interested in travel as my Dad was also in travel and he set up Atlas Travel for his brother in Dublin, his brother had an office in San Francisco. We were brought into the office as kids, to put stickers on brochures and help the cleaner. We did this every Saturday and it was all about respect for his team.
So, travel was always in my blood and I went to live in the USA when I was in my twenties. I came back to Ireland and started working in the airline business. My father took a taxi from his office to Blackrock clinic to have surgery in September 1989 and unfortunately, he didn't survive. He was only 55.
My uncle asked me to come and work with his company that specialised in the USA. I worked there for 6 years as the office manager and marketing manager. I always believed that I would like to start my own travel company and when he sold the business in 1994, this was my opportunity and I set up Tour America from my sitting room in 1995.
"My strengths were simple when I started, I had many networks and relationships. I was very respected and I had done my market intelligence and I believed if I had great value and service, I could win over a market"
Did individual people, family and experiences influence your business protocol and strength?
Yes, my father had the biggest influence on me, as I think he was a real marketer and he taught me about respect, hard work and always doing the right thing. He was an amazing father as well.
My strengths were simple when I started, I had many networks and relationships, I was very respected and I had done my market intelligence and believed if I had great value and service I could win over a market. My new business worked with different suppliers to give me outstanding deals to help me get off the ground for the first two years.
I went to college at night and studied accountancy and marketing and I was also working 7 days a week from 7 am. I would read a biography every week and see what learning I could take from these books. There was no internet in those days.
You came across many diverse challenges including the Sept 11 attacks, the 2008 recession, the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship and COVID. How did you manage to keep your business operating and what did you learn from these challenges?
You are correct, firstly I was the only female Irish entrepreneur in a male-dominated business. I had no money when I started and I had to work harder and smarter than all around me. All I knew was that I had to keep working on the business and not in it, I had to keep innovating and not following everyone else.
All the events that happened were incredibly challenging and stressful at the times but I always took opportunities from them. For example, after the September 11 Attacks, I started Cruise Holidays and trademarked this name, after the recession and the Ash Cloud, I ensured that we could go for months if the cash flow stopped, putting it away for a rainy day.
I ran the business as a business and not a lifestyle, it was all about growth, and in 2019 we had reached a turnover of 22.5 million, with 50 employees. So when Covid hit it was just awful, as we had no idea it would last for two years and we had to continue working taking care of our customers with zero income coming in. But we were in good shape and had good cash reserves and as a business, we have never borrowed money.
We again reinvented ourselves with new models of how we do business, with a huge focus on our culture, our team and truly taking care of our customers. We believe if you get these two things right, profits fall hand in hand.
We had good agility and resilience and personally, I always could pick myself back up and just get on with it. You have to be like this when you are faced with so many challenges.
I also had a motto within the business of raising our standards and how we do this.
This has led to us giving outstanding customer service and the team is so aware that the customer always comes first, I have never had one complaint about a staff member in 28 years.
What would you like to achieve long-term in the travel industry or maybe what do you feel needs to change, if anything?
Great question - very simply - I love what I do and while the company has always been profitable (except for Covid) my focus is on creating a raving fan club.
I would love for our customers to feel we are so different in our product knowledge and how we take care of them and make them feel.
I believe this is lacking in many businesses and indeed in particular in the airlines.
So, what I would like to see is that our suppliers care about customer service and help us provide a fantastic holiday experience.
"I ran the business as a business and not a lifestyle, it was all about growth and in 2019 we had reached a turnover of 22.5 million, with 50 employees"
Can you share any words of wisdom that you received that helped you in your successful career?
Always do the right thing and be kind...