March 3, 2015 by Christina Hamlett
A Conversation with Penny Spencer
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Had they lived in the same era, Mark Twain would most certainly have found a kindred spirit in Penny Spencer, Founder and Managing Director of Spencer Travel (www.spencertravel.com.au). Not only did Penny have a lot of stamps in her passport prior to launching her own corporate travel management agency but her passion for developing professional training programs and strategies for her company’s growth truly continues to make her a global entrepreneur in every sense of the phrase.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Let’s start with a glimpse of what your personal and professional career journey has been.
A: My career in the travel industry began after I left school. I studied a travel course, and whilst doing that I also volunteered at a travel agency, Adventure World, in Brisbane (Queensland), stamping brochures and doing various tasks to gain experience. This led to a part-time junior role after graduating. I then worked my way up the industry and after years of working in both wholesale and inbound travel agent roles, I finally found my feet at the World Travel Headquarters working in the domestic corporate area.
I progressed from the domestic corporate area to Assistant International Consultant, before becoming a Corporate International Consultant and finally living my dream –being able to manage my own clients. In 1998, I made the break and left the agency I was working for and opened my first company Spencer Travel.
Throughout this professional growth, I met my husband, started a family, expanded my business into an award winning business group, became an industry mentor and wrote a book. It’s been an incredible journey and one that I am hugely grateful for.
Q: Who or what has had the greatest influence on the choices you’ve made that have brought you to where you are now?
A: My Husband. He supports me resolutely and from day one when I said I wanted to open my own business he said “Okay let’s do it”. During the early stages he was behind the scenes but always listening to me when I needed to vent or ask advice. Since having children he has been my 2IC at home but still always there to advise and listen. We make a great team.
Q: The travel industry has changed radically since you started in 1984. Back in the pre-Internet days, a family that was planning a vacation or an executive that travelled extensively on business would simply say, “I’ll have travel agent handle all the details for me.” Unable to compete with the DIY mindset of today’s travellers, many agencies across the country have gone out of business. Are there advantages to utilizing an agent, however, that most people aren’t aware of?
A: Using a travel agent means you get the support and advice that you don’t get from booking online. We offer a very personalised service. Our clients are matched with the right staff to ensure it is more of a partnership, rather than a business transaction. We always go that extra step and monitor our client’s journey and where possible we will call ahead to ensure they get a room with a view, or an upgrade, or ensure they have their regular driver to get them to their meetings, etc. It’s the small things that make the difference and if anything goes wrong – we can handle it quickly and efficiently– which is a support you just don’t get from booking your own travel online.
Q: What’s your preference to orchestrate for clients from start to finish – business travel or leisure travel?
A: I love both. They both have elements of excitement. Corporate travel is always very fast and immediate – they want to get somewhere quickly for a meeting and then the meeting may change 10 times over the week before departure or even on the way to the airport! You have to be on the ball, have a keen eye for detail and generally have the patience of a saint. Leisure travel is all about research which is also exciting. Matching the right destination and hotels to the traveller, giving them the right advice concerning where to go and how to get there. You are helping create people’s dreams when you are booking their holidays and that is very rewarding.
Q: Tell us about some of the awards Spencer Travel has won which distinguish its quality and scope of service. (And brava, by the way!)
A: We approach award submissions very seriously. We plan which ones we enter every year as we want to highlight our expertise in certain areas, and awards are the perfect channel to do this. A number of awards that we have won, or been a finalist in include:
- Spencer Travel was a finalist in the 2014 Telstra NSW Business Awards –A great achievement for us as the competition was really tough.
- Spencer Travel voted Australia’s best corporate travel agency at the National Travel Industry Awards in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 and inducted into the Travel Industry Hall of Fame – We pride ourselves on being the best in the industry and these awards are testament to that.
- Spencer Travel was placed number 25 in BRW’s Top 50 Places to Work in Australia 2014- I am hugely proud of this award, as it reflects the positive workplace we have built and shows that my team are happy to be part of it.
- Penny Spencer listed in SmartCompany’s Top 30 Female Entrepreneurs 2013 List – I was honoured to make this list, as the other women on the list are incredible, so it’s a privilege to be mentioned alongside them.
- Finalist in the 2013 MyBusiness Awards- A great success for us, as it is wonderful to get recognized in the business world as well as the travel industry.
Q: What’s the hardest challenge you’ve had to face in launching and sustaining a successful company?
A: Like most businesses, we’ve had numerous challenges over the years. One that comes to mind is September 11. The world changed that day, and many industries and businesses were impacted by it. People were afraid to fly and as a result the airline travel industry changed overnight. We had to adapt –we re-strategised our business offerings. We had to go through our budgets and long-term plans with a fine tooth comb and make necessary adjustments in order to keep the business functioning and retain staff.
Q: If someone came to you and said, “I want to start my own business,” what are the top three pieces of advice you would share?
A: 1. Make sure you love what you do – if there is no passion, it makes persevering through those tough days so much harder and giving up will seem like the easier option.
- Set goals – ask yourself, where do you want your business to sit in the industry, how much money do you want to turn over, what kind of a company culture do you want to create?
- Make detailed plans – 1 year-5year-10 year plans – and consult with your staff on some aspects of these. You need a road map to guide you through all the highs and lows of building a business.
Q: As a savvy entrepreneur, wife and loving parent, what do you say to people who argue that women can’t have everything?
A: I say it’s not just women, it’s men as well – we can’t all have everything. I have to juggle and I accept that. I accept that there are things in my life I miss out on because I am committed to my family and my business. I have a very supportive husband and we communicate daily about the business and children’s schedules and we plan accordingly. Yes sometimes the best laid plans don’t go accordingly, but we try and we keep trying. For me that’s the key, if it’s what you really want and you know you have the ability to do it, keep trying and never give up.
Q: Your daughter has nicknamed you “Mrs. Busy.” What do you do to ensure that you don’t get too busy to make time for yourself and have fun?
A: I make time for exercise. It is an appointment in my diary to ensure I don’t miss it. For me it’s really important to start the day right and get both my mind and body into a rhythm that I know works for me throughout the day. Whilst it often slips to the end of the to-do lists, looking after your health and well-being is so important. I also prioritise time with my family and plan fun and exciting events for us to share together, as well as fabulous holidays. I always ensure I am in the moment and give my undivided attention when I am with them.
Q: What is something that most people would be surprised to know about you?
A: I love to bake – I am not a details person, I am big picture person and always want to get to the end of the goal quickly. So for me to enjoy baking is not typically characteristic of how I operate on a day to day basis. I love to create something that people will enjoy and the achievement of making a yummy cake or slice makes me feel happy and content, and of course I love eating them too!
Q: As a product of technology, corporate downsizing, a wobbly economy and – quite frankly – a world that’s becoming increasingly unsafe, a lot of my own colleagues are opting to do meetings by Skype rather than fly somewhere to meet clients in person. I know you don’t have a crystal ball (or do you?) but where do you see the travel industry going in the next 10-20 years?
A: We have seen many changes over the past 10 years including the general public’s fear of airline travel after September 11, the reduction in client expenditure on corporate travel during the GFC, along with the increase in technology allowing people to book their own travel. Throughout these changes we have continuously assessed the market and looked at ways we can offered enhanced service to our clients such as improving our technology and implementing tracking systems for travellers to track their journey online. Our clients rely on us for the support service and advice that they can’t get with online travel booking. We also offer a personalised service and often go beyond the call of duty to facilitate a client, and this earns us repeat business every time. There will always be changes in our industry, but expertise and support will remain essentials when making travel plans.
Q: As if running a prestigious company weren’t enough on your plate, you’re also an accomplished author. Tell us what prompted you to write Love What You Do…and Never Work a Day in Your Life: Always Wear Lipstick–Especially Red.
A: I have gained a wealth of information over the 20 years that I have been growing my business. I have had many successes and failures and I have had to dig deep to overcome these and keep persevering. As a mentor I am asked many of the same questions and I realised, many businesses, no matter what the industry is, experience similar problems which can be addressed with similar methods across the board. This is what led me to write the book, it was an opportunity to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained to people in other industries and jobs. It’s basically the book I wish I had the chance to read at the start of my career.
Q: Why red lipstick? Inquiring minds want to know.
A: It’s bright – if you feel a little low, or even unwell and pale – popping on red lipstick brightens everything on your face, your eyes and your smile. I believe everyone looks good in red lipstick and once you feel good you look good– you should try it!
Q: Who’s your target audience for this book and what would you like them to take away from it?
A: Anybody in business, starting a business or wanting to grow their business should read this book. It is applicable to anyone in any industry, not just the travel industry, as I cover a lot of business points that are relevant to all industries. It is also a good read for anyone looking to build their career, as I talk about the importance of pushing beyond your comfort zone and striving for what you really want in your career.
Q: What did you learn about yourself from the process and discipline of doing this book project?
A: I learned to appreciate and feel proud of how far I have come and what I have achieved with my team. I also learnt that if you put your mind to something you can achieve anything. This book had been on my to-do list since my first child was born, in hindsight that would not have been the right time to write it. This was the right time, and setting the goal of giving myself one year to do it – I just did it – my husband calls me Nike – just do it!
Q: Having already achieved so much, what’s next on your plate?
A: I am always looking for the next challenge and next step to my business. I recently added another travel agency to our group, which is very exciting and I will continue to look for further business expansion opportunities as we strive to grow the business group. I am also a strong believer in giving back, and passing down knowledge to the next generation. I mentor young travel industry professionals and see this as an important part in helping to develop the future leaders of our industry.