Women We Love: Mary McKenna, Travel Entreptreneur

23 years ago, Mary McKenna along just three staff opened tour operator Tour America’s first offices, fitted out with second-hand furniture on Dublin city’s Eden Quay.

Today, Tour America is Ireland’s largest largest seller of holidays to America and number one for cruises in the country.

The feat that is in no small part due to Mary’s constant innovating, establishment of new brands, focus on the needs of the customer, and challenging of norms.

Mary McKenna IndulgeMe

Passionate about encouraging and supporting women in business, she is an active member of Going for Growth devoting her time to mentor eight female entrepreneurs each year.

We chatted to Mary about how she turned her business after the devastating effect of 9/11, the biggest risks she’s taken, and the challenges she faced as a female entrepreneur.

What inspired you to establish Tour America?

My Dad was in the travel business he opened up a travel agent with his brother in Dublin in the 1970’s. So, he would take us into work on a Saturday and as kids we would hoover or put stickers on brochures.

He had a great work ethic and also how he treated his staff and the impact he had on us about treating everyone with huge respect.

Did you have any prior experience in this industry?

I never worked with my Father, unfortunately he passed away at the very young age of 55, I was 24. But I did love travel and since both my parents met in the USA and we had a good few relatives there, we would visit America a lot.

I think there will be very few travel companies left in the future and those left will be outstanding in what they offer the client.

So, I had a big affiliation with the states. I lived there when I was 20. When I came home I went to work with Northwest Airlines in Shannon for 2 years.

Then when I was 23 I worked for a charter airline in Dublin a set up company. I was hired as a Duty manager, and I spent 6 weeks in training to have the theory of a pilot’s license – now I have never flown a plane for the record.

But I was in responsibly for all ground operations, reading the weather to the pilots, weight and balance of the flight, and had a team of 400 staff.

I went into work the first day and didn’t get home until 3 days later, and then went on for months.

Hard work, but a very important experience for me, at 23 I was never afraid to make a decision, I had no choice I had to.

What was your vision for Tour America and has this changed?

At first it was just to get it off the ground, then it was to grow it. I decided from the start that I would work on the business and not in it. So, I never sold a holiday myself.

I hired the right people around me and mentored them instead.

My vision now for the company is that we have a brand that represents trust for our customers and that we grow our brand in Northern Ireland and the UK.

What are the benefits of booking through a travel agent as opposed to online?

I think it is so important to book through an agent, as we are licensed and bonded, what that means to the customer is that their money is always protected.

We offer our product on-line as well as retail, but we find that customers need some help with advice, we kind of off take the hassle out of travel for them.

Also, for customers they need to be very careful with all the scams online, and the second biggest issue is that when something goes wrong there is no one to speak to.

What travel trends do you predict will be big in the coming years?

I think there will be very few travel companies left in the future and those left will be outstanding in what they offer the client.

I think customers will be able to come in and put a VR on their head and get virtual reality experience of what they can expect.

You have been in business 23 years, what is the secret to your longevity?

Resilience, agility and the ability to change always, honing in fast on projects that are losing money.

I am also a big believer in continuously educating myself, thinking outside the box, and being proactive and not reactive.

I also feel that a business needs to be run as a business and not a lifestyle, so leaving retained profits in the company, so you can also go through the wave of constant change that all businesses go through.

I am also a big believer in continuously educating myself, thinking outside the box, and being proactive and not reactive.

How did 9/11 effect your business and how did you recover?

We lost our entire business overnight, for three months we had no business, no clients, no calls, nothing.

I had 43 staff and had to let go of 11 staff, and that was the hardest thing to date in business.

Thankfully, I was creative and three weeks later started a company called Cruise Holidays and took back 10 of the 11 staff.

 
This brand on its own that year turned over 6 million, and to this day is the number one company selling cruises in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.

What were the biggest challenges you faced as a new business owner?

Getting burned out, I’ve learned the importance of taking care of yourself. To stay fit is so important, physically and mentally.

I read a business book a week, listen to TED talks, podcasts or whatever on my 45 minute walk in and out of work.

You also need a succession plan for staff.

At the time was the likelihood of establishing a business more challenging for women?

Well no other woman was doing it. There was no Enterprise Ireland, Going for Growth, or mentors. I was on my own and I had to sink or swim.

When I started my business no other woman was doing it. There was no Enterprise Ireland, Going for Growth, or mentors. I was on my own and I had to sink or swim.

I think that is why I like helping women in business now. It was challenging, but I was able for it.

Has this changed or are there still barriers to be broken down?

The statistics are there, women are less likely to put themselves forward if they don’t have the 100% qualification to do so, men will.

Also, I think for women it is about confidence and what we need to do is build that confidence.

They are also the ones having the children and there is a real pull to be home with your kids especially in the earlier years.

I think the work place has to change to be flexible to accommodate these fantastic employees.

If you could do one thing differently what would it be?

I wouldn’t have taken in a shareholder, try to do it yourself. That cost me a lot of money later, when I actually didn’t in fact need them.


 
During the first 10 years I worked very hard, long hours which you have to do starting off, but probably I worried unnecessary about things, so now I wouldn’t sweat the small stuff as it really is all small stuff.

You are a Going for Growth mentor. Why do you think initiatives like this are important?

Women helping women is very powerful, and as Madam Albright stated, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help women”.

This group has helped some many women to grow their business and a group that has their backs.

Can you share an example of mentees who have gone on to do great things?

I have worked with so many and very proud of them all, about 50 women altogether now. I am a client of one however, Milena from Platinum Pilates, and she has an amazing business.

Women helping women is very powerful, and as Madam Albright stated, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help women”

I have watched her grow her business now to such a degree. She has brilliant customer retention and a great succession plan. She is also very strong in marketing, innovation and creativity.

Who did you turn to for advice at the early stage of your own business?

Books. I started to study successful entrepreneurs.

And who do you now look to for support and inspiration in business?

TED Talks, YouTube, books and I do many courses throughout the year. I attend Tony Robbins seminars, and study neuro-linguistic programming and emotional intelligence.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Starting the business was a huge risk, but after that about 15 years ago we decided not to deal with travel agents as we had to pay them commission.

Instead we decided we would go direct to consumers with a good offer and build direct relationships with our them.

We took a massive hit in revenue for about two years, but it ended up being the best decision ever.

Also, during the recession, I decided that we would not follow what all other travel agents were doing, all of them cut salary cost, put in redundancies and cut their marketing spend.

 
I did the reverse, no pay cuts, no redundancies and we double our marketing spend in 2008.

That was a risk, but we increased our turnover in 2009 by 17% and grew our passenger numbers by over 50%, because we acted differently and the staff were very happy.

What has been your proudest career moment to date?

If I am being very honest, it is just recently, when I was selected as a finalist of the EOY (Entrepreneur of the Year program).

This is the first time in 23 years I have really felt a clap on the back. I have always felt as a true Entrepreneur and this award was one I had my eye on for many years.

I actually feel incredibly honored and I just love being involved with the Alumni as they all are amazing people who have started businesses and gone on the same journey as me, which isn’t easy and has many ups and downs. And every single one of them was so grounded.

What women in Ireland, and Irish women abroad, do you admire?

I am married to a woman, Stephanie, and we have been together over 15 years, she truly is the woman I admire the most.

The statistics are there, women are less likely to put themselves forward if they don’t have the 100% qualification to do so, men will.

She is very inspirational, has done some amazing charitable work in her early working life and is just a fantastic Mum. She gives me such support in business and we share a common blueprint, which is to be kind.

I have been very impressed with Mary Lou McDonald recently, but I am definitely not a Sinn Fein supporter.

Are you an early bird or a night owl?

I was a night owl, but I have a 10-year-old son, so now I am definitely an early bird.

 
What’s your morning routine?

I’m up at 7am. Three times a week I go to a Pilates class, it is on my way to work.

What’s your signature dish?

A good old filet mignon, my favorite restaurant has to be Chapter One.

What’s your phone wallpaper?

Cian, my son.

Can you share any plans you have in the pipeline?

We have always things in the pipeline. We are continuously growing our product range, we have a particular focus right now on growing the high-end business in particular the suite class product on the cruise lines.

We have plans to enter the North of Ireland within the next six months.

You can follow Mary McKenna on Twitter and LinkedIn.

For more information on Tour America visit tour www.touramerica.ie, and follow them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Article by Erica Bracken, Editor at IndulgeMe.ie. You can follow Erica on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.