Keeping it in the family

AUSTRALIA’S travel industry is a conspicuously tight-knit community, and nowhere is this more evident than within the many family-run businesses that hold their own against larger corporate rivals. In a sector that still puts a high value on the family firm, travelBulletin looks at some of the trail-blazers whose success spans the generations.

Sun Island Tours

When Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tour operator Sun Island Tours first set up shop, there was plenty of “pounding the pavement”, company owner John Polyviou recalls.

His dad Lakis started the business in 1989 after spotting a gap in the market for a knowledgeable wholesaler for the Mediterranean, the second venture for his father who had already successfully started a retail agency for Greek and Cypriot VFR clients.

“Dad started Kyrenia Travel Service in 1976… he targeted the Greek and Cypriot market by opening the White Pages and posting handwritten introductory letters to each resident with a Greek sounding surname,” Polyviou said.

“The days are now gone where my father would go to the airport every night to see his clients off… and my mum Celia no longer needs to drive around Sydney delivering tickets as she used to in the 80s and 90s.”

Since its humble beginnings, Sun Island Tours has been subject to many market and technological changes, conditions the business has been forced to adapt to.

“The internet, vertical integration, e-mails, and globalisation have all affected the way we do business– mainly for the better,” Polyviou said. “Social media and technology have introduced a great shift in the way travellers now search, book and experience their holidays. The new generation is able to stay connected and not lose touch with the corresponding new generation of travellers, agents, and business tools to help us keep innovating.”

Despite the fast-moving evolution of technology, Polyviou believes the true value of Sun Island Tours remains its family roots.

“We have relationships with operators that are almost 30 years running because we focus on service, and good operators are like finding gold — you never let them go,” Polyviou said. “While we’ve expanded our destination portfolio slightly, we’ve always maintained the ‘sell what you know’ mantra, and as such we’ve always kept to selling only the Mediterranean and surrounding countries.”

The business is currently managed by Polyviou and his brother Paul, and while his dad Lakis has taken a step back from the business, he still comes into work every day at 8am sharp.

“If he’s not working he gets very anxious,” Poluviou said. “Being a family, we are already a team, meaning that decisions and collaboration can be made easily and affectively… our common goal is always to the family business, so we don’t allow politics or personal agendas to affect our performance in the market.”

itravel Carlingford

It all started with a delayed flight.One Sunday morning, travel agent Sue Todorovski was in Russia, her GDS wasn’t working and her clients’ flight had been delayed by 22 hours, meaning they risked missing the start of their tour.

She recruited her quick-thinking daughter, Emily Kadinski, who learnt the GDS “on the spot” and managed to re-route these clients via Brisbane and Bangkok, delivering them to London with four hours to spare.

“I thought I had definitely scared Emily off travel — next thing I know she was posing as a Ski bunny promoting Club Med Ski Japan at the first itravel Mounties Expo…the rest is history” Sue said.

“Now I can’t get rid of her!”

While she was studying at university, Emily joined her mobile travel agent mother as a part time consultant in 2010 and five years later, the pair decided to expand and opened itravel Carlingford.

The duo has the backing of a combined 20 years’ experience in the travel industry, and the support of Tony, (Emily’s father), and her husband, Igor, who are now “the trademark tag alongs” at industry events.

The family business at itravel Carlingford has evolved in response to local demand and now specialises in cruising, luxury and group travel.

Emily has taken on the online side of the business and looks after the marketing and sales promotions, specialising in Facebook lead generations.

She is working to become the fresh face of the business by forming new corporate and group relationships.

“Emily has brought new young ideas in regards to social media and marketing to a different and expanding clientele,” Sue explained.

“She is focusing on growing and expanding the new areas of the business, whilst continuing to nurture the core luxury brand I built up.”

Emily is working hard to grow and build itravel Carlingford into “the next big thing”, with the pair hinting to “watch this space”.

The mother-daughter team agree the benefits outweigh any challenges, emphasising a shared understanding that “work is work” and “when we are here we are business owners, not mum and daughter. We have the same working relationship two co-directors would have, but a hug out back to celebrate growth is always a benefit!”

As for the next generation, Emily said she would love to bring her future children into the business.

“As much as mum tried to steer me away from travel, it’s in my blood, and I wouldn’t have it any other way!”

Bicton Travel

With numerous awards under its belt and continuous demand, the family run retail travel agency specialising in cruising and luxury travel, Bicton Travel, has a lot to celebrate at its upcoming 20th birthday next month.

What started off as a team of two gradually grew to a team of 25 across three offices in Bicton, in the south-east of Perth, specialising in three divisions — Bicton Travel, Bicton Travel Premium and Cruisefinder.com.au.

“I started the business in August 1998,” said Carole Smethurst, founder of Bicton Travel. “I saw the opportunity to specialise in cruising after experiencing huge interest in my previous job.”

Then in 1999 when a staff member left, her son Phil Smethurst, a 19-year-old flying instructor decided to join the business and became a co-founder. “Over the years, Phil has come forward with many fresh ideas such as the Bicton Travel Premium. It’s a small, more intimate office and well-suited to our luxury clients,” she said.

Smethurst explained that working with her son has helped create a family environment at work. “Even though we have grown over the years, the staff all feel part of the Bicton Travel family.”

Another benefit, she said, was that “either of us can take advantage of travel opportunities knowing that the other one is looking after things at home”.

“We are very lucky that we get on very well and are able to bounce off each other,” she said.

Bicton Travel is also a big winner when it comes to snapping up awards, as year on year it has proved itself a popular and ambitious travel provider. The agency has won AFTA Agency of the Year in 2014 through to 2016; Cruise Agency of the Year in 2010, 2011, and 2013 to 2017 at the CLIA Cruise Industry Awards; Best Travel Agency in 2013 to 2017 by Cruise Passenger Magazine’s Readers Choice Awards; and AFTA People’s Choice Travel Agency of the Year most recently.

Smethurst said goals for Bicton Travel this year included helping staff to identify and support preferred suppliers and to continue its focus on margin. “It’s more important than ever for the consultants to work smarter rather than harder. When we moved into the bigger third office we allowed space for further growth, including more travel consultants,” said Smethurst.

“We work hard to make a world of difference to everyone’s holiday. The reward is hearing our clients’ feedback and shared memories, along with the huge number of repeat clients. There is nothing better than seeing clients come in to meet a travel consultant who originally booked with me back in the early days of Bicton Travel.”

Kent Marketing

Kent Marketing has been putting its travel clients in the spotlight for more than 20 years, driven by its founder and CEO Geoffrey Hutton.

The industry stalwart already had more than a decade’s experience in the industry when he created the company, having developed a high profile through his roles among airlines and US travel organisations.

It’s a specialty that has proved effective ever since, culminating with his position as a past president of Visit USA Organisation Australia.

But Kent Marketing also involves a successful father-daughter partnership, one that has evolved with the career of account director Lucy Rowe.

Now president of Visit USA Organisation Australia herself, Rowe has been a part of the firm since she first helped out around the office while studying.

“Lucy worked in the company when she was going through university, so she was part of the company for several years before leaving to take up a part time position with Where magazine and Vacations & Travel magazine, in the role of sub editor,” Hutton said.

“Her first full time job was at a wealth management and stockbroking firm as a dealer’s assistant, then compliance officer, before transferring to a start-up oil and gas company where she eventually became company secretary for a number of years.”

It was this experience that brought a fresh perspective to the business.

“Having experience and insight from another industry, plus as company secretary for a public company, Lucy has a wide understanding of compliance and running companies, which greatly assists in her current role as president of the Visit USA Organisation,” Hutton said.

“Lucy has also brought a fresh insight in the public relations and communications aspect of the business as well as innovative ideas in terms of mission and event planning for our clients.”

For 20 years Kent Marketing was the GSA for America West Airlines, Cendant Hotel chains and several US rental car companies. Following mergers and acquisitions of major clients the company was approached to handle the promotion and public relations for the inaugural Qantas to Dallas-Fort Worth flights, organising events for Dallas, DFW Airport and Texas Tourism.

This led to contracts to represent Visit Dallas and Visit Fort Worth in the Australian/New Zealand market. From 2014 to 2017 the company also successfully worked with Travel South USA, the marketing organisation for 12 US southern states.

Having come from an airline family and worked with her family since school days, Lucy appreciates the variety that working in tourism offers.

“We probably see more of each other than most families, so it’s lucky that we’re very close and share the same sense of humour.”

Ross Garden Tours

He’s one of the most familiar faces on Australian television, but green-thumbed Better Homes & Gardens presenter Graham Ross is also one of the quiet achievers of the Australian travel industry. Graham and his wife Sandra founded Ross Garden Tours 38 years ago, and from humble beginnings as a single departure to Japan in 1980 the business has expanded to now offer high quality special-interest garden tours across Australia and the globe.

While Graham and Sandra are still involved in hosting and planning tours, the business is definitely in the hands of the next generation, with son Kent and daughter Linda running things day-to-day. Graham Ross told travelBulletin it had been a family business from the very early stages. As well as joining their parents on tours in the early stages, Linda — now marketing and PR director — led her first tour to the UK in 1995 at the age of 21, while Kent, who is Ross Garden Tours’ managing director, led tours across the Top End, the Outback and Fraser Island in his early 20s. The pair have been intimately involved in managing the business since 2000, with Kent later opening an office in London. Son-in-law Daniel Wheatley is also the company’s digital content manager.

Ross Garden Tours now operates about 30 tours each year. A testament to the success of the business is a staggering repeat rate, with Graham Ross saying more than 70% of travellers each year are past passengers. It’s a very hands-on operation, heavily focused on customer satisfaction, service and personal relationships, with each departure starting with a meet and greet session at the family’s offices, a former home in the leafy northern Sydney suburb of Beecroft.

The business has evolved over the years, with the pace of itineraries slowed down to allow more relaxing time in cities, towns and their gardens. The group size has been restricted to allow passengers more time with their tour leader, with an average group size of just 18. And of course digital technology is playing an increasingly bigger role, with the business marketed through social media and a website — not to mention Australia’s largest garden club and Graham’s weekly appearances on Channel 7.

Graham Ross said working in a family business was complex, exciting, fun, stimulating, demanding and beneficial, recognising the various talents and skills of each person. “Our staff meetings are lively affairs, but we wouldn’t have it any other way”. And while it’s a long way off, it’s possible that one day a third generation will also be involved, with Linda having two children, Melaleuca (10) and Flinders (6), while Kent has a one-year-old son named Cooper.

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