Penny Spencer Spencer Travel

established 1998; twenty-five employees; $20 million turnover

What's the most lusted- after seat on an aircraft? Penny Spencer knows. 'All my top clients want seat 1A, whether they're famous or not,' she says.

'Particularly on a jumbo jet, because it's right at the front and you're even further forward than the pilots. It's a prestige thing.'

For the upmarket travel agent, flying first class

and staying at luxury hotels is pretty routine. Spencer has an obligation, after all, to sample the high life on behalf of her wealthy clientele. Back in the early 1980s, though, when she got her first job, 'I was so desperate that I literally worked for nothing,' she recalls. 'I worked at a travel agency for six months stamping brochures before they started paying me.' It wasn't quite what Spencer, a New Zealander by birth, had pictured. 'I was fifteen when I got on a plane for the first time,' she says. 'It was only from the South Island to the North, but I knew then that I wanted to work in travel.

It was just so exciting.'

A few years of drudgery and a couple of jobs later she was hired by Ursula King Travel, in Sydney's Woollahra, and began six 'inspiring' years of learning from a great mentor. 'Seeing Ursula so passionate about her business, winning awards, even as a woman in a male-dominated world, really made me believe that I could do it too,' Spencer says. 'I learned a lot from her.'

Eventually, after a stint managing an agency with a former colleague, she decided to go it alone. She funded the 1998 launch of Spencer Travel with nothing but credit cards and faith in the loyalty of the clients she had dealt with—and held on to—over the years. 'I still have many of my original clients today,' Spencer says. 'People

who appreciate a good service will always stay loyal if they can.'

Her solo venture soon took off, but not without tireless effort and fierce determination.

Spencer doggedly pursued a particular TV producer in a bid to win his business. 'I'd heard he wasn't happy with his travel agents, so I called and called and called, and he never answered and didn't

return my messages,' People who appreciate she says. 'Then one a good service will always night I was working stay loyal if they can late and tried calling his offices in the hope that his secretary wouldn't be there and he'd have to pick up the phone himself. He did. And he said that for my 'sheer perseverance' he'd let me go and see him. Sure enough, he signed me up.' A couple of months later, the same producer won the contract to produce the famous Qantas ad with all the children singing I Still Call Australia Home. 'I had to arrange the travel for thirty-six kids and forty crew, parents, guardians, security guards, the lot,' Spencer says. 'They went to five continents and countless locations. I worked solidly for four months. It was exhausting, but I loved it.'

That job was the making of Spencer. Word of mouth did the rest. Soon she was employing

more people to cope with the demand, especially from the people in the entertainment industry. That was both a blessing and a curse, since they can be fussy travellers.

'We had one very famous and handsome actor who insisted on a ten-man "meet and assist" from the plane through Customs, but it was on a flight to Hong Kong, and the ten-man escort was actually ten giggling, slightly hysterical Chinese air stewardesses,' she says. 'The actor was livid, and insisted nothing like that ever happen again. Unfortunately, the next stop was in Bangkok, where the girls have a similar mentality. So I had to call and persuade the airline to provide either men or girls who wouldn't make a fuss. Then he was annoyed that nobody recognised him.'

A famous and wealthy American woman became so frightened after the September 11 attacks that she refused to use any commercial planes or even commercial airports. 'I had to plan her whole trip from Bermuda to Kuala Lumpur using private jets and military air bases,' Spencer says.

'I pointed out that it would have been cheaper to hire the whole first-class cabin of a Boeing 747 and that it would also mean only one stop, but she insisted she wasn't going to get on a commercial flight. It ended up costing more than $560,000 for that one-way journey.'

It remains the most expensive fare Spencer has ever booked, and that's up against some pretty stiff competition.

Today, she has branched into a new field—the final frontier, even. In 2008 Spencer beat off more than 200 other agents to be chosen by Virgin Galactic as one of nine Australian 'space agents' accredited to sell trips into space. She also became the first agent outside the US to sell a fully paid- for $260,000 ticket. 'It's a three-hour trip into space, and paying upfront ensures that the client will be among the first 100 space tourists once commercial flights begin.' In an industry that has largely done away with travel agents' commissions, Virgin Galactic is making an exception for its space flights (expected to start in 2011). It is paying almost 5 per cent, though Spencer says that it took quite a bit of negotiating.

Spencer is not one of those entrepreneurs who live for work and can never see themselves doing anything else. On the contrary, she started looking for a way to quit in about 2003. 'I've got two very young children, and I want a balance between life and work,' she says. 'I don't want to still be doing this when I'm sixty, so I'll sell up to the staff or to an external buyer.' But if leaving the industry is something she'd readily do for her family, it's not the way she reacts to business downturns. Faced with an obstacle, she simply perseveres and overcomes. There have been many such challenges in recent years. After September 11, 2001, for example, 'Nobody was going anywhere. And there was talk about an end to business travel—that people would start using teleconferencing and virtual meetings. Of course things picked up after a couple of months, but for a while a lot of people in the industry thought it was the end of the road.

Then in 2002 there were the Bali bombings and the SARS crisis, and the decision by airlines to stop paying commission to travel agents. They always used to pay us 9 per cent of the cost of the flight, but that was taken away.' Spencer Travel's solution was to charge a service fee. 'That came as a shock, because people weren't used to paying a travel agent. Corporate clients were generally OK about it—they under-stood that we had to earn a living and charge for a top service. But retail clients were, and still are, harder to persuade. They don't realise that the service fee at other agencies is just bundled up in the price of the ticket.'

Spencer will never forget the first time her firm turned over $1 million in a single month. When that happened, in 2002, 'I was ecstatic,' she says. 'Now I need to hit that mark every month just to break even, but then it was a real milestone.'

The economic downturn has hit her business hard but, far from letting it get her down, she says it has renewed her 'entrepreneurial spirit'. 'In a strange way, there are many positives we've taken from the crisis,' she says. 'It makes you get back to your roots and focus on the basics. I've found I'm thinking with originality again, about how to generate new business and get the numbers back up—just like when I was starting out.

Spencer's old clients are still loyal, but they're flying less and buying cheaper tickets. To make up the lost income, she's looking to new customers and specialising in new areas. Space travel is a big-ticket item but it's yet to take off, so she's focusing her efforts closer to home. 'We've started delivering leaflets in our local area, which is something that we would never have considered before, and we're doing deals with companies to offer prizes as incentives to get people to come to us.'

Spencer is also diversifying into the leisure cruise market. 'I've joined an organisation called Cruiseco, which is basically a bulk buyer of cruise deals and enables us to offer packages at the lowest possible prices.'

She has worked out a plan 'detailing exactly how much we have to make each month and what needs to be done if we don't meet those targets.

I have stuck to that, and it's meant considerable changes.' Over Christmas 2008 Spencer put her employees on four-day weeks, and from March to June 2009 they worked nine-day fortnights. 'My staff understood,' she says. 'They would rather be working shorter weeks than be out of a job.' They are back to full-time now.

And she's far from pessimistic about the future. 'The economy might be struggling, but people still need to travel—and when the economy does rebound, our leaner, meaner and more innovative structure means we should be well placed to benefit.' Oh, and those plans to leave the business are still on hold.

Nick Gardner

golden rules

Know your financial situation on a daily basis.

Be passionate—you have to enjoy what you do.

Don't be afraid of making difficult decisions in tough times.

ВЄ flexible and always open to new ideas and changes in direction.

Be positive—if you aren't, your staff will not feel optimistic either.

Cash is king—keep as much as you can.

He Chose To Kick Goals

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Источник: Nick Gardner. How. I made-.my first million. 26 self-made millionaires reveal the secrets to their success. 2010

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