'After 9/11, my business stopped overnight and I had to let excellent people go'

Tour America’s Mary McKenna also talks about how no one believed in her business 20 years ago.

By Conor McMahon Deputy editor, Fora

TOUR AMERICA BOSS Mary McKenna was named woman of the year last week at the inaugural ‘everywoman in travel’ awards in London.

McKenna, who started the travel company out her sitting room in 1995, picked up the gong for her ”outstanding business acumen and dedication to inspiring other female entrepreneurs”.

Tour America – which specialises in package holidays to the US – today employs 50 people across its Dublin and Cork offices. The company last year reported sales of more than €19.5 million and a profit of over €300,000.

For the latest instalment of our question-and-answer series, we spoke to McKenna about how no one believed in her business when it first started, why she’d like to hire a world-famous motivational speaker and what it was like selling holidays to America after the 9/11 attacks.

Here’s what she had to say:

On average, what time do you start work in the morning and what time do you clock off?

I start my day around 8.30am and I finish around 6pm. But Monday to Thursday, I would probably do another two hours work from 8.30pm.

How often do you take a day off?

I take all of my holidays and really enjoy time with my family. So I take time off at Easter, Christmas and some time in the summer.

unnamed (1) Tour America's Mary McKenna
Source: Paul Sherwood

What’s the worst job/task you’ve ever had to do?

When 9/11 happened, my business stopped overnight and two months later I had to let go 10 excellent staff members. At the time that was the worst thing I have ever had to do.

Thankfully, three months later, I took them all back when I started a new company called Cruise Holidays.

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

Starting my business. I had no money, there was no Enterprise Ireland back then and no one believed in me at the time – but I really believed in myself.

What’s your favourite day of the week and why?

Friday because I don’t start work until about 10.30am. I take my son to school and then go into work. I also have pizza and beer night when I come home.

If there was one person in the world you could hire for your board, who would it be and why?

I like very positive people and need to feel energised. If there was one person it would probably be motivational speaker Tony Robbins. I spent four days at one of his seminars in the UK.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out in your industry?

Make sure you have done your market intelligence research. Contract everything – there should be no grey areas. Understand the numbers and be excellent at finding the right product to market.

You have to work very hard from the beginning. Then work on the business, not in it.

What has been your biggest mistake to date and what did you learn from it?

What I have learnt now is to fail fast and fall in love with your customer and not your brand.

What’s the one skill you wish you had?

I have taught myself most skills. I would still be somewhat weak on understanding the IT end of things, but I’m not bad.

Name one thing that would put you off hiring someone.

Toxic, victim mentality.

Do you like to see your employees working extra hours? Why/why not?

No, I want them to enjoy their family time because I think this is very important.

There are certain times that we need a little extra, but it is about give and take, so it is very important to me to take care of my staff.

What bad work (or business) habit have you had to kick?

I am extremely organised now and leave my office very tidy. It took me ages to be able to do this. I don’t sweat the small stuff any more.

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