Friday Interview: Mary McKenna, founder of Tour America and Cruise Holidays

The travel entrepreneur has taken knocks in life and business – and come back stronger

Mary McKenna: “Somebody said to me ‘you don’t make money for the first three years’ and I said ‘who made up that rule’.”  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Mary McKenna: “Somebody said to me ‘you don’t make money for the first three years’ and I said ‘who made up that rule’.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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On the back wall of Mary McKenna’s office hangs a Ten Commandments-type edict – a poster with the guidelines by which she runs her business. Instead of 10, there are 12 pointers or “things to always remember”. These serve as a reminder to McKenna and her staff about the lessons the entrepreneur has learned over her 24 years in business.

“Kindness is free”, reads number 10, and “what goes around, comes around” proclaims number 12. On the morning we meet in her Abbey Street office in Dublin, it becomes clear that McKenna believes in the maxims hanging on her wall. Life for the founder of Tour America and Cruise Holidays has been a series of lessons, both personally and professionally, that have helped her keep on a growth trajectory.

Originally from Portlaoise, Co Laois, McKenna has been involved in the travel business in some shape or form for almost as long as she can remember.

When she was a child her father would bring her along with her siblings into the Atlas Travel business he ran on weekends, where she would vacuum and tidy up the staffs’ desks. On a Sunday the children would usually be in Croke Park with their father, “but that was to give my mother a break”, she says.

Her father, “a staunch Irishman”, was from the Falls Road in Belfast. After living in the US where he was drafted into the US air force, he returned to Ireland to run a pub in Co Laois with McKenna’s mother. It was there that McKenna and two of her three siblings were born. Their experience of running a pub, she says, was a miserable existence.

“My uncle had a travel company in San Francisco, and he saw his older brother struggling, and said ‘why don’t you open up a travel company for me in Ireland, in Dublin’.”

Upped sticks

That’s how it all started. As a young family they upped sticks and moved to Dublin. Her father, “a mad sports person”, started running sports charters, working seven days a week.

“I often think he had huge emotional intelligence, because he was able to identify in each of us what our talents were and motivate us,” she says of her father. Although McKenna “wasn’t doing well in school”, her Dad identified that she had “great common sense”, and pushed her to find a job she loved.

Having left school at 18, McKenna ended up working for Northwest Airlines – which was subsequently absorbed into Delta Airlines – in Shannon Airport, “getting the feel of an airline”. After that she moved to a start-up airline Club Air, where she did everything from load bags on to the aircraft to direct the planes when engineers went on strike.

“For me it was about a work ethic, a job I loved, and not being afraid to make decisions,” she says of her time with Club Air ,which, she admits, “was a bit of a disaster of an airline because it had no hope”.

After just over two years it went into liquidation, and McKenna was out of a job. The following years would prove tough, with her sisters having a serious car accident in the US and her father passing away. At the age of 25, McKenna took on a greater role at home, and went to work in her uncle’s Atlas Travel business.

But eventually she got frustrated, having climbed the ladder from marketing manager to office manager. “I had so many ideas and it was ‘we’ve always done it this way’,” she says of the environment in the Atlas business. After it was sold to a UK company, she told her uncle she would start her own business, and, more than six months later in 1994, she did.

McKenna is now a mentor to women starting in business because of some of her own early encounters. For example, when she was starting up she thought she would need £100,000 and brought in a shareholder. “We never actually took a penny of that, but I did give shares away in the business. That was a huge lesson.”

Broken into

Having started the business in her home, McKenna eventually opened an office in Dublin’s Eden Quay. “It was awful. For the first year most Saturday nights I’d get a call to say the office was broken into.”

Nevertheless turnover reached £3 million in that first year, and the company recorded a profit of £68,000 – despite warnings at the time from other business people.

“Somebody said to me ‘you don’t make money for the first three years’ and I said ‘who made up that rule’.” Over subsequent years the business grew and grew. McKenna “thought that was the way it always went” and admits to taking her eye off the ball.

The terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, in the US changed everything. Over a coffee with her sister in Arnotts, McKenna saw the events unfold on a television screen. But she didn’t quite grasp the implications for her business which at that time just sold holidays to the US.

“Three months later I was sitting with my sister and she said the phones haven’t rung, nobody’s going anywhere,” she says. Of her 43 staff, McKenna had to let 11 go.

Yet she started to see cruise offers coming in for a “good price”, and registered the CruiseHolidays.ie brand, ultimately allowing her to hire back 10 of them. In its first year the cruise business turned over £6 million.

As it happened, the US business returned within six months, and Irish travellers “went to the States like nobody went to the States”. With business going well again, McKenna was working hard, regularly spending part of her weekend in the office.

‘Fractured my hip’

One Saturday in early 2004, from her office she saw a woman struggling to move her car. McKenna went out to move her own car so the woman could get out and got hit by a reversing vehicle. “He drove over me and all my ribs broke and I punctured both my lungs, fractured my hip, fractured my pelvis.” Despite her family being told she had a 50 per cent chance of survival, McKenna made a recovery within six weeks.

But it did give her some time to think. She learned to spend less time working on the business, and says that after that incident her “whole life changed”.

She continued to dedicate enough time to growing the business throughout the Celtic Tiger without overstretching herself. And when the recession rolled around McKenna was well placed to deal with it.

She recalls being at a conference in 2008 in the US. She was watching business channel CNBC while on a cross-trainer one morning. The chief executive of Coca-Cola came on screen, and said “in a recession protect your brand”.

“Those words stuck in my head,” she says.

On her return to Ireland she looked at the 400 travel agents and tour operators in the country. “Every single one of them had done pay cuts, redundancies and stopped marketing. So I called a meeting with the whole entire team, and said ‘let’s do something different’.” And she did.

Avoiding pay cuts and redundancies, McKenna doubled her marketing output and, in 2009, increased revenue by 17 per cent. She grew passenger numbers by 56 per cent “just by being different”.

Although profits remained low throughout the recession, McKenna escaped relatively unscathed. She even started two brands – Tour Africa and Tour China – neither of which worked out.

“We didn’t fail fast enough,” she says, adding that she learned to “grow what we know well”. The experience was a “bit like a doctor who has been a knee surgeon and then decides he’s going to do the ear as well”, she jokes.

Diversified

But the experience of failure opened her eyes to the fact that her brand has significant growth potential, and she now plans to take it into Northern Ireland and Britain. Already she has diversified from her Dublin base with a Cork office that now accounts for around 20 per cent of her business.

Far from being a workaholic, McKenna is a family woman. “My family come first,” she says when we talk about her wife and 10-year-old son. “My dad worked seven days a week and he went in a taxi from his office to a hospital and died. I don’t want to do the same. I want to enjoy the moments with my family.”

In pursuit of that enjoyment McKenna volunteered to be her son’s soccer and rugby coach. “I went up to watch him when he was about five and all they were doing was messing. I actually said to my partner there’s no point in me giving out and the only way you can make a difference is by being involved, so I asked them could I be a coach and they said yes.”

While proud of her son, McKenna sounds far more realistic than some of the other parents who believe their children will be the next big sports star.

“What you can do with kids is tell them they’re brilliant, and then they go into the real world and they’re not. The world will knock you around the place.”

In her business McKenna has plenty of experience of being knocked around given that disasters in the travel industry are never far away. The ash cloud, the sinking of cruise ship Costa Concordia and, of course, September 11th, 2001, are just some examples we talk about. But McKenna has proved to be resilient, picking up a raft of accolades and being shortlisted this year for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards – something of which she’s immensely proud. “I was over the moon,” she says of being shortlisted.

Marathon

Outside of business, and in spite of her 2004 injuries, McKenna is a fitness enthusiast, having played top division hockey when she was younger. After her accident McKenna set a goal of running a marathon despite being told by her physiotherapist not to run. She raised €5,000 for children’s charity Barnardos when she ran the New York Marathon in 2011. “I’ll never do that again,” she says of her marathon experience.

While another marathon may be off the cards, she cycles with other business people as part of her desire to develop and grow on a personal level.

As our meeting draws to a close, I ask if she takes time off. Predictably, she says she never “switches off 100 per cent”.

“I would always check my emails,” she adds.

Nonetheless McKenna aims to “go on a cruise holiday every second year”.

But for real downtime her ideal holiday is a “not brush my hair, get on a bike, walk the mountains” break.

For some her life might sound exhausting: she wouldn’t have it any other way.

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C.V.

Name: Mary McKenna

Age: 54

Position: Founder and managing director of Tour America and Cruise Holidays

Lives: Dublin

Family: Married to Stephanie, with one son

Something you might expect: With the exception of a loan to pay rent when she lost her job with Club Air, McKenna never got hand-outs and has never “taken a penny” from her parents

Something that might surprise: At the age of 23 McKenna went to train to get a pilot’s licence and got the theory. However, she has never flown a plane

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