Travel entrepreneur Mary McKenna marks a very significant birthday

Mary McKenna started Tour America 21 years ago - it’s now Ireland’s largest tour operator to the US

Tour America turns 21 this year and owner Mary McKenna can accept "the key of the door" with satisfaction. From humble beginnings in her sittingroom and with no initial finance, McKenna had the ambition to become a tour operator. When business started to take off, she hired three staff and opened the company's first offices on Dublin's Eden Quay.

“All the furniture was second-hand, and I worked seven days a week, 14 hours a day,” McKenna recalls. “My father was my inspiration. He told me I had great common sense and taught me about emotional intelligence at a very young age. However, my father died when I was 25 and we sadly never got to work together, even though he also was in the travel industry.”

McKenna launched her business with only business books as her mentor; without personal guidance it proved difficult.

“I believe mentors are hugely important and if I had had one when I started my business, I would probably not have made as many mistakes at the beginning.”


McKenna is now an active member of Going for Growth ( where she gives six days a year to mentor eight female entrepreneurs.

Tour America has enjoyed continuous growth in a precarious business that has seen many changes with technology and the internet. Investment in staff is one of the features that allowed the company to rise with the tide, McKenna says.

“We are a very innovative and creative team and encourage all staff to be involved in new projects.”

Setting challenges and goals to raise standards is another process the business uses to challenge the status quo. “We launch at least one or two new brands every year.”

Currently Tour America is in the top 5 sellers with all airlines and suppliers. It is the largest seller of holidays to America and number one for cruises in Ireland.

The recession had an impact on business but the tragic events of September 11th, 2001 were far more wide-reaching. Business stopped overnight for five months, and at that time, revenue was based solely on selling holidays to America.

In response, McKenna started Cruise Holidays, the first dedicated Irish company to sell cruising. It has proven to be one of her best decisions in terms of growing the business organically.

During the most recent recession, Tour America decided not to follow the path set by the rest of the travel industry. “Every other travel agent brought in pay cuts and dropped their spend on marketing,” McKenna says. “We did the opposite and, in 2009, we grew our business by 35 per cent and revenue by 17 per cent.”

Customer service has been the number-one focus at all times, she says. “We have over 54 per cent repeat business and our mission statement is very simple, ‘to have a raving fan club’. Also, we have excellent staff, and we make it a fun company to work in. We reward good customer service.”

Over the years McKenna’s staff haven’t really changed but she admits she has changed as a leader, and works on being an inspiration.

“We want our staff to enjoy and feel part of our growth and success,” McKenna says. “We encourage a lot of fun in work, and don’t want them to conform. We do weekly one-to-one meetings with all staff members and we have one rule in work, ‘no moods allowed’ they are toxic and contagious.”

Bringing in new products and investing in technology have proven to be important for growing business.

“We were the first tour company to set up a department that sold from social media and have won many awards outside our industry for our innovation and our social media activity.” McKenna says. Tour America is the only travel company in Ireland to have won a Deloitte Best Managed Company award.

Next month Tour America will host its annual sale day at the Red Cow Moran Hotel. Clients get to meet travel experts in the US market as well as cruise line representatives. It is another way of reaching out to a returning client base.

For the future, McKenna would like to open offices in Belfast. “We have offices in Dublin and Cork at the moment, and have many home workers throughout Ireland. We also hope to grow our repeat business towards 75 per cent.”