Holiday souvenirs: sun, sea, sand and start-up businesses

Travel can inspire great business ideas or career moves

Travel can inspire great business ideas or career moves. Five Irish people who changed their paths in life while abroad tell their stories to Karen Creed

AS WELL as the cliches about world travel – broadening your horizons, experiencing new cultures, meeting people from all walks of life – a holiday abroad can also have a life-changing impact on your career. Travel can implant clever business ideas in the minds of inquisitive tourists.

Active minds tend to be on constant alert on holiday: people-watching, exploring places away from the tourist traps and embracing novel concepts for businesses.

Richard Branson’s passion for travel resulted in him setting up many of his sideline ventures, Necker Island being one of the most notable. He fell in love with the Caribbean island, and realised its potential as a holiday resort for those seeking privacy in paradise.


He purchased it for £180,000 and currently rents it out for about €35,000 a night.

Many people have drawn inspiration from holidays abroad, including these Irish people who took a gamble with a business idea they had while on holiday.



Maria Barber is a self-confessed shoe addict, adding to her collection of peep-toes and stilettos wherever she travels.

During a holiday to Malaysia in 2007, her attention was drawn to the eye-catching footwear of Rockin Reptile in a department store in Kuala Lumpur. After purchasing several pairs and parading them at home, Barber started to think seriously about the brand as she was bombarded with inquiries about them.

“I contacted the designer directly and sent on a proposal to be a distributor of the shoes in the UK and Ireland.”

Barber followed this with a visit to the board of directors in Kuala Lumpur, and having seen her 10-year experience in retail, they accepted her offer. Once she had signed on the dotted line, Barber ordered samples and contacted her favourite shoe shops in Ireland to see if they would stock Rockin Reptile.

“It was 2007, when things were slowing down, but some people who took them on are still doing business with me,” she says. Now in her third year, she is enjoying it as much as on day one.

“I just received catalogues of next year’s shoe collection, and it just gets better and better.”

With a website and stockists all over Ireland, Barber is preparing to be an integral part of the expansion of Rockin Reptile into other parts of Europe.



In 2003 O’Hara took the biggest gamble of his career when he decided to become an importer of Portuguese wine into Ireland, after his clothing business closed.

“The idea came to me after 10 years of golfing holidays in Portugal and enjoying bottles of beautiful local wines there,” he says. Having previously employed a staff of 37, he was now a one-man band in his new business. “I went to Portugal, sourced the wines from the producers and targeted all the golf clubs in Ireland. I knew there were people like me with the same taste for good wine.”

O’Hara progressed the business by getting his wine into top restaurants, including Michelin-star venues such as L’Ecrivain. “The link with restaurants opened the door for the wine to be accepted into reputable wine shops like Donnybrook Fair and Fallon Byrne,” he says.

Currently importing more than 60 wines into Ireland as well as ports, vinegars and olive oils, business is going better than he had ever imagined.

“I am making a very good living. Sales are up year on year, and we had a 40 per cent jump last year.”

Although sales are the key to any business success, Kevin’s passion for Portugal is undeniable. “I sell Portugal as much as I sell the wine.”



Turning 40 is a landmark in itself, but for Michelle Jackson her birthday coincided with a drastic career change. “My old school friend Katherine was also turning 40, so we decided to celebrate together in Biarritz.”

As the pair enjoyed a leisurely weekend in the coastal hot spot, they explored the idea of how Michelle could launch her dream writing career.

“Although I was working as an art teacher at the time, I really wanted to secure a book deal.” With Biarritz as the backdrop, Katherine helped her friend plot a story about a woman having an affair with her best friend’s father.

As Michelle boarded the flight home, with the plot for her book firmly in her mind, she met an ex-boyfriend, who just happened to be the pilot. “I couldn’t believe it, and I thought if this can happen in real life I can put it into a book.”

Six months later, Michelle had written Two Days in Biarritz, referencing the restaurants and places she saw in the city.

It wasn’t easy to find a publisher – it took the mother of two a year to secure a contract.

"Poolbeg was considering my book, and when I mentioned to them that I was going to New York and maybe my next book might be Two Nights in New York, a three-book contract was signed," says Michelle.

For all of books, she soaks up inspiration about the places she is writing about by visiting first.

“My latest one is about Havana and the one after that will be about Las Vegas.”

One Kiss in Havanais published by Poolbeg



Kelly contradicts the reputation of surfers as beach bums, combining a love of catching waves with a successful business focused on surfing.

“I set up after I realised how popular surf trips were becoming and there wasn’t anyone offering specialised surfing trips from Ireland.”

Following several research trips to Portugal, Nicky realised the potential of surf holidays. “I bought an apartment in Ericeira , which I put up on a website and rented out, and then gradually I linked up with a local surf school and eco-lodges, so I had more accommodation to offer people.”

Kelly has expanded his surf holidays to include Lagos in the Algarve, San Sebastian in Spain, Biarritz in France and Gran Canaria. With a background in sales, he believes his current job is not too different, as “a lot of it is still sales”. From January to August he is busy with bookings, while September to December he concentrates on research trips to the surf destinations. Like any ambitious entrepreneur, Nicky is looking to expand the business. “It would be great one day to tell people I can send them to Hawaii, the Maldives or Indonesia for a surf holiday.”



In 2006 Chris Maher closed the door on his secure job as sales manager at a Dublin radio station to set up the Dublin City Soul Festival. “I was always interested in soul music, but the big push came when I was on a trip to Memphis and I was adopted as an Honorary Tennesseean and Ambassador of Soul Music.”

Five months after Maher had quit his office job, he was welcoming the Rance Allen Group and many other renowned soul acts to Dublin’s first soul festival. Since its launch in 2007 it has grown from 10,000 visitors to more than 40,000.

“We are now working on plans for our fifth anniversary for May 2011, which will aim to attract twice that number,” he says. He believes the festival will become a financially viable operation.

The festival is also focused on charity work, having established the Musical Youth Foundation to provide children with access to a musical education.

Maher finds that his travels are his inspiration to expand the festival. “Certainly experiences I’ve had overseas have helped to shape and influence the development of the festival. I’ve also been lucky enough to get to go back to the likes of Memphis to source artists.”