The women behind the Irish travel trade

Go home and rear your kids, some said. But Mary Fitzgerald, Tanya Airey, Zara Stassin and others did that and more, steering some of Ireland’s best-known holiday companies

Anyone over 40 will remember how the late, great Gillian Bowler put package holidays on the map here with Budget Travel. The original low-cost-marketing whizz – think sunglasses on head and butt cheeks on bus shelters – she surely taught Michael O'Leary a thing or two.

Irish travel and tourism are still home to smart businesswomen, and looking towards International Women's Day, on Thursday, is a fitting time to salute them.

They include Tanya Airey, boss of Ireland's biggest tour operator, Sunway Holidays. Set up by her grandfather in 1966, it specialised in corporate travel until Airey came on board, soon after leaving school, in the 1980s. She transformed it by opening up exotic new destinations, such as Morocco, for much the same price as a fortnight in Benidorm. Sicily and Sardinia followed, and today the company sends Irish holidaymakers to 77 destinations worldwide, including on honeymoons, flotilla holidays and escorted tours.

Mary McKenna started her company, Tour America, from her sitting room in 1995. Today it employs more than 50 staff and was just voted travel agency of the year. McKenna started her career with Northwest Airlines, followed by a stint at the short-lived Club Air where she earned her wings – literally. As duty manager on the ground she had to secure a commercial pilot's licence.


A true maverick, while all around her slashed their advertising budgets during the great recession, McKenna ramped up hers and grew market share as a result. As well as running Tour America and its sister company Cruise Holidays, McKenna is on the council of Dublin Chamber of Commerce and coaches rugby at Belvedere College and soccer at Beechwood FC. With that pace it's little wonder she was voted woman of the year at the recent Everywoman Awards, a UK initiative. She is also hugely supportive of other women in business, finding time to mentor on Going for Growth, a development network for women entrepreneurs.

When Zara Stassin set up Zara's Planet in 2006 as a niche provider of equestrian holidays, people told her it would never work. Today she sends more than 1,600 people to their own horsey heaven in more than 30 countries, from horseback safaris in Kenya to cattle drives in Colorado.

The sweet spot for her business is women solo travellers aged 45 to 60, who account for 70 per cent of her revenue. You don’t cater to that market, and get two-thirds of them coming back, without knowing a thing or two about women.

The Zara's Planet exhibition stand at Dublin Horse Show each year is a case in point: you hear the gales of laughter emanating from its pitch at the RDS long before you see it. "Customers love to come in and tell us about their holidays – and we always have loads of bottles of cheap prosecco," Stassin says.

Caroline Martin's love of Norway enabled the former PR woman to carve out another niche travel business, Project Travel, set up in 2005 and now run by her husband, Guy Tominaga. Today Project Travel is one of Hurtigruten's leading sales agents in Ireland, offering voyages that go well beyond the Norwegian coastline, including destinations such as Antarctica, the Arctic, Greenland, Iceland, the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe.

New destinations, such as the Northwest Passage and Canada, are already on sale for 2019, for trips aboard two ships that are currently under construction. "They'll be first hybrid-powered ships in the world and much more environmentally friendly," Martin says. "Just imagine gliding past glaciers and icebergs under silent power: it's going to be amazing." The couple also run Aloha Holidays, specialising in Tominaga's native Hawaii.

Deirdre McGlone ensured that every bedroom has a 'lady's corner', with lighting and seating to give women somewhere other than the bathroom to make up in

Some of Ireland's best-known hoteliers are women, too, including Shelly Stokes of Castle Durrow Country House Hotel, who bought her elegant Co Laois property when it was a wreck. She painstakingly restored it, repairing and painting mouldings and ceilings by herself and scouring auctions for antiques to fill it. She attributes its success today to the fact that is first and foremost her family home. Her customer service is based on the desire to ensure guests feel equally at home.

In Co Donegal, Deirdre McGlone started out as a receptionist at Harvey's Point when the hotel had not much more than 20 bedrooms and a bar licence. Together with her husband, Marc Gysling, she has overseen its growth and transformation into one of the country's top luxury destinations.

At every stage in its design she has put women to the fore, such as ensuring that every bedroom has a “lady’s corner”, with lighting and seating to give women somewhere other than the bathroom to make up in. She does it because she knows it’s predominantly women who decide where a couple go for a short break.

McGlone is also committed to helping women in business, volunteering as a mentor with Acorns, a development programme for women-owned rural start-ups.

As a rural entrepreneur herself, that's something Mary Fitzgerald, founder of Fitzgeralds Woodlands House Hotel & Spa, in Adare, Co Limerick, could surely identify with. She started out "doing B&B" in a modest bungalow, to supplement the family's farm income. A seriously savvy businesswoman, she had added another four bedrooms before long, and a dinner service, too.

When eventually she went to borrow money to apply for a hotel licence, she hit a speed bump in the form of a bank manager who told her to go home and rear her kids. Today Fitzgerald presides over an 89-bedroom hotel that is one of the most popular wedding destinations in the country. And in 2007 she added a second hotel, the Vienna Woods Hotel, in Glanmire in Cork. She also went on to become the first woman president of the Irish Hotels Federation. She employs more than 200 people, including, her bank manager might like to know, all four of her children.