Influencers & Profiles

Flying high: How Penny Spencer created an award-winning travel business by doing things her way

Eloise Keating /

After just six years working in the travel industry, Penny Spencer knew she wanted to own her own business. The 50-year-old Sydneysider spent the next few years learning all the skills she would need to run her own travel agency before taking the plunge and establishing Spencer Travel in 1998. The award-winning corporate travel agency now employs 58 people and turns over approximately $50 million a year.

I started in the travel industry at the age of 19 and worked my way up from there. When I was 25 I thought I would really like to own my own business. So I started looking strategically at the roles I was taking in the industry, going from a strategic consultant to a manager. I learnt all the ropes along the way.

I worked for various travel agencies for 16 years. I left one particular one after four years of helping to build and manage the business. I thought: I can do this my way.

Starting out on my own was a big step. I started with $1.5 million of clients, and this has now grown to $16 million.

I cashed in my Telstra shares to start the company. That really just started the process.

I started out with another consultant and a bookkeeper who worked part-time. We did everything. It was a busy but fun time.

We’re now growing rapidly and I often think: is it the chicken or the egg? Do I bring in new business and then hire new staff, or do I hire new staff to bring in new business? We’ve recently brought in new staff and now we’re trying to get the business.

You have to spend money to make money. That’s the lesson. You’ve got to invest to continue the growth.

I am a huge planner. I love planning. If you don’t have a map, you don’t know where you’re going.

But the plan always changes. I have annual plans and I live by those monthly, but I don’t plan for the next 10 years. I have some guide, but realistically it does change.

At Spencer Travel we do what I call “a painted picture”. It’s a visual representation of where we want to go. It’s about bringing everyone on board with the same vision.

People definitely keep me awake at night. And cash flow at times can keep you awake if your debtors aren’t paying and pay day is coming up. There are times when you think: I hope I get a cheque tomorrow.

It’s funny, you think clients would keep you awake at night, but you seem to have a bit more control of them at times because you can communicate with them. You know what’s in their head.

A large part of Spencer Travel is the corporate market. It would account for 75% of the business. And then we have three retail shops. I think there is growth in all areas, and we are looking at conferencing as well.

Within the corporate market there are always other areas and niches to branch out to, such as retail corporate: we’ve recently started working with Louis Vuitton and RM Williams. We also do entertainment travel with production companies, looking after their arrangements for television commercials.

The corporate travel market is based on word-of-mouth recommendations, rather than marketing.

But in the retail sector, we were one of the first travel companies to put television screens in the windows of our key outlets. We on-sell that space to suppliers, who effectively pay for the cost of the screens. But there is a high return on investment for them.

It’s been very successful. More than 65,000 cars drive past the screens a day so it is quite powerful. Just recently a car pulled up out the front of one of our stores and the driver pointed to the screen and said: “I want to go there.”

I love being on boards. I currently sit on a couple of boards and I want to do more of that in the future. We also love winning awards. We are always striving to win awards and are quite strategic about the awards we go after.

And I’m focused on keeping grounded about the business. As you get bigger, sometimes you lose having your finger on the pulse. Sometimes it’s about coming back to basics.

I think the travel market has come back from the internet. We are all so time poor now that to go online to book corporate travel is just too hard. We have grown from having one or two domestic travel consultants to having six, so the market is coming back to agencies.

The trend has definitely turned. In the retail space, people will research their trips online and then book with us. There is so much information online and we give the right advice.

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Eloise Keating

Eloise Keating is the editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Eloise was news editor at Books+Publishing, the trade press for the Australian book industry.

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