Leaving school in the late 1960s, Jill Carmody had one thing on her mind: babies. “I really wanted to become a Mothercraft Nurse and learn how to take care of newborns and their mothers,” recalls Jill. “The problem was it meant moving from my parents’ home in Colac, a small town in western Victoria, to Melbourne, where we didn’t have any relatives as a backup.
“Instead, my parents encouraged me to apply for a position that was going in the local travel agency. I won it, and so ever since I’ve called myself the accidental travel agent. My mother said ‘don’t worry, when you have your own you’ll learn all about babies’. I went on to have four children and now I have 12 grandchildren, so she was right.”
Travel might not have been the career Jill envisaged, but she found working as a domestic consultant with Colac Travel Service stimulating. And then, two years later, just shy of 20 years of age, she was finally Melbourne-bound.
“It was 1972 and my boyfriend Ed asked me to marry him and move to Melbourne where he had a job. I was young but I thought ‘another Ed Carmody isn’t going to come along in my lifetime’, and I was right.”
In Melbourne Jill found work with the New Zealand Government Tourist Bureau, but left a year later to start her family. It was another 12 years before the opportunity came to re-enter the workforce following the family’s move to Leongatha, which sits 135 kilometres southeast of Melbourne in the foothills of the Strzelecki Ranges in the South Gippsland Shire.
“Ed was named founding principal of the Catholic Regional College and after I settled the family in I went to work in the weight loss industry for Jenny Craig. It was working with people, which I liked, but after two years I found it repetitive and in 1988 an opportunity came up to work in a local travel agency.”
Four years later the owner of the town’s opposition agency, Great Southern Travel, was looking to take on a partner, so Jill and Ed bought 50% of the company. Such arrangements can often go sour, but their new business partner – a chartered accountant who had never worked in the agency – turned out to be “a great mentor”.
“When I first bought the agency it was running at a loss but within nine months we had turned it around into profit,” Jill says. “We always thought we’d remain partners but after four years I was keen to join a franchise and our business partner was not. He couldn’t see it was necessary, but I was attracted to the support structure and keen to increase the level of professionalism.
“Ironically, when he decided to get out we had to take out a loan to purchase his half and we then found we couldn’t afford the franchise fees. That was lucky because we were looking at joining Traveland, which was subsequently caught up in the collapse of Ansett, so he did me a big favour.”
Eventually in 2002, 10 years after taking full control of the business, the agency did become a franchise, joining Jetset, where it remained until 2014. “I didn’t like how the Jetset structure was changing, so I did a lot of research and decided Travellers Choice had the best offer for us because it provided the support and structure we needed, while allowing us to regain independence.”
Today the agency – now a two-time Bronze Choice Award winner – employs three full time agents and one part time, with Ed holding up the back office. The regional community it serves is heavily reliant on the farming sector but Jill says the agency’s clientele is more diverse.
“We have a lot of retirees in the region – anybody living in our shire is a ‘tree changer’ and those in Inverloch and the coastal regions are the ‘sea changers’. But it’s also a mixed demographic in the town, and as a result we do everything from youth travel to our own group tours.”
Almost 50 years after first joining the travel industry Jill still sees a bright future for agents, whose “intellectual property” she believes remains undervalued. “I still think we can do more with our business. The key is to have the right people, who are just as passionate about travel as you and have a desire to take the business forward, and I’m lucky enough to have that with my team.”