Some people are born to be great travel agents, others achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Kathy Granger can lay claim to all three.
Just five years ago she was working in property management for LJ Hooker on Tasmania’s North West coast. A few years before that she and her husband Pip had moved back to the region from Hobart in order to help set up a call centre for the Australian Tax Office in Burnie, a small town struggling to reinvent itself following the closure of its pulp mill.
"In other words I was a call girl who became a ‘Hooker’,” Kathy says. “And at the time I was trying to retire gracefully, but in reality I was working six days a week.”
Then tragedy struck. Kathy’s brother, who owned and operated Burnie Travelcentre for more than 20 years, suffered a debilitating stroke and was unable to continue.
Kathy, who had been a silent investor in the business for two decades, had to make a decision.
“I realised that if I was to protect his money and mine I had three options: close and get out of it what I could, sell it or have a crack myself.”
Her decision to take over the business in April 2012 – having never worked a day as a travel agent – left some friends and former colleagues mystified.
"They told me everyone was booking their travel online, but I thought 'what's the worst thing that can happen, I’ll have to retire?' And then, as soon as I started, all I saw was huge opportunity.”
Since then Kathy has never looked back.
When she took over Burnie Travelcentre the agency had one other staff member. It now employs five.
In August 2015, Kathy also added a second store. The shop, located an hour’s drive away in the town of Smithton, was previously an in-house travel operation for stock and station agent, Roberts Limited.
Then in 2016, after multiple nominations, Burnie Travelcentre won the Brian Pateman Agency Award for Excellence, which recognises outstanding performance across a range of categories, including support for fellow members, preferred suppliers’ sales and marketing strategy.
“I’m happy to say that taking over the agency was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Kathy says. “And the reason I've fallen on my feet is 600 per cent due to Travellers Choice. If it wasn't for the group, and the support I’ve enjoyed from my BDMs and from a couple of fellow members in Victoria who adopted and mentored me, I don't believe my business would exist.”
Kathy’s drive and talents – particularly her inter-personal skills – have also played a major role.
Before moving back to Burnie she was an HR professional, working for 10 years just outside Hobart as the Recruitment Officer for the Australian Antarctic Division. In was an unusual job that involved finding people who had not just specific skills but the right temperament to fit into small teams working in exceptionally remote locations.
“All of the applicants – for roles that ranged from chefs to radio operators and plumbers – were subjected to a psych test devised by the army, as well as a stringent medical. I always considered them to be my clients, and in that sense I felt that the customer service skills I brought to the travel business were good.
“What was clear to me from the start was that people were happy to pay a travel agent if they felt they got good service. I'm still not the most knowledgeable travel agent, but the service that I and my staff provide is excellent because I only employ people who have those skills in their DNA”.
Kathy says there have been plenty of surprises since joining the travel industry, in particular the fact that she’s now regularly encountering people who are returning to traditional retail stores after going it alone online.
"They’ve realised that for $50 more they can get me 24/7 while they’re away. And it's worth it!"
As for future plans, securing a Choice Award sits high on her ‘to do’ list.
"I definitely want to improve sales each year, but at end of day it’s not all about the money. It's also about giving staff as many opportunities as I can, and it’s about being a good corporate citizen.”
Kathy Granger with Trish Ridsdale and Christian Hunter at the Travellers Choice 2016 Annual Shareholders’ Conference