Entrepreneur Penny Spencer: Having a business is almost like having a child - Women's Agenda

Entrepreneur Penny Spencer: Having a business is almost like having a child

Penny Spencer founded Spencer Travel to offer personalised service in corporate travel management.

Now the company turns over $30 million a year and Spencer talked to Women’s Agenda sister publication SmartCompany about how she increased productivity using computer screens, how she managed the travel for the iconic Qantas advertisement and how she retains staff with a reward of one carat diamonds.

Company: Spencer Travel

Age: 49

Based: Surry Hills, NSW

Position: Founder and owner of Spencer Travel

It’s all about putting yourself in the shoes of the traveller.

Corporate travellers travel so much. It’s nice for us to think for them, rather than them asking, “Can you book me a limo when I get there?” We just do that.

We did the Qantas commercial, with all the kids singing around the world. It was three months that I really had no life, to be honest. But I learned so much and now every time I see that commercial I go, “Oh my God.”

I’ve been in the industry since I was about 18 years old, and I worked my way up the ladder. I started by volunteering to any travel agent that wanted me for free, just to get into the industry.

I think it’d be very difficult to start a business in an industry that you don’t know or you haven’t worked in.

Back then I did it all. I did the sales, the client relationship, consulting, the hiring, the firing, the accounts. But as you grow, there’s so many more complications. You’ve got 40 odd staff, and you’ve got direct reports, and the clients are a lot more  demanding.

Being more profitable is about really being smart. Smart in the way that we do things. So as we’ve grown, we’ve worked very hard on productivity.

We’ve given every consultant three screens, and that’s put us at about a 25% productivity gain on each consultant, because they have on one screen their emails, the next screen their reservations area, and on their other screen it might be a website they’re working on.

The other thing that we do a lot of is that we listen. We don’t talk too much when we go into these meetings with new clients, we ask them what we need, and really try to get to know them before we actually launch in to what we can do.

Having a business is almost like having a child. You think as a baby it’s so difficult, “God, I can’t sleep, blah blah” and then you get to the teenagers and you think, “Oh God, I wish I had a baby again, it was so easy.” And I think it’s similar in business.

Biggest management mistake? I think a lot of the time, it can be in employing or not employing the right people. It’s very difficult in an interview process when people have learned to tell you what you want to hear, and it’s hard to check that.

We ended up at Fair Work Australia one time. That taught me not to do things in a hurry. I’m very process driven, and I’d gone through all the processes, but there was the one thing I’d missed, and that was purely because I’d wanted this person to leave as quickly as possible.

If someone has been at Spencer Travel for 10 years, they get a one carat diamond and they get to choose how they have that one carat diamond. I’ve got four of them, and two have got a ring, and one has got a bracelet and one has got a necklace. And it’s very much part of our culture, and people talk about it all the time.
I thought “What would I like to get when I’ve been with a company for a long time?” Diamonds are my best friend, so I thought diamonds. And really, a one carat diamond is ten thousand dollars. An investment of a thousand dollars a year is not a lot of money when you put it like that.

There’s a lot of direct competition from our suppliers. Our suppliers are hotels and airlines, so as you know, if you are a frequent flyer, you get every single special and everything imaginable from Qantas or whoever direct into your inbox, and some of them say, “Contact your travel agent.” Most of them don’t.

The internet is a threat, but for corporate travel, not so much. Interestingly enough, five years ago, all domestic corporate travel was being done online. Now people are coming back saying, “Oh, it’s too time consuming.”

I think there’s still the boys’ club out there, and it’s definitely out there in the travel industry as well. I’ve cut through that, and the only way you can cut through that is to be successful and gain respect and trust from them. Once you do that, you’re in that club, but it takes a lot to get there.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox