Penny Spencer

Penny Spencer

Travel consultant Penny Spencer has a tip for any business dealing with Australia’s patchy economy: make sure you have a range of customers from different business sectors.

“Where one industry might not be doing so well, you’ll have another industry that is, so you definitely have to spread it across a broad range of customers,” says Spencer, chief executive of Spencer Travel, which relies heavily on corporate bookings.

“We have quite a wide range of corporate customers. So we’re not just in finance or just in IT. We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket.”

Her comments are apt, with the latest official data showing the economy grew by a tepid 0.6 per cent in the first three months of the year.

Spencer says firms in the construction sector such as architects are booking a lot of travel, as there is a lot of work in China and the Middle East, as well as in Christchurch as a result of the earthquake.

Despite the soft economy, luxury goods firms are also doing well. “We have a high-profile luxury goods client that we have looked after for a long time and they’re very busy, constantly travelling and doing conferences and training and expanding.”

The finance sector, meanwhile, continues to reduce spending on travel, as do commercial production companies, many of whom used to come from overseas to make TV advertisements in Australia, but have been deterred by the high dollar.

Spencer Travel, the business that Spencer started aged 34 in 1998, has grown from $1 million in bookings in its first year to over $35 million today.

Spencer, a one-time finalist in the Telstra Businesswomen’s Awards, says she set out to differentiate her agency through its service, by finding out what clients needed rather than assuming and making sure they got what they wanted. But she was on a steep learning curve.

“I’d always worked for someone. I was a travel consultant, not a business person, so you think ‘I can run a business, I’m sure it’s not that hard’, and then you start realising there’s so much more to it than just having a client and people to manage those clients,” she says.

In particular, Spencer says that she had knowledge gaps in people management, marketing and finance. “I definitely knew how to service the clients, but there were all those other bits and pieces,” she says.

Spencer discovered that while she can hire experts to perform some of the business duties, she also has to know a little bit about everything. “At the beginning I trusted a lot of people in areas I didn’t know, such as accountants,” she says. In the first five years of the business Spencer says she lost $100,000 to a shonky accountant.

“I need to have some understanding of a bit of everything,” she says. “I now do, and if my accountant shows me something I question it.”

Spencer found she could boost her travel consultants’ productivity by 25 to 30 per cent simply by giving each one three computer screens on their desk – one for their email, another for the reservation and the third for a website or the agency’s billing system. “It’s very simple and inexpensive, but it’s a big deal,” she says.

She and her managers spent a year streamlining and standardising the agency’s customer service process, so that whoever a client dealt with they would receive the same standard of service. “Our brand is all around our service and the knowledge that my consultants have and the creativity they can offer the client,” Spencer says. “If the client wants to go to London they don’t just… book them to London. They’ll say ‘when you get there you’re going to be exhausted, and you’ve got a meeting at 1pm, so let’s get you a limo and I’ll pre-check you into the hotel so you can have a shower.’”

Penny Spencer’s five entrepreneur tips:

1. Be open to all opportunities that come your way. “If someone says ‘can I chat to you about something to do with business?’ I always open my door.”

2. Don’t be afraid of growth but ensure that your house is in order before you grow. Get the staff right and accounts in order. “There’s no point in growing if you’re not confident in where you’re going.”

3. Have the right people in the right places. This includes the right management team and having long-term staff, because clients can be put off by always having to deal with a new person

4. Wow your clients so they grow the business for you. “You can actually grow your business from within from your existing database, and that’s a great way to do it because you’re not paying sales people.”

5. Communicate your vision to everyone. “Making sure everyone is on the same page can help you grow with that vision.”

– Christopher Niesche

Sydney Morning Herald