In 2008 Gemma Antrobus became Managing Director of Surrey-based travel agency Haslemere Travel, which consists of a retail shop in Haslemere and a division of Elite homeworking Consultants based across the UK. In 2014 she was appointed as the first female chairman of the independent travel organisation, AITO [Association of Independent Tour Operators] Specialist Travel Agents group. Gemma grew up in a travel industry family, studied international hospitality management at the University of Brighton and then spent the next seven years in international companies in the travel, hotel, events and restaurant sectors.
“…In many ways, travel is a female industry – many of the senior, influential jobs are held by women, whether it is in cruise lines or in large high street chains, so the glass ceiling isn’t as pronounced, thankfully. Also the backbone of our front line sales staff is predominantly made up of women, many of whom juggle a career around family life…”
Travel – always a passion
Although I was born in the UK, I was lucky enough to travel extensively as a child with my family, who are also in the travel business. Having completed a BA(Hons) in International Hospitality Management, I then went on to work in hotel management in both Kenya and Montego Bay, Jamaica before joining Haslemere Travel aged 30, as managing director, in 2008. Travel was always a passion and I didn’t really consider any other career path.
Being appointed chairman of the AITO Specialist Travel Agents Group
Like many strong, independent women, I have great passion in what I do and I think it is important to stand up for what I believe in and get involved in all aspects of my industry. Having previously been an agent consultant on their panel for several years, I was approached last year to become chairman of the AITO [Association of Independent Tour Operators] Specialist Travel Agents group. I am enormously proud of the fact I am the first female to be appointed to this role.
An immense task and a huge responsibility, but one I cherish
It’s an immense task, as AITO Specialist Travel Agents represents over 120 of the UK’s leading independent travel agencies. All fully bonded, totally independent, and all in the front line of the travel industry, so it’s also a huge responsibility, but it’s one I really cherish and get great joy from.
Unlike the major high street chains, AITO agents are not under pressure to meet head office sales targets for their own tour operator’s products and they can concentrate solely on finding the best holiday for clients at the most competitive price. Many members are small, family run businesses (such as my own, Haslemere Travel) whose proprietors have a lifetime’s experience in travel and a client-centric ethos.
Taking a step back, observing more and on occasions biting my tongue…
The AITO job brings with it enormous satisfaction, but also huge challenges. As chairman, I have learnt how to take a step back, observe more and on occasions bite my tongue! I represent the voice of others and learning how to embrace that is far easier than in the beginning.
I have also learnt how to face unusual or difficult situations and deal with a variety of different businesses (dealing with all parts of the globe) and help them to grow and thrive in what is still a challenging market place.
Bringing all sides closer
My personal goal as chairman of AITO Specialist Travel Agents is to bring all the sides of the association closer, so that tour operators and travel agents can form tighter commercial and business bonds and then feed this advantageous approach to the benefit of their clients.
It’s a competitive world and we all have to stay one step ahead of the game. Agents can do that best by adding value to client experiences, ensuring they have up-to-date expertise and guaranteeing all their clients get impeccable service, which is, above all, financially secure.
Sharing anything – including your dog, the shirt off your back…
There have been a flurry on new entrants to the travel marketplace, most notably companies such as airbnb and online house sharing schemes. You seem to be able to share anything now, including your dog and the shirt off your own back. Such accommodation sharing enterprises cater to a certain type of client, and personally I think there is more than enough room in the market for us all. But as a luxury travel agency, we are not in competition with such providers.
Quality and value for money is equally important for all our clients, and it is our job at Haslemere Travel to ensure they have the most amazing and unique travel experiences. But as ever in life, you get what you pay for and this crosses all levels of the travel industry
A female industry in many ways
In many ways, travel is a female industry – many of the senior, influential jobs are held by women, whether it is in cruise lines or in large high street chains, so the glass ceiling isn’t as pronounced, thankfully. Also the backbone of our front line sales staff is predominantly made up of women, many of whom juggle a career around family life.
Research tells us that women are often the decision makers in family holiday bookings. And more than 58% of single travellers are also women, according to one recent survey, so they make up a huge part of our client base for certain holidays.
Women supporting women in business
I take pride in supporting other women in business and, as the mother of a young daughter, I feel passionate about mothers who want to work, we are after all the role models for the next generation.
Most recently we have been able to develop this on a very practical basis via the launch of our bespoke division of Elite Travel Consultants based across the UK, working from home and selling luxury holidays to their networks of friends and family, all of whom are women, so far. We have also been working with a young female apprentice, who has gained immeasurably from our training.
Evolving our service offering and fulfilling our corporate social responsibility
Haslemere Travel is soon to be celebrating its 28th birthday, which is a source of huge pride for all the team, but there is a great deal still to come – watch this space! And not only in terms of evolving and improving our service offering as a top-flight agency, but also as part of what we see as our corporate social responsibility.
We run a major, annual youth awards scheme for our county’s youth, Surrey Young Superstars; we support the Prince’s Trust charity with holiday prize donations (raising nearly £20,000 so far) and last year we even helped to raise funds to save the celebrated Van Dyck self-portrait for the National Gallery.
It’s literally non-stop in the world of travel! I am fortunate enough to be travelling every month to some of the world’s most exclusive hotels but what gives me greatest joy is knowing that in doing so, we can bring the exclusive benefits to our clients. What would I do without my phenomenal team and hugely supportive family?