Karen Morris, operations director at Travel Counsellors and winner of the everywoman in Travel Above and Beyond award, tells Abra Dunsby about the rewards of working with people and why women need self-belief to succeed
A passion for travel and an empathetic approach to managing people have helped Karen Morris climb the ladder to success at Travel Counsellors.
At 21, she began working on the counter at Speakman Travel, eventually becoming store manager before joining Travel Counsellors when founder and chairman David Speakman set up the business 23 years ago.
“David Speakman gave me the opportunity to grow as the business grew,” she says. “When Travel Counsellors first started, we had a support team of 20 ad between 50 and 100 travel counsellors.
“Now we have 250 people on the support team and almost 1,800 travel counsellors, so the business has changed a great deal, as has my role.
When you look at where we came from and where we are now, you have to pinch yourself sometimes,” she says.
As operations director, Karen looks after everything from resources and technology to managing the crisis management team. She describes her role as “the engine room of the business”. “We’re at the front end, making it all happen,” she says.
Her dedicated personality means she’s also constantly striving to better the company: “I always make sure I take time out of my day for strategic thinking so that we’re continuously improving as a business.”
While she’s held her current position for 16 years, no day is the same, which keeps Morris interested.
“I just love the variety of the job. I’ve always had a passion for it, so it doesn’t feel like hard work. Of course there are challenges, but I love travel and the people I work with,” she says.
Morris puts her award win down to the care and commitment she has shown to her job and her colleagues: “I try to do the right thing by the people around me and make time for them,” she says.
Morris also praises Travel Counsellors for the “caring wellbeing initiatives” that she has helped to roll out.
“We make sure we look after people, not just in a business sense but in a holistic sense. For example, we have a dedicated counsellor for people who might miss the office environment,” she explains.
The company’s welfare fund also helps employees who might fall on hard times in their career.
“When people are self-employed, they don’t have a regular income and our travel counsellors work on a commission- only basis, so we’ve made decisions to help them financially if they need it.”
Morris says this sensitive side of the company makes for a happy team: “We’re in a very pressured industry and our days can be demanding, but it’s important to show compassion and to be supportive. I’ve built up relationships with our travel counsellors, so by knowing them, I know the challenges they face,” she explains.
While Morris admits that the world of travel inevitably poses its challenges, she counts herself lucky that she’s not had to face any barriers as a woman.
“You only have to look at senior management at Travel Counsellors to see there’s a 50/50 split, and 70% of our travel counsellors are women. The UK managing director Kirsten Hughes is female and I’ve worked with her for more than 20 years.
“It’s a company that looks at the individual; it’s about having the right skill set for the job.”
Morris says that companies “can always do more” to provide additional senior positions for women in travel, and encourages them to invest in talent rather than worrying about employees going on maternity leave.
She adds that it’s also important for women to aim high and not be disheartened by potential hurdles:
“I’m a firm believer in women taking control of their own destiny. Have belief in yourself and you can be successful, regardless of whether you decide to have kids or not.
“If you have talent, ambition and drive, you can make it happen. Don’t let anything stand in your way.”