Lisa Fitzell, managing director at Elegant Resorts, tells Abigail Healy how she went from selling holidays in a pub to heading up a luxury travel brand.
I started out selling holidays behind the bar in my mum’s pub. I joined Lunn Poly in Preston on a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) when I was 16. Our shop wasn’t in the best location, but the “bar job” together with a tough manager helped me become a top seller. A love of smashing sales targets was my motivation early on – that and the thrill of getting customers to come back to me and book again.
A working holiday visa in Australia saw me travel all over the country. I got a job as a travel agent selling holidays to Indonesia, then spent a few months travelling through south-east Asia. When I returned to the UK, I joined Jetset in Manchester in tailor-made reservations where I could put my Australasia and Asia knowledge to good use.
I became general manager of Tailor Made Travel (a luxury retail tour operator) aged 25. I met the owner of the company at a trade show in Australia. It was an amazing three-year journey, but I had the travel bug so I resigned and travelled from Mexico to Chile overland for nine months before spending a couple of months in New Zealand and finally arriving in Sydney, where I worked for DMC Goway, later transferring to its Canada office.
Tough times bring personal growth. When we moved to Toronto, Sars hit and the company had to slash costs to survive. I took a pay cut and was earning less than I had in years and my husband couldn’t get a job for a year. It was tough, but I wouldn’t change it as we had an amazing time in Canada.
Tui brought me home to England. I was offered a job as head of product for Thomson Worldwide and Austravel working for John Constable. It was my first senior job in a large corporate company. I learnt so much – we had the My Travel/Tui merger while I was there and I ended up following John to STA Travel.
Operating Diethelm Travel was the biggest challenge of my life. I was asked to become managing director of STA’s sister company Diethelm Travel in Bangkok and the lure of living in Asia with my family was too much to resist. We operated as a DMC across 12 countries and I was responsible for 600 staff. Now, after 22 years away, I’m back up north as managing director of Elegant Resorts where I started in April. It’s great to be back in the luxury sector again.
Service, knowledge and technology are the most important things in the luxury sector now. We need to give our customers extra value – information they can’t find themselves, whether it’s a new restaurant or an amazing behind-the-scenes experience. We need to continue to invest in technology to give a faster, more competitive booking experience and instant access to concierge-style services as the customer travels.
I’ve recently introduced twice weekly yoga classes. Since starting at Elegant Resorts, I’ve focused on increased communication to our staff and creating a healthy and happy environment. We’ve also invested in learning and development, technology, and the commercial and product team to give our customers a wider product range.
Paul Maine, chief commercial officer at STA, is the best negotiator I have ever known. He was my direct boss and his leadership style gave me so much confidence in my abilities. Lots of people have inspired me, though, from my first boss Tracey White who quizzed me on brochures to Airline Ticket Network’s John Swindell who taught me how to get the most out of a trade show.
Constant communication is a must. I have been in so many different roles so I understand the challenges of managing people from first-hand experience during the past 20 years. The best teams operate when there is trust, honesty and a clear strategy.
Understand your product inside out. My advice to those entering the industry today is learn about all areas of the company you are working in. It may help you work out which direction you want to go in. Show a can-do attitude and embrace all the opportunities thrown your way, and travel as much as you can.
Never burn your bridges. It’s a good piece of advice I was once given. What comes around goes around – it’s a very small industry.