From launching Tour America in her sitting room to surviving a serious accident, Tom Parry hears Mary McKenna’s take on life and business.
“The only way I grow is getting outside my comfort zone,” says Mary McKenna, gripping her coffee cup with determination.
In 1995, McKenna launched Tour America from her sitting room and has since built the company into Ireland’s largest operator to the US. The business, 24 years later, also includes the nation’s biggest seller of cruise breaks, Cruise Holidays, with 65,000 passengers carried last year across both brands.
This remarkable story is one of adversity, ingenuity and sheer grit. But it is a rather more literal account of “ups and downs” that begins our conversation in McKenna’s Dublin office.
Just days earlier she had finished a 400-mile charity bike ride through Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, raising £3,700 for Alzheimer’s Society.
“I was black and blue when we finished and right now I never want to look at a bike again,” she laughs, although her beaming smile shows little sign of fatigue. McKenna is clearly cut from a different cloth to me – the early-morning Ryanair flight to Dublin was enough to tire me out.
We meet at Tour America’s city centre headquarters. Behind McKenna’s desk is a list of “12 things to remember”, while press clippings of company milestones, business awards and family pictures adorn the walls.
It’s a glimpse of the drive and focus that first pushed this businesswoman, an EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2019 finalist, to not only rebuild her company post 9/11 but also her life – fighting back from an accident in 2004 that should have killed her.
“It’s all about attitude”, she smiles, pointing at a photo of her son, whose rugby and football teams McKenna coaches. She believes there are parallels between business and sporting success, having played top-division hockey herself.
“You will get trashed from time to time. My son’s team were 4-0 down at half-time last week, but only lost 5-0 in the end. I was so incredibly proud. It’s about how you get back up and keep fighting.”
TRAVEL IN THE FAMILY
McKenna’s ambitious nature was formed at an early age, having been around travel businesses as a child. Her father, from Belfast, and her mother, from the west of the Republic of Ireland, met in the US but eventually settled the family an hour west of Dublin where they ran a pub.
Meanwhile, McKenna’s uncle in San Francisco, who ran a tour operator called Atlas Travel, encouraged her father to open an office for him in the Irish capital, selling sports charters.
McKenna and her siblings would “work” on weekends – making tea and cleaning – receiving a doughnut or cream bun in return.
She would even take tips from Irish journalists reporting live from matches, helping her father plot his next charter, with Celtic, Liverpool and Manchester United the top-selling teams. “I think I’m very much like him – he was a total marketer,” she remembers fondly.
Teenage summer visits across the pond and later time spent living in Maine would help form a love for the US – “a very different place to doom-and- gloom Ireland of the late 1970s and early 80s”.
At 23, McKenna found herself “managing disasters daily” as duty manager of two-aircraft start-up Club Air flying out of Shannon airport – a job she considers to have been the making of her.
“I did everything, from reading the weather to the pilots in the morning to chartering planes. On my first day I didn’t get home until three days later and that went on for weeks.”
After Club Air folded, she spent the following six years with her uncle’s new business, American Holidays. But McKenna was getting itchy feet.
So when Jetsave swooped for American Holidays, McKenna left to strike out on her own – “I had no team and no money, but the opportunity was timely.”
After Jetsave took over, the company terminated contracts with American Holidays’ suppliers – a move McKenna capitalised on.
“I called them and said: ‘I’m about to start my own business, you’ve been dumped, I know what the rates are and I need to compete – give me a break for two years and I’ll pay you back.’ I was able to do deals like that.”
And so Tour America was born.
The exposed brick walls of Tour America’s Abbey Street office give a New York feel, while a Lady Liberty statue and US flag bunting make every day feel like the Fourth of July.
A huge, encapsulating map of Orlando’s Universal Resort fills one of its walls. It was a holiday to the Floridian theme park mecca which Limerick Travel booked with McKenna that kick-started her new business.
Started in her sitting room before moving to a “fecky little office that was always being broken into”, the operator boomed during its first year, turning over £3 million.
McKenna’s secret? Hard work, cutting her losses and great service.
“I honestly believe I was working harder than any MD or CEO,” she says. “I was going to university, reading books on accountancy and business strategy by the week.
“I had the confidence to try things and learnt if you’re going to fail, fail fast,” she notes, recalling how she started but then ditched Tour China and Tour Africa brands in the early years.
There were external challenges too, including one afternoon in September 2001. McKenna recalls watching the events of 9/11 play out on the TV screen of a nearby department store with her sister.
“The world was totally affected – three months later and I had no business.” Eleven staff were let go and McKenna believed she “probably had another six months left”. It was then she noticed a string of cruise deals coming in. A fortnight later, she registered her new business – Cruise Holidays.
“That decision was out of necessity. It wasn’t anything like a grand masterstroke, but I did see potential in the market,” she recalls modestly.
McKenna’s cruise business didn’t just stay afloat, it thrived, turning over €6 million in its first year. It now contributes 23% of the company’s annual turnover.
Things were now back on track – but McKenna’s life would radically change course again in January 2004 when she was run over.
After spotting an elderly woman struggling to park across the street, McKenna left her office to move her own car. She was hit by a reversing Mercedes 4X4, suffering traumatic injuries.
“I broke all of my ribs and punctured both of my lungs, fractured my pelvis and fractured my hip. I was in intensive care and resuscitated,” she recounts matter-of-factly. “The surgeon said to me most people would have died from the injuries. I’m very grateful to even be able to walk to work.”
The incident “fundamentally changed” McKenna’s life, she believes – and a year later she met her wife, Stephanie. “Before the accident I was an absolute workaholic – a total bore,” she laughs. “Now my family come top of the pile.”
Further choppy waters lay in wait with the 2008 recession, but McKenna battled through. Instead of battening down the hatches “like every other Irish travel business”, she rallied her team, doubled marketing output and actually grew revenue by 17% and passenger numbers by a whopping 56%.
More than a decade on, Tour America and Cruise Holidays now boast 55 staff in Dublin, Cork and Orlando, with revenues of €22 million for its current financial year.
Talk eventually turns to the “other” meeting in town on the day of our interview, with prime minister Boris Johnson jetting in to try to sell his Brexit vision to Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Indeed, the uncertainty around Brexit is already causing Dublin Port to cut cruise calls in favour of freight – a decision McKenna lambasts.
“Dublin Port had no respect for the cruise lines as they didn’t even tell them it was happening until it did,” she scorns. “They haven’t looked at long-term impact on tourism to the city.”
McKenna says her own expansion plans, selling into Northern Ireland through Sandra Corkin’s Oasis Travel, have also been halted by the B-word. “At the moment we need to see where Brexit goes. There could also be opportunities in England.”
The threat of a hard border is also a worry, with one staff member living in Northern Ireland. “I definitely think the next two years are going to be tough,” she says frankly. “But if you plan properly you can do well.”