From opening an office aged 19 to surviving a bombing at work, Abercrombie & Kent’s UK managing director Kerry Golds’ career is far from ordinary. She reveals all to Tom Parry.
It was the summer of 1984, and looking to earn some cash before starting her A levels, 16-year-old Kerry Golds spied a newspaper ad for a travel reservationist. Three years later, she was leading a team of 60 at Travel 2, and by 28, managing 400 staff across three UK offices.
“It just sounded exotic – selling holidays, working in the West End,” Golds recalls of that first job at consolidator Skylink Travel.
“I liked the little bit of money in my pocket and the buzz – I never went back to school, much to my father’s disgust,” she laughs.
After that nine-month stint, Golds joined a fledgling Travel 2 in London – rising through the ranks over two decades and helping to grow the company to revenues of £220 million.
Following a “challenging” period at Western & Oriental, she became UK managing director of luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent in 2013 and has since more than doubled its British business.
Now, 35 years on from that summer job, I’m with Golds back where it all began, in London’s West End, though this time in A&K’s shiny new Covent Garden offices, which opened in 2018.
So how did it feel to start her working life at 16? “It was only me and one other person in my entire year that didn’t go back to study. I guess I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. I still am,” she smiles.
Despite many years as a travel boss, Golds is quick to self-deprecate and laughs at the memory of her “bouffant hair and blue eyeshadow” in the mid-80s when starting out. But you can sense the tenacity that saw her rise to the top so quickly.
The daughter of a “very analytical” Ministry of Defence chemist and a sales expert, Golds credits her upbringing – including her family’s love of holidays – for creating the perfect formula for a successful travel career.
“I was very lucky, as we’d go abroad every year to France, Spain… my friends didn’t go abroad much. We weren’t rich but we had enough, and Mum and Dad put a lot of onus on enjoying time as a family.”
By her own admission, though, the travel bug didn’t really bite until Golds joined Travel 2 in 1985 – “again on a bit of a whim” – as she followed a friend who had recently started. “She didn’t stay long – I was there for 21 years,” she grins.
It was working for the trade-only behemoth – during its infancy with “about 20 staff” under founders Graham Moss and Stuart Harvey – that shifted Golds’ career up a gear (or five).
“Graham and Stuart have had the biggest impact on my entire career. They taught me so much and we’re still friends now – I love them,” Golds says.
Moss even packed 17-year-old Golds and a colleague off to Thailand for a month to expand their product knowledge outside Europe – a trip she’ll never forget, after getting caught up in the nation’s worst flooding for generations. She recalls how she and her travel companion had to wade through shoulder-high water for five hours near Pattaya after their bus became stranded.
“I think that trip started my true interest in travel, experiencing different cultures and wanting to explore the bigger world,” she says. “Looking back, it was dangerous, but at that age we just carried on without a care – it was an adventure, really.”
On her return, Golds excelled in her role and she was chosen to lead the operator’s UK expansion.
“I was actually going to leave shortly before that. I [already] wanted to move to Manchester – I think I was following a man up there,” she smiles. “Then Stuart and Graham said they were opening an office there and asked if I wanted to run it. I couldn’t believe it.”
Golds was just 19 and she says the assignment was “her making”. But with her mentors back in London and still a “feisty, headstrong young girl”, it was tough for her early on.
“I did make a lot of mistakes and had to learn quickly – I had no experience. I remember at industry events, you’d hear whispers of ‘why has this girl been put in charge?’ I had to be larger than life and win people over. I knuckled down and put in the hard work and graft – when my friends were partying in Magaluf, I was putting in long hours and running a decent-sized business.”
“I’d always admired A&K, the romance of Geoffrey Kent’s story and the brand recognition”
It wasn’t just industry doubters Golds had to contend with. Travel 2’s Manchester offices were twice destroyed in IRA bombings.
In the first instance, the bomb was placed at the foot of its Shambles Square premises near the city’s Arndale Centre, a day she remembers vividly.
“Everyone was being evacuated from the buildings around us,” Golds recalls. “I phoned the police and asked if I needed to evacuate my staff, and they said no, as they were evacuating from a few doors down. I didn’t like the sound of that and decided to get everyone out.
“As I walked back from the office after calling my bosses in London to explain the surrounding businesses were evacuating and I’d decided to as well, the bomb went off. The tip-off was for the wrong street. I missed it by seconds.”
After the first blast, Travel 2 rebuilt the office, but then just three years later, the Arndale Centre was bombed again and the whole office building was decimated.
After a testing but successful nine years in Manchester, in 1997, Golds moved back to London and became operations director, overseeing Travel 2’s now three offices, and less than a year later joined the company’s board – aged just 29.
A takeover by US giant Cendant Corporation in 2003 saw Golds managing the relocation of the business to Glasgow, and a massive restructure.
“I opened Manchester and closed it – that was very close to my heart,” she says. “I’d been at Travel 2 as girl and woman for 21 years. It was time to try something else.”
In January 2007, she joined Western & Oriental as head of tour operations and later became UK managing director.
“I remember at industry events, you’d hear whispers of ‘why has this girl been put in charge?’ I had to be larger than life and win people over”
The business had recently floated on the AIM stock market in March 2006 and begun a period of rapid acquisitions. Golds chooses her words carefully when describing W&O’s approach.
“Their acquisition strategy was difficult because a lot of the brands overlapped with one another. Trying to expand smaller businesses – whose founders are what makes them – and make them bigger organisations made it quite difficult. They struggled, and in the end there was a delisting of the company.
“The strategy worked on paper but not in reality. During my time, we tried to rebrand and bring all these little businesses together under one roof, but by doing that you lost a lot of the brand equity that these companies had built.”
W&O’s travel business was sold off in 2011 – it has since been merged into The Inspiring Travel Company – and Golds was soon approached by A&K.
“I’d always admired A&K, the romance of [founder and chairman] Geoffrey Kent’s story and the brand recognition,” Golds says.
“I chat to him nearly every day and he still fascinates me,” she says of Kent, laughing.
And there are exciting plans for A&K on the horizon. Silversea’s Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio’s Heritage Group swooped for a majority stake in the company in February, with the remaining 15% owned by Kent.
“Manfredi is involved with us already – asking loads of questions and bringing so many ideas about where the business can go,” she says. “I’d met him a few years ago on a TTG Luxury panel – little did I know he’d become our owner!
“A huge amount of investment is going to be put behind us; Manfredi is looking at all opportunities for our growth, in the UK, across Europe… We are looking at acquisitions as well as organic growth through additional sales and marketing.”
Growing its business through travel agencies is a big emphasis for Golds too.
“I’ve got a stronger trade background than I do direct-sell, so it frustrated me when I arrived [at A&K] that we didn’t really have any trade [sales].”
But with agent sales 58% up on last year, its 2019 fam trip budget doubled, new technology in the pipeline and Golds driving it all, the future seems golden for A&K and its partners. True to her name, it’s clear Golds’ passion for travel and business is still a highly valuable asset.
Before taking her summer job, she was considering a career in law. “I do still find all of travel’s legal stuff fascinating,” Golds says.
According to Golds, the moment she “made it” was receiving her first batch of business cards at Travel 2: “I thought I’d really hit the big time.”
Golds describes her relationship with PA Donna Hill, who has worked with her for more than 25 years, as “like a married couple”. “What she doesn’t know about me isn’t worth knowing,” Golds jokes.
Her most recent getaway was a short break to US capital Washington with a tour of its political hotspots. Next is an A&K trip with travel agency owners to the Galapagos Islands in October.