20 Questions with… Penny Spencer, Spencer Travel

LATTE chats with Spencer on her 20th anniversary

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This week Penny Spencer celebrates 20 years of business operating her Spencer Travel business in Sydney.

To mark such a milestone, it’s only fitting that LATTE expands our questioning with Penny this week to 20 (or thereabouts), covering topics such as her start in the industry, establishment of her own business, some of the challenges that she faced, the importance of mentoring, her inspiration, favourite hotel and prioritising family.


Penny,  you started out in the travel industry as a volunteer to gain experience, stamping brochures for the first six months. Most people would probably turn their back on the career after half that amount of time. What made you persevere?

I persevered because I knew I wanted to be in the travel industry and I really felt that this was a great opportunity to have my foot in the door – even if I wasn’t being paid.

What was it that lured you to become a travel agent?

When I was about 9 I went on my first flight from Christchurch to Auckland. I will never forget the feeling of excitement and wondering what it was going to be like when I got to a new city. It was then that I thought, “this is what I want to do: something in travel.”

Can you recall what your first-ever travel booking was?

Yes, I remember when I was a “Girl Friday” at Pacific Island Travel I got to book an East–West flight to Lord Howe Island. I was so excited, although it was over the phone back in those days.

Before establishing Spencer Travel in 1998, you had worked with Atlas Travel, World Travel HQ and Ursula King Travel for a combined 11 years. How would you describe that period of your career?

I loved all of those roles, Atlas Travel/Pacific Island Travel was my start; World Travel HQ was like a family and is where I learnt everything about corporate travel, both in Domestic and International. I knew that this was the area of travel I wanted to stay in. Ursula King travel took my career to the next level; I was looking after large corporate accounts and had an amazing team around me, plus Ursula was a mentor and I loved working there. That is where I decided I really wanted my own business.

At the opening of Spencer Travel in 1998, with former AFTA chief Mike Hatton

What enticed you to enter the corporate travel sector? How many staff did you start with, and how many staff does Spencer Group of Companies employ today?

I had always loved Corporate Travel. I started with one consultant and a part time bookkeeper, and today Spencer Group employs 80 staff.

Under your leadership, Spencer Travel arranged the Qantas commercial for the Australian Children’s Choir in 1998. This must have been a logistical challenge; why did you take this on and 20 years later, how does it make you feel knowing you made that happen?

I organised this with 38 children plus teachers, doctors, nurses and crew: a total of 98 people all around the world. It was three months of my life that I had no life. I was 24/7, and what I learnt was incredible. I still almost cry when I see that ad. It was such a busy but incredible time.

What were some of the biggest challenges that faced Spencer Travel when starting out?

I would say, like any new business learning how to run a business, to go from being a consultant to a business owner and leader. Finding time to work on the business, not in the business and understanding financials.

9/11 had a profound impact on your relatively young business. Can you explain how you were able to adjust your company’s priorities and focuses after having your bread-and-butter income from the US cut off?

I had to look at where people were travelling to and it was mainly domestic travel. At that time, I did not have a lot of domestic corporate business. I had to change my model and go out to my clients showing them the value of booking their domestic corporate through us. This was one of the only ways we survived that time, as well as concentrating on businesses that travelled to Europe, rather than to the US.

You have a network of five Sydney-based offices, including your HQ in Mascot, as well as your Family Holidays Specialist arm and a home-based network. Have you been approached previously, or would you consider expanding interstate? When can we expect to see Spencer Westside join the locations in the north, east, south, and inner city?

Yes, I have been approached to expand interstate. I don’t see the need for this. It is hard enough getting to all the offices in Sydney, let alone me travelling interstate as well. In this day and age, we don’t have to be interstate to service interstate business. One of our largest clients is in Melbourne and we fly down to visit them. I’m always looking for other opportunities in Sydney, so if a ‘west-side’ came up, and it was the right business, I would look at it.

What advice do you have for new-to-industry personnel for making a career out of travel/corporate travel?

I have graduates from the travel and tourism courses visit me and ask me that exact question. I always say to have the right attitude and work ethic. People can’t train attitude. Show enthusiasm for the industry, subscribe to all industry media, attend any functions that you can to network and be passionate about the industry. Offer your services for free if you can’t get in.

Does Spencer Travel have a business mission statement? If so, what is it and what does it mean to you and your team?

Yes, we do. It is “to ensure we enhance our clients travel experience with ongoing service excellence, specialisation, communication and continuing passion”. My staff came up with this mission statement because this is what they believe we do.

What was the key driver behind you establishing the Travel Industry Mentor Experience, and why is it important for travel industry personnel?

I felt that the travel industry needed a Mentor program to grow people’s careers, but also to retain people within the industry. A lot of people get to a stage in their career and don’t know how to get to the next level. TIME allows them to be mentored, to get to where they want to and therefore stay in the travel industry.

Did you have a mentor of your own at any point in your career? 

Yes, I have always had mentors. Some that did not know they were my mentor, like Ursula King, but others I sought out. I also did a mentor program two years into my business.

Staff retention appears to be a high priority at Spencer Travel. What is it that you think keeps your staff committed to your business?

The culture, our reputation and the fact that I work very hard at creating a fun, yet professional environment. They also like the people they work with and the clients that they service.

You’ve really set the benchmark as far as rewarding your staff for their loyalty when they reach their 10 year milestone rewarded with a one-carat diamond. What was the theory behind this generous gift, and what are you planning for those staff that reach 20 years?

The ones that reach 20 years get another one-carot diamond. I came up with this because I really felt 10 years was something to reward and recognise. I thought long and hard about what I would want, and I came up with diamonds; hence the Diamond Club was born.

What motivates you and who inspires you?

I love what I do. I am motivated by also being good at what we do. I am also inspired by a lot of people – my mother, visionaries like Richard Branson, determined and hard-working people like Hillary Clinton – but mostly, I get my inspiration from loving what I do and loving the travel industry.

In addition to your hectic work life, you are a mother of two young children. Do you find it difficult to “switch off” between work and family life? How do you manage your time?

I am very organised because I have to be. I ensure weekends are family time. I also have three family holidays per year and concentrate on my family. My calendar is used for everything, both work and home. If it’s in the calendar, it gets done. I also have amazing support at home and at work.

What do you do to unwind after a stressful day/week/project?

I love to read and do like exercising, but a good gin and tonic also helps.

What is your most memorable holiday experience and why?

Ohhh so many, but I think having a fine-dining lunch on the Great wall of China was pretty memorable.

Is there anywhere in the world you haven’t yet been that you are eager to explore? If so where, and when are you going?

India. I haven’t got there yet. I hope to do that in a couple of years when my son is older.

The word “luxury” seems to have so many definitions. What is your definition of luxury?

I think luxury defines comfort, decadence and something that makes you feel special.

What is your favourite luxury hotel and why?

Las Ventanas in Cabo San Lucas Mexico; the service is unbelievable and I love the location and the decor.

Do you believe space tourism really is the next frontier? Are you keen to strap yourself in for a Virgin Galactic voyage once/if this new form of transport and tourism gets off the ground?

Yes, I do, and I would like to take a trip to space on Virgin Galactic. And I would say this is going to happen in the next 18 months, if not sooner – it is very exciting.

What have been your proudest achievements over the past 5 years, 10 years and 20 years?

The past 5 years was writing my book; the past 10 years was having two children and juggling family time and growing the business; and the last 20 years would be the lessons I have learnt in owning, building and growing a successful business.

How will you be celebrating your 20th anniversary?

We are having a party with clients, staff and suppliers – all the people that have helped me over the last 20 years to get to where I am today.

And Penny, our final question, LATTE’s signature question. Where is your favourite coffee shop and why? And what do you typically order?

Funny, I don’t drink coffee … I like herbal tea. But where is my favourite restaurant? It is Catalinas.

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