Travel Courier Magazine by: Ann Ruppenstein
October 6, 2016
Mary Jean Tully may have lost $32,000 during the first year of getting her travel agency off the ground in 1987, but today the entrepreneur owns a successful company with 62 employees, including the first staff member she ever hired, with over 10,000 sq. ft. of office space across two floors instead of the initial 475, and business is better than ever.
“I’ve never been happier,” the founder and CEO of Tully Luxury Travel says with a smile from a seat in Toronto’s dbar lounge. “The business has grown far beyond my wildest dreams – for 29 years, other than the first year, every year has been way better than the year before – and it’s still something that every single day I get up and I’m excited about. I get to sell people their dreams. When I talk to clients, I get excited that they’re going to experience something wonderful.”
What started as The Cruise Professionals – and is still located in the same building in Mississauga, Ont. – is now under the umbrella of Tully Luxury Travel. The rebranding came into effect towards the end of 2015 as a means of better portraying the company’s diverse offerings, which extend far beyond cruising – although the agency remains Crystal Cruises’ No. 1 producer worldwide and has received countless accolades from the likes of Silversea and Seabourn, and was recognized by Condé Nast Traveler Magazine as a top luxury cruise specialist for 16 years.
“Nobody is going to book an itinerary to go on a cruise from Rome to Istanbul and just fly directly to Rome and get on a ship and get off in Istanbul and go home,” she says. “I’ve always said there’s no talent in booking a cruise from point A to point B – what do you do beforehand, during and after the cruise? How do you make it special? How do you enhance what’s already put together? How do you customize it for that particular client, their family or their needs?”
In addition to Cruise Professionals, Tully Luxury Travel consists of two other vertical businesses: African Dreams – “our division that just does the continent of Africa, game drives, safaris;” and Private Travel Designers – “all the other things unrelated to cruise or safari: heli-hiking, the Antarctic, Istanbul, etc.”
A bit of history
Growing up next door to a globe trotting flight attend-ant, Tully was fascinated with travel at a young age.
“I used to adorn my bedroom walls with travel posters,” she says. “Everybody else had posters of rock stars and models, my brothers had the Farrah Fawcett [posters], of course, in their bedroom and mine was all these places all over the world.”
Her first foray into the industry, however, came years later after seeing a job posting in the classifieds section for a soon-to-open travel agency. Despite lacking the required two years experience in the field, she persuaded the hiring manager into an interview. Not only did she land the job as a travel agent, she quickly rose up the ranks to a manager within eight months.
“I became like the human sponge, I subscribed personally to every travel publication that was out there, and I used to scour them and read them every single night when I came home. And I just became absorbed in it.”
Then after going on her first cruise for a fam trip on the SS Norway, she was hooked, and learned Norwegian Cruise Line was hiring a representative for the Chicago area, where she resided at the time. She secured the job, where she worked happily until making the move to Canada in the late 1980s for love.
“I was dating a guy that lived in Toronto and I thought this was the guy I was going to marry and live happily ever after with, but you just can’t come up here and move, you had to start a business, so I started a business,” she says. “I put money in, I took everything that I had, quit a great job with a company car and moved up here and moved in with my boyfriend.”
And, while that fateful adventure is how The Cruise Professionals was born, her budding romance on the other hand came to an abrupt end three months into her newfound life in Canada.
“I knew no one here, but rather than giving up, I just thought I’m going to make it,” she says. “I had to move and I lived at the Delta by the airport – at the time, it was called the Howard Johnson – and I never looked back. Here I am in a city that most people can’t even pronounce, Mississauga, Ont., and yet I have clients from Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, all throughout North America, not just Canada, but the US, Puerto Rico, you name it… Germany, the UK. My clientele is based on repeat and referral, and it’s been just a phenomenal, phenomenal success.”
Recipe for success
Along with having her staff in-house, in one office to share knowledge and ideas, she says one of the biggest secrets to her success continues to be not selling by price. In fact, rates have never been listed online at www.tullyluxurytravel.com.
“When you put a price up there, people are just shopping you for the price. If you are truthful, if you have integrity, you don’t worry about the price. If you don’t worry about the price, the money will come. If you provide the service, people are going to tell their friends, and they’re going to come back too again and again, and that’s been the biggest key to my success,” says Tully, who sits on the board of several luxury cruise lines, hotels and travel suppliers. “I really look at our industry as a whole, and I think what’s sustained us is I don’t have independent contractors spread out all over. My agents aren’t paid on commission, they’re salary and bonuses. Our clientele love the continuity that we have within the company. The same agent now has not only been with them, but their kids and their grandkids, and you have a relationship.”
Although the industry is ever-changing, Tully believes travel agents are here to stay as it’s that relationship with clients that can’t be found online.
“You have to talk to somebody that puts it all together and can tell you how you will feel when you are in a place,” she says. “We just had a client who was going to Dubai and they found a very popular hotel online they were going to book, and we said, well did you know, they’re building condos across the street and the one entrance to the hotel is blocked off? They start construction at 8 o’clock in the morning? The website isn’t going to tell you that, but we are.”
And even though people can find the same deal for a Four Seasons Hotel promotion for example, she points out that her agency can also provide clients with a spa credit, complimentary breakfast, and more.
“If there’s going to be an upgrade, it’s always going to be made by who they have the relationship with,” she says. “Maybe some client’s give them three nights a year, 10 nights a year; we’ve given them 3,000 nights a year.”
Another key to the business is having first-hand know-ledge of the destinations they sell.
“It’s an important thing that you are experienced – not everybody can sell the same thing in my office because you can’t do it an injustice,” she says.
Over the years ,Tully has visited 115 countries and counting – but New Zealand remains on her bucket list – so if a client is interested in a trip there, she’d rather connect them to someone in the office who is an expert.
“Probably the biggest key to my success is I am the client in every possible way,” she adds. “The good, the bad and the ugly. I have money, but don’t overcharge me. I want value and don’t assume. I want options, give me choices, don’t make them for me.”
Although the company has gone through years with wars, SARS and bad economies – she says business has remained strong not only because of having a global clientele, but also because most travellers will continue to travel regardless of what’s happening in the world.
“People will never give up their God-given right to travel. They may alter it a little bit and you have to alter it with them,” she says. “I don’t want people to be afraid. I think life is short and the older you get you realize it more. Unfortunately, there are people who are nervous, there are some people who want to go to destinations where they don’t think things are happening, but who knows where that’s going to be? This could be anywhere. There’s just too many wonderful things out there and too many wonderful people to meet and lives to change and lives to enrich.”
Especially since launching the African Dreams division, Tully has become actively involved in charity and conservation work like relocating rhinos with Rhinos Without Borders and volunteering in schools and for other projects in Africa, which have become true highlights.
“I’ve gotten to live like a millionaire without being one – I am one now – but I didn’t [use to be]… I get to experience things that most people dream of,” she says. “I would always immerse myself in cultures and people, but when I saw the movie Pay It Forward, it really touched me and I believe in that: paying it forward in every place that you go.”
Whether it’s tagging and guarding rhinos or witness-ing a family in Cambodia get fresh well water for the first time, she says her clients are able to make a difference as they travel.
“It’s about how do you travel today and give back? You can have all of these creature comforts but still at the end of the day or during the day you can go make a difference in somebody’s else’s life: it opens your eyes to so many different things,” she says. “I want to save the elephants and the rhinos, I want to bring more people to Africa, I want to get more people to travel and get outside of their comfort zone.”
Her goals for the future also include engaging with younger generations, both as staff and clients, as well as continuing to showcase the value of a travel agent.
“Our industry needs to stay alive, we need to keep professional people in. We need to still keep young people in,” she says. “I’m sure some parents aren’t excited if their kid says, ‘Oh, I want to become a travel agent’ – well they should be, because can I tell you something, I make more money than every single one of my friends that are university graduates. I’ve seen the world and I’m happier with what I do.”
And, while she’s going on 30 years in business, she has no plans to slow down any day soon.
“I see the future as just staying focused, staying driven. I will never lose my passion, I’m not worried about that,” she says. “I’ll be 85 years old and people will be telling me, ‘Okay, Mary Jean, don’t you think you should retire now?’ I can’t ever foresee that day when I retire. Ever.”
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