We catch up with Donna Barlow Travel Group’s managing director about interior design, her beautiful daughter and doing what you love.
Can you tell us a little about your career progression?
Finishing School in 1979 I knew I always wanted to work in the travel industry. My family background was in the interior design business, which gave me great foundations for sales. Fresh out of school, my first job was with the Rural Bank as a trainee, with a promise after completion of probation that I would be transferred the travel department.
That didn’t happen. A meeting with HR in Martin Place made clear to me that women join the bank and eventually become ‘part-time tellers’ when they go off to have babies.
I thought to myself, this most certainly was not the career path I had intended – so I resigned from the bank. I then confidently walked the streets of Sydney knocking on the door of every single travel related business asking to talk with management and offering a “can-do, give me a try, I’m prepared to do anything” sales pitch.
I began learning the grassroots of travel as a Girl Friday, which included cleaning the office and I worked one day a week in the Eastern Suburbs processing visas for clients. My eagerness soon saw me behind a desk learning the ropes of consulting – my passion – the world.
In 1987 I bought into a Jetset franchise business that I managed at the time and in September this year the Donna Barlow Travel Group (DBT) celebrates its 28-year anniversary.
What would you say is your defining career achievement or the thing you are most proud of?
Peer recognition of our business as a leader has been one of our greatest achievements. I say “our business” simply because I truly believe that my team’s performance and delivery of a superior service and keeping abreast of the market is critical to the success of any business.
Each year I feel privileged to be among the top travel companies as a finalist in the NTIAs. DBT has also enjoyed the sweetness of winning – a direct tribute to my team – many of who have been with the company for more than 20 years.
What have been the biggest challenges to success you’ve encountered professionally?
Being in travel means dealing with global challenges. I have seen many young people come into the industry over the years with a passion to travel and we are fortunate because we get the opportunity to do just that.
But the challenges mean we have to learn to navigate our way successfully. Over the years together with my amazing team, DBT has jumped through the hoops of pilot strikes, two Gulf Wars, stock-exchange crashes, recessions, September 11 and that’s just to name a few.
Globalisation has made our world a much smaller place and the challenge of remaining at the forefront in the industry in evolving technology is paramount.
My biggest personal challenge came when I lost my 17-year old daughter in late 2011 to diabetes complications. It was then that I was faced with the decision to back myself and venture into the world of philanthropy and chase the dream of life-saving technology for people that live with Type 1 Diabetes.
Taking this direction meant my passion of 32 years in travel – to some degree – I had to hand over to my team to manage so I could pursue my goal of ensuring what happened to Daniella would not happen to another family.
With the benefit of wisdom, what advice would you give your 21 year-old self when you were starting out in your career?
Do what you love, love what you do and always follow your dream. We have an in-joke in the office that is called “focus” – essentially believing that anything is possible if you focus.
Having a mentor or someone that you really admire for their career, life-skills and the path they walk is inspiring and rewarding. Also, be prepared to always learn; take time to really examine your challenges and have a life-plan. S
Lastly, success in travel is paramount to adding value, especially today in a world of educated clientele who have Google at their fingertips. You have to become a master in selling the travel dream – offering expertise and tips that can only be gleaned from a professional.
How would you describe your business/management style? What sort of things are most important to you professionally?
When you create a business I think it’s important that all your team shares your company vision and culture. From the early days in my career I was encouraged to have a business plan and a clear set of company policies and procedures unique to our operation.
Having buy-in from your team on the vision and goals is critical to the success of your business. Flexibility, empathy, leadership and ethics are all cultural paths necessary for success.
Who are the people you admire most professionally or in any field/walk of life?
My mother was one of the greatest salespeople I have ever known. Mum taught me well and she has weathered many challenges in her life that I admire and respect. My daughter Daniella embraced every opportunity, whilst living with the challenges of Type 1 diabetes. Danii loved and lived every day of her life to the fullest.
My mentor in business was one of my first bosses – Karin Van Der Pligt who has always been there for me throughout my career. My mentor in philanthropy is the great Susan Alberti. I take inspiration from people that are successful, humble and focused on leaving the world a better place.
What do you do to unwind when you aren’t working? What is most important to you outside the office?
Of cause I love to travel. Experiencing new exotic horizons and cultures has always been my passion. My husband and I have a fabulous boat that we escape to at every opportunity. Being close to the water makes me feel at peace.
For you, what’s the best thing about working in the travel industry?
It’s the opportunity for me to learn and teach something new every day. I have always got the next holiday planned and being in travel affords me the opportunity to keep the dreams alive.
What one thing gets you through a stressful day?
Knowing that we have our boat just 30 minutes away is a great escape from the office and daily stresses. I love to grab a book, sit in the sunshine and breathe in the beauty of nature. I can do all this with my husband and our boys and know that our next family holiday is not too far away.
You can see the other ladies from our exclusive Women in Travel series here: