The increasingly central role that social media is playing in people’s lives means that unique travel experiences, like breakfasting alongside giraffes in Kenya or trying out paddleboard yoga in Regent’s Canal in London, are a top priority among the itinerant population. “People are looking for something more than just the norm,” Spencer Group Managing Director Penny Spencer tells The CEO Magazine.

Penny started the Group 20 years ago, celebrating its anniversary in October 2018. Worthy of recognition in itself, the company’s staying power becomes even more remarkable considering that this 20-year journey from start-up to sustained success is an interesting one. These days, the trend for experiential travel is dominating the retail travel industry.

“Everyone wants to post the most amazing photo of their holiday that points to a unique experience. Whether that be a private tour of the Sistine Chapel or Windsor Castle, people are looking for more than just travel: they want ‘experiences’. We have to be much more creative in what we offer our clients for a holiday.”

Penny Spencer Managing Director of Spencer Group

To meet changing consumer demands, the Group must always be on the front foot, knowing before its clients do what the next big thing will be. “Not knowing what your clients want is the worst thing for any business,” Penny says. “We’ve got to be one step ahead.” To this end, Penny notes, “our staff travel constantly, and are always educating themselves not only on their own holidays, but with suppliers who offer trips, and at the trade shows we send them to around the world.”

“People are looking for more than just travel: they want ‘experiences’."

Ahead of the curve

The Group’s efforts to remain ahead of the curve also double as a method for staff development. The biggest trade show that Spencer Group sends its staff to is Virtuoso Travel Week, held in Las Vegas. By all accounts an intense seven days, with most tips for surviving it stressing the need for comfortable shoes and constant hydration, here Penny’s staff personally meet suppliers to learn about new products, destinations and experiences.

“They come back almost overloaded, filled with the knowledge of emerging hot spots, new cruise ships and luxury hotel openings that are sure to be the next big thing, for example, in Rome or New York. The contacts they make there are invaluable, too.” Spencer Group would not have been able to survive 20 years in the constantly changing travel industry without the support of its suppliers.

Penny Spencer Managing Director of Spencer Group

Building and nurturing relationships

“I’ve worked hard at building the relationships we have with our suppliers,” Penny says. Spencer Group shares a particularly close relationship with Rashelle Toms and the team at Captain’s Choice, a luxury travel agency. “Captain’s Choice is a luxury tour operator, and we work with clients who love travelling with them, including their amazing journeys on private jets. We love creating unique itineraries, and that’s definitely what they offer.” In general terms, “our partnerships with our preferred suppliers are strong. We work hard on them, because our relationships with those suppliers benefit our clients every day,” she says.

Penny is proud to have survived everything the past 20 years has thrown at the travel industry. Spencer Travel, a division of the Group, consistently makes the winner’s list at the Australian Federation of Travel Agents’ National Travel Industry Awards, and Penny has created “a culture where people now want to come and work for me”. In a reflective mood, she expresses her realisation that “as a business owner, you become someone with many different talents you didn’t realise you had, that you’ve learned along the way”.

“That has been interesting for me. I was never a financial person, and now I can raise a P&L and balance sheet with my eyes closed. I was never great at firing people, and I’ve become a lot stronger in terms of HR. It is an interesting journey from when you started the business, to where you are 20 years later.”

During this highly unpredictable journey, one thing that has remained constant is Penny’s love for Mexico: her happy place. “I’ve been 12 times,” she says, “and I love everything about it: the beaches, the people, the margaritas and the food. It has the most incredible hotels, and there’s always a new spot to find.”