Sometimes in life, things are just meant to be. Having just announced the news that I’m now a director, I thought it would be good to explain the story of how I got here and the reasons why I took the choices I did over twenty years ago. After all, it’s part of our company ethos that we’re not just robots to take an order, but actual humans and we all have our own stories to tell.
My story in travel started when I was very young, although it wasn’t conventional. For his whole working life, my dad was a weighing engineer – installing, repairing, and maintaining commercial weighing machines. They would range from small kitchen scales to large weighbridges designed for lorries. When you think of places where you might have a lot of weighing scales, an airport is one of the first places on the list. In fact, he had contacts with a number of different airlines including ElAl, British Airways, Air France and KLM at Heathrow Airport, and later DHL at East Midlands, Belfast and Dublin. Naturally, I would often travel to the airport with him, and back then security was a little less of an issue than it is now. I also used to be allowed into the mailing room at the Australian High Commission!
It became a regular occurrence that we would drive into London on a Sunday afternoon, possibly cycle around Hyde Park and then get to Heathrow in time to see Concorde land from New York at about 5:30pm, and wait to see the late Concorde departure at just after 7pm. At this point, I had never even set foot onboard an aircraft, or even entered an airport.
This was the early 90’s and I went to school at the time in Hemel Hempstead. I remember when we were asked where we had been to on holiday during the summer, there was only one who had been abroad out of a class of thirty. Even then, it was only because her grandparents owned an apartment in Tenerife. Up until then, we would go to Bournemouth, I especially remember the bandstand and playing crazy golf in the water gardens. Somehow, life seems simpler when you’re young.
My first trip abroad was to the aforementioned apartment in Tenerife in summer of 1994. It was a bit of a last-minute decision, which meant that we could only get flights at the most awful time of day, leaving Luton at midnight. So my first flight was with an unheard-of airline, Oasis International Airways which was an offshoot of the Oasis hotel group, a big chain in Spain. Arriving in Tenerife at four in the morning, not knowing where you were going was somewhat of an experience! Still, we had a great time, and would continue to go to the apartments for a few years afterwards (in fact the last time I went was just before the pandemic).
In 1996 I moved school and started at Bridgewater (a day late for the start of term as I was in Tenerife!). We started to get a bit more adventurous and decided to go to Cyprus at an All Inclusive, which was actually really successful, although it was rather hot in the middle of August – so much so you couldn’t touch the windows during the day. This was an education in a different sort of holiday, and to this day I can absolutely understand the attraction of an All Inclusive hotel for families.
By the time I went to Ashlyns I still hadn’t ventured any further than Tenerife, Cyprus or Le Touquet in France (that school trip was somewhat of an adventure and deserves its own separate story – casinos and beer are involved!). I had already built up somewhat of an aviation knowledge by then, and Geography was obviously something I was pretty good at (thanks to Tony Nicholls).
Naturally, when it came to doing work experience, I wanted to do something travel related, and at the time I thought I was really lucky to get a week at Thomas Cook in Tring. It was quite tough because it was only about a month after 9/11, and the industry was going through a rough patch following the fall out of what happened in America and the following war in Afghanistan. So it was really quiet, and it was difficult to get my teeth stuck into anything.
With work experience, you always get a teacher to come out and see you, and in my case it was the head of sixth form, who thought it would be a good idea to try and catch me out – asking: how would I get to Maastricht? My answer was: there’s a daily flight to Stansted with KLM (which not even Thomas Cook knew about), or you can drive and take the ferry or Eurotunnel. I even looked up the price and the flight times. Bearing in mind I was only 14, that was really the moment that I knew I could do this, and it was something I could do well.
I did my GCSE’s and I got pretty decent results, especially in the subjects I enjoyed – Geography, Music and Home Economics. It allowed me at least to five AS levels, which wasn’t recommended at the time, but I liked to keep myself busy and I’m convinced to this day that was the right thing to do, and I actually did rather well at those too.
It was that summer though when we were on holiday in Tenerife that something changed. I had got back for the final year, and as soon as we got back it was like my brain had switched off. Anything creative, like playing and composing music I had some ephynany and that side had really progressed (if there is anyone who wants to hear my A Level piece, happy to share!). On the other side I could barely write an essay, my brain just didn’t want to write anything.
Of course, this was about the same time you need to make your mind up with university choices, and yes I could easily have gone to university. At the time though I had just fallen out of love with what I was doing, and the mental battle that resulted for months didn’t make it any easier. For those who know me well, it was the album Innocent Eyes – and specifically the song ‘This Is Not Me’ that convinced me to try a different path. (I’ll write this up, as there is a story there too!).
Armed with the confidence that I seemed to do quite well as a travel agent a couple of years earlier, I looked at what it took to go down that path. I quickly understood that getting an apprenticeship was probably going to be the easiest way in, and given that it would be a step lower, with less intense learning, I though that would be quite achievable, especially as it would be something I enjoyed.
However, it wasn’t that simple either. My first stop was with TUI (back then it was Thomson), which as the biggest operator at the time seemed like a sensible move. Already being two years older than most of their intake after doing A levels, combined with an odd situation around their stores meant it wasn’t an attractive option. I had hit a dead end with them after being led down the garden path, so it was getting quite late at this point.
It was later in the summer when my mum was having her car’s MOT done that she asked TravelTime World in Berkhamsted, just in case they were looking for an apprentice. Mitzi, who I knew from playing cricket at Berkhamsted with her son, said that Jackie would give anyone a chance and I had a chat with Jackie shortly afterwards. I remember speaking to her on the phone on a really hot day at home, and we arranged to meet.
I think I came across well at the time and tried to show that I had a bit of knowledge, despite having not really travelled any further than Tenerife and Cyprus. I remember that Hannah was just about to go away to Thailand, and it was quite a tight timeframe to get the apprenticeship paperwork completed before the term started. We did, and I started on 13th September 2004, and I have never looked back.
Another time, I’ll talk through those early days and going through the apprenticeship programme, and why I believe they are a great alternative to university, especially for those who have struggled mentally whilst doing A Levels.