What made you decide you wanted to become a VA and when?
I had previously worked as a PA in various companies including the NHS but as these positions were predominantly temporary, I decided it was time to go Virtual.
I also knew I could offer so much more, but was very restricted by the boundaries of my role. I could offer solutions within Board Meetings and see how we could work more efficiently and cost effectively. This wasn’t my role though – managers were employed to make these decisions. It left me feeling very undervalued.
I also found out that I had ME. It caused no end of problems in a job that was essentially 9-5. Working for myself means that I can work at peak times, but take time out to rest when needed. I am much more productive working this way.
Were you concerned that there were already many VAs already out there and this would be competition?
I did realize that there were quite a few VA’s out there, but as they were home based and having the power of the internet to service clients, I knew there was enough business out there for everyone. After all, how many accountants etc. are there in business?
Our niches give us such a diverse range of skills and clients. This is why collaboration is so important. If we know we have an associate who specializes in one particular niche, we can confidently recommend our clients to them knowing they will not experience any reduction in service levels, but also we can be confident that our associates won’t try and poach our clients.
What gave you the confidence to give yourself that push to go ahead and do it?
I worked for the Ambulance service while I studied for my Executive PA diploma with Pitman Training. Once I had passed with distinction I felt it was the right time in my life to go into business myself.
I chatted to a number of established VAs and knew that this was what I would love – that I would thrive in this role.
When you decided to get started what made you decide to go for some VA training?
I am a great believer in being fully armed in whatever role I do, I felt I should take the extra step of doing some actual VA training to better equip me for the task ahead in running my own business.
It’s all well and good having the PA skills, but running your own business is a totally different ball game. You don’t have an IT Department, Marketing Team, Accountant/Finance Dept. It’s a steep learning curve, but with the right support and help, it’s enjoyable.
Why did you decide on The VA Coaching and Training Company and what was your experience of the training?
I did a lot of research on a variety of VA Training providers. Most were very similar and yes, they offered to train you on what you need to know to run a VA business, but I was looking for more than than. I wanted a company who had similar values and approaches, someone who would be supportive, especially in the early stages.
During my research, I came across Carmen and VACT. I read Carmen’s story and it really resonated with me. She’s overcome some huge personal hurdles, but is always such a positive, enthusiastic, supportive person. My own life has had its ups and downs, so I knew Carmen would understand where I was coming from – and I was absolutely right.
Carmen is so passionate about the VA industry. She understands the needs of clients and helps train VAs to provide for their requirements. It’s so rare to meet someone so enthusiastic and caring. I haven’t met a coach, I’ve met a friend for life.
What have been the highlights of your business so far?
On a personal level: To be selected as North East Ambassador for Maiden-Voyage and to be runner-up in the Evening Chronicle glass slipper awards this year. From a business point of view: In 2003 we were the first, and still the only, UK travel agency to receive the Queen’s Award for Innovation. And in 2014 we’re delighted to have received the Queen’s Award again, this time in recognition of our international growth.
What have been some challenges you have experienced and if you were to do things differently next time what would you do?
Whilst considering my move to becoming a Travel Professional, I hired a business coach who didn’t help me as much as I had hoped. In hindsight I should have researched that area much more thoroughly.
What type of clients do you work with and do you specialise in a particular service?
I work closely with business clients from the oil, gas & engineering industries. My 14 years experience within the Travel Industry has given me a fabulous knowledge of products, destinations and pricing. I don’t just book client’s travel, I look after them from the minute they get in contact, until they return home and beyond. I treat their trip as if it was my own.
I’m passionate about safety whilst travelling. I have systems that monitor where all my clients are at any time. If there is a problem eg civil unrest, extreme weather, I can locate them and get them home as soon as possible – and safely, often by liaising with authorities overseas. I keep my clients up to date with Foreign and Commonwealth Office Advice. Many of my clients are travelling to far-flung places, where civil unrest etc are not uncommon.
Now my business has developed further, I can now bring a full range of products to my clients including leisure travel. I often find myself booking a complex Corporate Travel itinerary in the morning and then a special birthday cruise in the afternoon. I don’t think you need to ask why I love my job, do you?
What advice would you give to anyone just starting out especially in relation to training?
Very early on in the process, identify your niche market: what do they do for a living, where do they live, where do they shop, what do they do in their spare time – even give them names if it helps you visualise. You can then form a marketing strategy that ‘talks’ directly to them and helps you identify how you can add value to their lives.
With regard to training: Ensure you thoroughly research the providers out there. Source other people who have completed the course and ask them their opinions. See how you get on with them and if they have the same outlook as yourself.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?
To have a fully established business, highly thought of in my field and to be fully financially independent and secure, with a large portfolio of satisfied clients. I want to be THE ‘go to’ person for anyone looking for professional travel solutions.
Who in business would you love to meet and why?
Richard Branson. Throughout his time as an entrepreneur and adventurer, he has had more than his fair share of triumphs, along with one or two well publicised mishaps. He is so open-minded, optimistic, and if he falls down 5 times, then he’ll get up 6! Positive Mental Attitude is so important. Nothing worth achieving is ever easy – that’s what makes it such an achievement when we do.
I started out as a VA specializing in Travel Arrangements. As clients got to know my skills, they wanted a Corporate Travel Specialist. I then built relationships and they trusted me to book their special holidays. There’s nothing wrong with taking a slightly different route to the one you planned. If it’s what you want to do and you’re enjoying it, you may find some hidden treasures on your new route.
What is your favourite quote and why?
‘Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer’
For me, travel opens the eyes, broadens the mind, and educates us more than we will ever know, and while it may not make us richer in the monetary sense, I do believe that visiting new countries, trying new foods and understanding new cultures makes us richer as people. Travel can enrich your life by exposing you to experiences you wouldn’t normally be exposed to at home.
The world is filled with various cultures, each with their own beliefs, values, and morals. One of the most interesting and enlightening things to be gained from travel is just to embrace an alternative culture and see the world through the eyes of another.
I have been lucky enough to visit some amazing countries, in fact, I have yet to visit a place where I would not wish to return, and I can honestly say that every penny I have invested in travel over the years has been money well spent
Think of travel as an investment. The more we travel, the more we see. The more we see, the more we grow. The more we grow, the more we change and evolve as a human being. Travelling the world would have to be one of the most direct ways to go out and understand other cultures, other places, other people, and other understandings of life.
St. Augustine summed it up for me with ‘The World is a Book, and those who do not travel read only one page’.
What do you love to do when you’re not working?
Am I allowed to say travelling? My work isn’t just a job, it’s my passion, and has been since I was 2 years old. Travel because I love it, but as a result, I gain more knowledge which in turn makes me better at my job.
And lastly – what one thing can you tell us about you that not many people know?
I danced at Tower Ballroom, Blackpool on the original TV series Come Dancing, when I was a teenager.