Women in Travel: Alison Hickey
It’s all about empowering the team
With Master’s degrees in Applied Science and Industrial Engineering from Dalhousie University, Alison Hickey got into the travel industry organically. The president of Kensington Tours, which specializes in tailor-made luxury tours, custom tours, safaris and travel packages, previously held leadership roles with companies like the Bank of Montreal, Maple Leaf Foods, and Procter & Gamble.
“You know how your career just happens and you never know exactly where you are going to go or what you are going to do? A colleague of mine who I had worked with in the past in another industry was here, and he brought me into the industry,” she told Canadian Travel Press. “My background is not travel, I’m actually an industrial engineer, but I’ve worked across many industries, and throughout my career, what I’ve always been good at, and enjoyed, is leading teams through change and you do that across any industry. I’m a consummate problem solver and that just kind of comes in my DNA. I’ve always been good at that and that quality and service excellence has just been part of who I am. Here at Kensington Tours, all of those things fit really well.”
Over the past four years, her role has shifted from being internally focused as the business was rapidly growing to more of an external role.
“We were adding a lot of staff, we were growing, and we do continue to grow, and that did require hiring and promoting leaders, getting a great leadership team in place and building out what I would call base infrastructure,” she said. “Now, I have a great leadership team and as our business has grown, I find my role changing. I’m focusing a lot more externally on the market, externally on partnerships, a lot more on strategy and trends, and trying to spend a lot more time with our advisor and client communities.”
One of the biggest lessons she brought with her from the days at Proctor & Gamble was to facilitate a servant leadership where she worked for her team.
“It is all about empowering your team and helping them be better, and, with that very notion, clients are delighted,” she said. “Like if you get it right with your team, the rest just happens. It has to start with the ‘I’m here to work for my team mentality, what can I do to make what you do easier, better and allow you to be more engaged.’ That was one thing very early on in Proctor & Gamble, they’re a promote from within company, so you need to develop your team to be the next leaders. And I was blessed by having that early in my career, and I think that’s what shaped me.”
Another virtue came from Jeff Willner, the founder/chief executive owner of Kensington Tours, which comes down to placing value on moving fast as a company.
“What that enables you to do is it allows you to push through innovation quickly to take chances and to embrace the unknown. So that’s important because it helps you harness the full potential of creativity that you have in your team,” she said. “Because I’m also a fact-based person, I’m an engineer, and so you have to be also thoughtful about where you fail. Like you want to make good choices and you want to do the analysis, but I’ve been very inspired to watch him do and he really does allow us to do that here in this company. There’s some large companies that you look out there and see, and they haven’t had that value and so either information gets protected or what’s wrong and what’s not working doesn’t bubble up to be fixed. Having that value allows you to be excellent at what you do.”
Among her favourite parts of the job, she enjoys talking to their advisors and clients,
“They are truly the most delightful people. The very nature of our clients and how they like to travel in a private-guided way I find they want authenticity, they want to immerse in the local culture, they’re the kind of people you actually want to sit and have dinner with because they’re interesting, they’re explorers, and they’re passionate in their own right. I do love that part of my role, and I’ve obviously talked a lot about our team, I love that part, too.”
That sense of exploration and discovering the undiscovered is also one of the main trends she’s noticing among travellers today.
Travellers are wanting to experience something unusual and meaningful, I see them wanting to assimilate, and really experience the local, authentic part of a destination, peeling the onion back and the layers of the destination,” she said. “Versus maybe we would have gone to a specific museum, now it’s about I actually want to go to a neighbourhood and I want to participate in the walking of a neighborhood and maybe sitting with a local family and having dinner.”
Another growing trend is customization and personalization, which fits in perfectly with the custom guided travel that Kensington specializes in.
“The thing that I love about the work we do is because it’s custom and private guided, there’s a lot of creativity in and around that, and it is about creating that memorable moment that’s really specific to that specific client,” she said. “And it can be all shades of grey, right. It doesn’t have to be this exclusive once-in-a-lifetime trip, it is what is your exclusive once-in-a-lifetime and that takes on many different shapes and sizes.”
As for the travel trade, she said there are a number of ways advisors can grow their business with the company, such as working with their destination experts to put together quotes and options for clients. Another way is by taking part in their webinars and engaging with the outside sales teams at various trade shows.
“I think our webinars are great opportunities to learn a little bit more about who we are and what we do. And we typically feature different regions so where you have an interest, I think that’s another great way to learn about us,” she said.
Of course, the best way to learn more about Kensington Tours is my taking part in a fam.
“We have an outstanding agent fam program, we typically do between six to 10 agent fams,” she says.
“Our agent fams are intimate, they’re generally around eight advisors and then someone from our agent channel team travels with the advisors, and we always have a destination expert who sells that particular region there as well, so it’s a great way to get to know Kensington and to appreciate what it is to be in a private guide experience. That’s where I think you really get to live it.”
What’s hot and what’s happening
Q&A with Alison Hickey
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE HOT DESTINATIONS FOR TRAVELLERS THIS YEAR?
It’s some of the ones you’d expect: Japan, Italy, Norway, Scotland and Ireland continue to be very popular, Egypt, New Zealand; in Latin America, it’s been Argentina, Colombia. I’m fascinated by, and I think that’s what makes our business so interesting, how one year, it’s this set of countries and then the next year it can completely pivot. I think you always have those that are consistent, and Italy is an example, and our clients, they go back to Italy many times. It’s fascinating to watch as different countries light up each year.
WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE FOR KENSINGTON TOURS?
We don’t sell North America and The Caribbean, so those are two [areas] we’re looking at doing and figuring out how do we do that in a custom, private-guided way that is Kensington. That will kind of round-out our portfolio. We’re also looking at the yacht business. We’re looking at bringing yachts with the best of custom, private land tours together. I think yacht travel is a great way to see the ocean and the ports. So, we’re actually developing some product in and around that area as well.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AT KENSINGTON?
I think Kensington Tours, from a brand perspective, we’re not as well known as many of the other great companies in our space, and so, I think our next frontier is continuing to grow and becoming that brand that people recognize as exceptional in the space that we’re in: custom, private, guided, and people talk about us like they might talk about someone that I’d consider some of the great competitors. I think that’s where I want to continue to take our company.
DO YOU HAVE A TRAVEL RITUAL?
I love to check out local coffee shops. I’m a huge coffee person. If I had to think about a local ritual, I’m a morning girl, getting up early and just experiencing a local coffee shop where there’s always interesting local people. That’s kind of where you get a sense of how a city or a town hums. I love books, too, I’m a book girl, so going to bookstores would be the other thing that I do.
WHAT’S THE MOST INTERESTING THING YOU’VE EATEN WHILE TRAVELLING?
Bugs, that would probably be the most interesting thing. Ants surprisingly are actually quite special. Big bugs I don’t like, but I’ve tried them before. That would be about the most interesting thing that I’ve eaten.
CAN YOU SHARE A SPECIAL TRAVEL MEMORY?
I automatically go to the trips I took with the special people in my life. So for me, the one that sticks out is a trip I took with our family, it was two years ago. Our daughter was graduating from high school and we asked her where she wanted to go and she wanted to go to South Africa. And so the four of us travelled, my husband and we have two kids, we went to South Africa, and it was two fabulous weeks of reconnecting as a family. Cape Town is a brilliant place. We’re really big outdoor people, so it was all about hiking, biking, nature and history, and food and wine. And then, obviously, safari. Our daughter is a huge animal lover, and so it was magical. The people in South Africa, too, are incredibly warm and giving people, in general.
WHAT’S STILL ON YOUR BUCKET LIST?
India is on my map. Egypt, I’ve never been to Egypt, that would be a place. And my son who is graduating next year, he had said Japan, and we’ve never been to Japan, so that too would be a place on our list.
DO YOU HAVE ANY MENTORS OR PEOPLE WHO HAVE HELPED YOU GET TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
I would have to say my mom and dad. I grew up with parents who instilled hard work and helped me be confident. My dad was an entrepreneur by his own right. My mom after we grew up she went out and had her own business, so they always just instilled in us how important it was to be educated and really work hard. Without that and that resiliency, you can’t grow. And then I had really great people around me who helped me develop. I was never afraid to move from industry to industry. And, I think as I did that, I learned a lot. It expands your mind. It allows you to think about things differently and through different lenses. And that helps you be successful because you’re adaptable.