The unrepentant traveller
Michael Doorley tells Sean Gallagher that losing his job was the motivation he needed to start Shandon Travel
At this time of year, with so many people gearing up to go on their summer holidays, I decided to visit Cork based, travel and tour organiser, Michael Doorley, of Shandon Travel, to see what life is like on the other side of the travel counter.
Set up by Michael in 1974 and with offices in Cork City, Clonakilty and Bantry, Shandon Travel and its sister company West Coast Travel, currently employ 31 staff and have an annual turnover of more than €12m.
The company specialises in three key areas of the travel business. Firstly, it has a dedicated camping and family holiday division (www.familyholidaycentre.ie) that focuses among other things on the European mobile home parks market, with France and Italy being the most popular.
"We work with a Dutch company, Vacansoleil, who have 350 parks across 19 European countries and have the exclusive licence to promote these locations both in Ireland and the UK. We are aiming to achieve €6m sales in the UK in this area alone by 2018," explains Michael.
Secondly, the company is now in their 20th year of offering the J-1 visa programme to students through its dedicated website www.sayit.ie.
Finally, its general retail travel division offers everything from package holidays to cruises and business travel. Most itineraries are now tailor-made to meet the exact requirements of customers rather than the traditional charter packages. It also organises its own package tours to places like India and South/Central America where travellers can opt to join small groups or design their own itineraries.
"We like to say that we cater for our customers' travel requirements 'from the cradle to the rocking chair'," explains Michael. "It usually starts out with a couple coming to us to book their honeymoon. Once they have children, they come back to us to book their family holidays. When the children grow, many sign up to our J-1 visa experience. When they get a job, they use our business travel department for work-related travel and when they start to get married, the cycle starts all over again.
"In the meantime, their parents book cruises with us now that their offspring have flown the nest. As they get older, they can then enjoy choosing to travel on our seniors holidays - so it really is from the cradle to the rocking chair."
As you'd guess, enthusiasm for the sector is one thing Michael Doorley is not short off. Originally from outside Roscrea in Tipperary, he grew up on the family farm. His father died before Michael was born and his mother like many more at the time, encouraged him to get an education and leave the land. After school, he headed to Dublin where he took up a clerical job with the ESB at £8.50 a week.
He later studied cost and works accountancy (by correspondence, through the Glasgow School of Accounting), which helped him get a job as a book-keeper - firstly with an engineering company, then with a travel company that was just starting up. He then moved into a management role firstly with a travel agency in Ennis and later with a company in Cork.
"I was keen to progress and had been trying to buy a share in the business but the owner sold the company while I was away on my honeymoon," explains Michael. "I decided it was then time to explore the idea of setting up my own travel company. But as soon as the new owner got wind of my plans, he fired me on the spot."
It was a stressful time to be out of a job because he was just newly married and his wife was expecting their first child.
"I had no option at that point but to push ahead at that point. For the next six months, my office was the phone box beside our house in Carrigaline where I would head every morning with a handful of coins to ring every contact I knew in the industry," admits Michael.
"Then on May 4, 1974, I opened my first Shandon Travel office in Cork city. While it was tough at the time, it turned out to be the luckiest thing that could have happened to me. I now realise that, had the new owner not sacked me, I might never have had the motivation to start. It turned out ultimately to be the shove I needed," he adds.
Michael was fortunate too in having a good mentor - the late Joe Walsh, the founder of Joe Walsh Tours.
"His advice was always very to the point - that I should run my business like a housewife runs her home. He'd say: 'She has a certain amount of money coming in and a certain amount going out - and the bit in between is hers. Business is the same. Just because you have a big turnover of cash that doesn't mean that all that money is yours to spend. Your profit is the small bit between income and outgoings.' And that was great advice," insists Michael.
Not long afterwards, he had a chance meeting with a local priest who was having difficulty organising a trip to Lourdes for pilgrims from the Cork area. Michael stepped in to help the group with their travel arrangements. As a result, he came to realise that there was great potential in the pilgrim market and set up a division of the business dedicated to this market.
Business continued to grow and eventually Michael added other services such as camping and family holidays.
At times though every business owner needs to step back from their day to day operations in order to take stock and to work 'on' their business rather than 'in' their business.
"I first began doing this in 1996. I call it 'having a meeting with myself'," explains Michael. "I went away to a local hotel in order to give myself the time and space to come up with new ideas. And one of these was to enter the J-1 Visa and student travel market," he adds.
Up to that point, the student travel market was largely dominated by one big player and so breaking into this space was not going to be easy. However, after much research and dogged persistence, Michael finally managed to get a meeting with an approved US based student travel agency, Interexchange. Jumping on a flight to New York, armed with a gift of Waterford Crystal, Michael finally persuaded them to partner with him. Some 20 years later, the two remain partners and Shandon Travel has grown to become a major player in this market.
It's been an exciting 42 years for Michael. Not content though to sit back, he continues to seek out new opportunities. He is due to launch his own bed booking platform shortly and while he plans to use this for his company's own internal use initially, he also hopes to make it available to other operators to use to book their accommodation needs directly.
And the secret to his success?
"I think it's because travel is my hobby," explains Michael. "I am one of those fortunate people who gets to work at something I truly love," he concludes.
Michael Doorley is an inspiring entrepreneur because he found something he loved to do and built a successful business doing it. However, had he not been faced with losing his job he might never have taken that important first step - going to prove that sometimes what we think is our greatest challenge can actually turn out to be our greatest opportunity.
Overview: Shandon Travel
Business: Travel agent/tour organiser
Set up: 1974
Founders: Michael and Maria Doorley
No of Employees: 31
Location: Headquartered in Grand Parade, Cork with offices in Clonakilty and Bantry (under sister brand of West Cork Travel)
For further information: www.shandontravel.ie
Sunday Indo Business