Thursday 22 March 2018

Exotic and glamorous, Gillian embodied the confidence of new, emerging Ireland

Gillian Bowler in 2004. Photo: Tony Gavin
Gillian Bowler in 2004. Photo: Tony Gavin

Barbara Scully

Dublin was a dull enough place back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The city was struggling under the weight of recession with high unemployment and a burgeoning drug problem.

It was a city of too many derelict buildings, too few restaurants and no venues for international music acts. The docklands were a no man's land of old warehouses and grey gasometers. Grafton Street was the only lively spot, populated by more independent shops than international brands and home to many street performers, including the legendary Diceman.

But change was in the air. In a garage in The Dandelion Market, an unknown band called U2 were peddling their brand of rock. Thin Lizzy were making their name in the UK and the Boomtown Rats were calling out much of what ailed us and our beleaguered city.

I began my working life in what was then Ireland's leading tour operator, JWT, in December 1979 selling package holidays to Spain, Italy and Portugal. Having failed to make the grade to join Aer Lingus, I was happy to have the next best thing - a job in travel with a well-known brand and a smart uniform to go with it.

JWT's head office occupied two floors at 8/11 Lower Baggot Street, just across the road from Toner's pub. We were also across the road from the offices of a relative newcomer to the travel scene - Budget Travel who, at that time, specialised in holidays to Greece. While I thought that JWT might be slightly glamorous, Budget Travel was cool. Very cool.

The company was founded by a young English woman called Gillian Bowler, who embodied this new sense of confidence that was beginning to emerge in the city. My 18-year-old self often watched as she arrived at her offices, pulling up right outside the door in a bright yellow Lotus Eclat at a time when there were few sports cars in Dublin.

Gillian Bowler pictured with Charlie Haughey
Gillian Bowler pictured with Charlie Haughey

Bowler looked like she had driven directly from the south of France. Her long, glossy hair was always held back from her face by her oversized sun glasses perched on the top of her head.

Born in London in 1952, Gillian moved to the Isle of Wight with her parents and elder sister at the age of 10.

She left school at 14, and worked briefly as a PA before moving back to London and joining Greek Island Holidays. She came to Dublin when she was 19 to open the company's Irish office. Here, she met Harry Sydner, the man who became her husband, and never left.

The two set up Budget Travel in 1975. Bowler broke all the rules of traditional holiday advertising with her (literally) cheeky campaigns.

One ad, which appeared on bus shelters, caused controversy as it featured a rear view of a woman in a thong, emblazoned with the message "Get your seat to the sun". After complaints were upheld, Budget Travel covered up the offending bottoms with stickers saying "Don't get left behind". It was wonderfully impudent.

Budget Travel's January sales were also legendary. People would queue outside the company's offices, sometimes from Christmas Eve until January 1, for massive reductions. It created huge interest and great PR.

By all accounts, Bowler was a fair boss who inspired great confidence in her staff. But she also inspired many of us who viewed her from a slight distance. I was in awe of this sassy, smart woman whose irreverence and ability to think outside the box was so unique and ahead of its time.

With Harry, she built a wonderful brand in Budget Travel which became one of the country's leading tour operators. Bowler was original, brave and imaginative.

After she retired from the travel business, she continued to blaze a trail for women in business. But back in the early 1980s she was like an exotic, glamorous bird who had been blown off course and into a flock of starlings.

May she rest in peace.

A celebration of Gillian’s life will take place on (Saturday) morning at 10 o’clock in the Victorian Chapel, Mount Jerome Crematorium, Harolds Cross, Dublin.

Irish Independent

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