We’re delighted to launch the fourth episode of ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” in which we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of success and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
In Episode 4 of the ECI podcast, Building Successful Businesses, we chat to Jayne McClure, CEO of online vacation rental platform, Travel Chapter, about how the business has responded so strongly during the pandemic, the importance of having introverts and extroverts in a team, and how leaders have had to learn to step back this year and celebrate small wins.
Listen to Episode 4:
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Listen to Episode 3:
Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses” where we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of their success and the lessons they’ve learned on the way. I’m Fiona Evans and today I’m delighted to welcome Jayne McClure, CEO of Travel Chapter, one of the UK’s leading holiday letting agencies. Welcome, Jayne.
Jayne: Hi, Fiona. Thanks for having me today.
Fiona: So, I’m going to start with the understatement of the year. The last year hasn’t been easy for travel businesses. How have you coped with the ups and downs of the last 12 months?
Jayne: We’re in domestic travel staycations, so we haven’t had it as bad as some of the overseas guys. My heart goes out to them, it’s been tougher for them. But for us, the first half of the year was incredibly difficult for everyone at Travel Chapter. The hardest bit was really that it came so suddenly when the announcement was made, and everything needed to shut down. Immediately our phone lines were down, our website was inundated, and our email backlogged to levels that we just couldn’t provide the service level that our customers needed. And that was heartbreaking for us really because that’s what we’re about. If you ring us, we’re on the end of the phone, real people who want to help you. Service is what we strand for, and it was heartbreaking for both the team and the customers who frustrated. We had backlogs to near ten thousand emails and the waiting time for us to get back to you was awful. If we had opened phone lines the call waiting time would have been two hours, but having to turn that off, what sort of company do you look like? It was awful for us.
We just pulled together then, knowing that some of our processes weren’t fit for purpose, as cancellations were a tiny part of what we did before. It was rare. So, there was a small team to deal with that, and it was largely over the phone, talking to you to move your date and liaising with the property owner. But that wasn’t fit for purpose when you had tens of thousands of cancellations there in one go. We needed to automate processes really quickly, and that put a lot of pressure on our technology team, but they really pulled together. It still took a couple of weeks, but it was just amazing how fast you can do things if you have to. It sped up our digital transformation, and that was something that we were proud of.
We did manage, gradually, to get back on top of service levels too. We turned that around by April or May, and then of course when it did open up, it went crazy. I think the 23rd of June when Boris said holidays could happen from the 4th July, phone lines were going crazy. It was a really strong and fast recovery. Which again, was tough for the team, because it’s not as though anyone had been furloughed, it was a period of extreme operational intensity for us. The team were exhausted from getting through the backlog cancellation service and supporting our owners through that, and then we were immediately into our busiest month ever. January is normally our busy month, and then team had already been through a January that was busy last year, and then July was incredibly hard for them as well. But we did it, we got through it. It was amazing how the team all pulled together.
Fiona: And the feedback you’ve actually had from holiday goers and homeowners and your own staff from the past 12 months has been really positive, especially for the sector. But to achieve that, you’ve had to balance quite a lot of different interests. How did you manage, as a leader, to think through all those different groups and prioritize what you were doing?
Jayne: That’s exactly how we did approach decision-making, myself and the senior team. It is a people-first approach. So, if we have to make a decision, we would think, “What does this mean for our team? What will our homeowners think about this?” It’s really important to empathize and put yourself in the shoes of owners and thinking from their point of view what does this mean, and from a customer, and trying always to balance that. Never before has it been harder, to balance those two interests of an owner and a customer. But I think we got that right. I’m not going to sit here and say we’ve been perfect, but we tried to do the right thing by those three groups of people.
Fiona: And I think there was an understanding from people, especially back in March, that things were unprecedented. But it’s almost about whether people felt like they were being treated fairly.
Jayne: I think so. And the right thing was if you legally couldn’t go on your holiday, was to make sure you could either move your dates, which the majority in the first lockdown did do, which for us was fantastic as the work we’d done to secure that holiday in the first place wasn’t wasted, and for our property owners we’d retained the booking for them. And as a customer you’d carefully selected that cottage that you wanted to have a holiday in. To transfer it and move that was a real success for us, and quite a high proportion did do that, which was really pleasing.
Fiona: And you spoke there about the fact that the people in your business were under quite a lot of pressure, especially when restrictions were changing quite quickly. Do you think the role of the CEO has changed off the back of 2020 in terms of how they think of their people and culture?
Jayne: I think so. And I think it was going that way anyway. You can see a change in leadership style, a greater variety of leadership styles. The importance of being authentic, I think, being open and honest is what I try to do. That’s all I could do. There were times when I would honestly say I’m worried about this or this isn’t looking good for us. I said, “I’m confident now that we’re gonna see a recovery.” And I communicated in that way. And I think that style of communication and being accessible and open with your workforce is more important than ever. There’s a lot of communication platforms out there now that you can actually do that on. We’re lucky enough to have Workvivo where I made sure I communicated regularly, at least once a fortnight. At every point, something changed, and I could empathize with employees because they must be thinking, “Now what does that mean for us?” Let’s get on there and send a message out. And then they could comment, like an internal Facebook if you’ve not seen it before. More than ever, you have to connect to people because we’d obviously gone to remote working. As a lot of our staff are remote anyway, it’s always important for us because we’re spread out with homeworkers around the UK.
Fiona: Yeah. It feels like it’s moved that internal communications piece on leaps and bounds. Naturally, people just want to know sometimes what’s happening. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the perfect message, just a case of actually just talk to me about what’s going on, especially when things are changing.
Jayne: Yeah. Absolutely. I think as well if you don’t know, just say you don’t know. No blagging it or trying to make it up. Just say, “I actually don’t know at the moment, but I’m gonna try and find out, and I’m working it through.” And I think people really appreciated that.
Fiona: You mentioned earlier the digital transformation within the business. We recently had Dan Kearney, your CTO, speaking at our ECI digital forum. He was talking about how business processes had to change very quickly, and bringing the wider team with you. How do you think it’s changed you as a business in the long term?
Jayne: It surprised us that you can do things more quickly than you imagine. You’d think we’d need to spin up a project plan. We weren’t ‘not-digital’ but there were elements that needed to be digitalised as we touched on. Before you would have a kickoff and there would be a big research phase. We were able to be efficient and cut down a lot of processes. Instead of saying, “could we possibly all work from home?” we did do it within three weeks. We learned that, with project delivery, that if you have to there are a lot of things you can cut out.
Fiona: I think it comes back to that communication point because I remember Dan saying that one of the good things is people understanding the impact that their work and their tech development was having on the wider business which comes back to your communication point earlier, is that actually people want to know and understand their role within the change that’s going on.
Jayne: Yeah. The why. You know, that was a big message coming out of technology. They didn’t always understand why they were being asked to do what they were doing. To be involved earlier on, understand the problem that we’ve got, and for them to have input in how we can address it.
Fiona: So you’ve been at Travel Chapter in various roles for a decade, is that about right?
Jayne: Yeah. It’d be 10 years coming up in May. Yeah, finance originally. I trained as a chartered accountant and had 14 years in chartered accountancy. When Jamie our founder, who was CEO before me, had his vision of taking the company, growing it, and making it a lot bigger, he wanted to bring finance in house. He brought a lot of functions in house at that time and I kind of moved over and came in the company and worked through to FD until 2016. That was after our first round of private equity funding. I changed my role into more of a COO role and then last year moved to the CEO role, which is strange timing. But it was an interesting first year.
Fiona: What was the transition like moving away from finance, to an operational role, then now as CEO?
Jayne: When I was FD, I was always kind of number two to Jamie, so I was not purely finance ever anyway. So, I was kind of half doing FD and COO at the same time. And I realised that it was the COO bit that I liked to do. I liked understanding what marketing were doing and seeing how that could work with what the property team were doing. I would spot where people needed to talk and where things needed to be joined up, and my mind went to that. I realised I enjoyed that and then I was trying to fit in important things like doing a board pack, but my heart wasn’t in pure finance anymore, although I think it’s a great way coming into any company. If you get the numbers, I think that’s a really great strength. I don’t know how people do it actually if you haven’t got that finance background because I just need to know. It was an easy transition because I kind of always been business-wide really.
Fiona: And in the course of your career, especially in the decade that you’ve had at Travel Chapter, is there anyone that stands out as giving you really valuable advice?
Jayne: Yeah. Definitely, Jamie. He’s our founder. I was lucky enough to be number two to Jamie for a long time. It’s really interesting because we’re actually chalk and cheese, totally opposite. If you meet us we couldn’t be more different which I think really helps me. If I’m more introverted, he’s extroverted. I’m just quieter. He enjoys more of being front of things possibly. He would be a very fast decision-maker, get it done. I’ve had to get faster at that which I’ve learned from him but initially, I would be, “Have we thought about this? Have we thought about that?” But what I learned from working with him is to understand different types of people. Initially, I think I would have thought you needed to change to be a leader and be more like that. But I understand that you just need to understand yourself and recognise that I probably need to build a team around me, which I have now, to get the characteristics that Jamie would have bought when we worked together. I’ve got people around me now who are more like that, to balance teams. And I guess he kind of helped me to realise I just need to be myself. Just that sense of integrity and that makes people trust you I think.
Fiona: I think it’s definitely something that’s come out of these podcasts, actually working out the things that you’re good at and working out the things that you’re maybe not so good at that someone else can help you with. It think it’s a really crucial leadership lesson.
Jayne: Yeah. Absolutely. Building and growing teams and understanding different skill sets that people have and how they work together. That diversity of the way people think, the way people approach problems. I think that when you get a good team together and have that great balance it’s really powerful. We’re lucky enough to have that at Travel Chapter. And I honestly think that’s what helped us get through COVID, the way we work together. I’m fascinated by team building and the psychology of people. I think it’s a really important skill to have in leadership.
Fiona: We had Mathew Syed actually come in and talk to us about that in terms of that diversity of leadership and how don’t end up with all the same thoughts all the time speaking back to one another, that echo.
Jayne: Yeah. Not recruiting the image of yourself because that won’t actually move you on at all. You need somebody to bring a challenge or a different viewpoint. Yeah, totally agree.
Fiona: Obviously, it’s not always easy building a successful business, and undoubtedly, since you’ve become CEO, it has not been the easiest time either. But what do you think the hardest lesson is that you’ve learned?
Jayne: I think since becoming a leader, it is actually learning that you need to take time off and that that’s a good thing, to step back. Because my inclination is to push on and on and to perhaps feel guilty, especially in a year that we’ve just had because you feel that you can’t stop. Perhaps you’re letting people down when some of the team are still working. But it’s actually important to step back and have that time to breathe. It doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I’ve found it hard to do that. And I try to teach other people in the team, “honestly, you’ll have your best idea when you stop.” Something seems unsolvable if you keep going and keep pushing on and pushing on with it, you think you’ll find the answer, but you don’t. And if you go for a walk, if you just chill out for a bit, it will suddenly come over you. And I’ve really learned that especially this year, just take yourself out of that crisis a little bit to step back.
Fiona: Do you think it’s been harder this year because the separation between work and home is harder?
Jayne: For me, my home office is right in the middle of our house. It’d be easy to just slip back in there in the evening. Why wouldn’t you when we’re so busy? So yeah, I think that’s definitely been a challenge, again, something I’ve had to work on is am I working from home at the moment or am I just at home?
Fiona: Taking time for yourself especially when you’ve got kids as well. It’s quite a difficult one. It seems like there needs to be more hours in the day.
Jayne: Yeah. I find that it’s the dog as well. The dog keeps coming in and interrupting meetings. It’s just needing attention as well and stuff. It’s hard, isn’t it, working from home?
Fiona: I think I quite like it in the sense of it has blurred the boundaries a little bit where people are a bit more open and talking about heir home life. You often see their dogs and kids running in on meetings. It’s actually quite nice. You get to know people a bit better. It’s a bit more authentic.
Jayne: Yeah, I agree actually. I think that is nice. What has been nice is that it has allowed a bit more flexibility if you wanted to just have a little session between 7:00 and 10:00 then go for a bit of exercise. You just can make it fit to your life a bit better, I think. And a lot of people have managed to do that which has been great.
Fiona: Big trust exercise, really. And everyone has proven themselves quite well.
Jayne: Yeah. I mean, if there was ever an argument on productivity going down, I think that has been disproved, hasn’t it? I think people have found that they can look after themselves more, being able to cook healthier food and do more exercise. Actually, we did a survey of the staff and overwhelmingly, that’s what came back, they felt fitter and healthier despite it being in lockdown.
Fiona: Yeah. I think people have done more walks in the last 12 months than probably quite a lot of their life put together. You mentioned that you learned a little bit about yourself in terms of how you think about people. Is there anything that success has taught you about yourself which maybe you didn’t already know?
Jayne: I think that I’m just never satisfied. People pick me up on it sometimes in that I don’t stop to celebrate what we’ve done and what we’ve achieved, particularly in a fast-growing company. I think that you always get growing pains and there is always that next area that has just slipped behind a little bit. So, I can then start to think I wanna get on with that next thing and feel that restlessness about it, which I didn’t really realise until you’re in a fast-growing company. As a leader, it is important that I pick myself up on that for the rest of the team and say, hang on a minute, give yourselves a break. You’ve just been through COVID year. It is acceptable that other projects that you were planning to do in 2020 have slipped behind. I kind of thought I was more of a patient and calm person. But I’ve noticed that I’d be like, “Yeah, but what about this? We haven’t done this.”
Fiona: You often find that leaders are very good at telling other people and other teams when they’ve done really well and that they don’t need to be so hard on themselves. And they’re not always so good at turning that lens on themselves, who they tell, “Next, next, next, next.”
Jayne: I’m a complete hypocrite in how I talk to other people or tell them they must take time off and take time to celebrate success.
Fiona: So, last question from me. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs or business leaders at the start of their journey?
Jayne: I think for me, it’s something that we already touched on, to be honest, learn about how to grow and build teams, good teams. You need to know that. You need to understand yourself and your strengths and your weaknesses and understand the different skills and strengths of other types of people. Make sure you understand the marketing, the numbers and the sales side to a degree. But you can’t be an expert on all of it. So, you need to be prepared to build and grow a team and know when the right time is to bring someone in. And it’s always sooner than you think, assuming you want to grow, of course. You have to get ahead of it in terms of recruiting at the right time and taking those opportunities. Another thing I’ve probably learnt from Jamie is if you see good people, get them in because even if you think you’re not ready for them, they’re good people. They’ll make that role their own. They’ll move you on to the next stage. You’ll just get there quicker. So yeah, that really, the importance of knowing how to build a team around you.
Fiona: Well, thanks so much for joining me today. It has been great to hear about how Travel Chapter have coped and thrived in the difficulties of the last 12 months. And fingers crossed for a successful 2021.
Jayne: Thank you. It has been great talking to you. Thanks, Fiona.
Fiona. Thanks, Jayne. Cheers. Bye.