Inspirational Woman: Gemma Lewis | Director of The Villa Collection

Gemma LewisI was born and grew up in a town called Pontypridd in South Wales and attended Business School at Cardiff University, graduating in 1997 in Business Administration. I always had a flair for business and excelled at Business Studies at school but truthfully had no idea what I wanted to do or what field I was going to specialise in. Shortly after I graduated in 1998 and whilst I was working as a project manager in a utilities company, my life took a massive turn which would seal my future career. My father was offered a fabulous opportunity to work in Barbados! Not one to be left in South Wales, I decided to move to the Caribbean with my parents. Gaining a work permit with little work experience in Barbados is near impossible, so I enrolled for an MBA at the University of the West Indies. As the only non-Caribbean and youngest member of my class, it was a crash course in Caribbean culture and working life! Having known no one on the island before I arrived, I plucked up the courage and quickly networked and met some key people. A local businessman that I met applied for a work permit for me and employed me to assist him with a new property development and hotel he was building….my working life in tourism began!

I was thrown in the deep end and remember flying to London for a large trade event with meetings lined up with the likes of British Airways and Virgin Holidays. I was totally green and inexperienced, but my passion for the projects and the development of tourism on the island saw me through. I lived in Barbados for 10 years working in tourism and eventually set up a magazine for the Caribbean hotel industry and was co-owner of an air-conditioning company. Living in Barbados is fabulous but after 10 years and with my 30s looming, I decided I wanted a change in pace, so I took the plunge, and moved to London. I was fortunate to find work with a company marketing some of the hotels I knew well in the Caribbean and after a short time and enjoying London life to the full (certainly a different pace to Caribbean life!), I started Escape Marketing, offering my experience and services to hotels looking to increase their business. We now handle the UK and European marketing for 7 Caribbean hotels and other tourism related companies. I have recently also launched, with a close friend and business partner, a new luxury Villa company called The Villa Collection, offering high end luxury villa holidays in the Caribbean and beyond.

What inspired you to start a business?

You have to be self-motivated and gutsy to start a business. When I first set up our air-conditioning business in Barbados, my inspiration was knowing that we had the skills, energy and ability to build a professional entity. Witnessing the success of others is a massive inspiration and you can’t help but think – ‘if they can you do it, then so can I!’

What is the greatest challenge and the greatest reward in being your own boss?

The greatest challenge for me is finding a work-life balance. As I get older, I appreciate the need for free time and downtime more, and am fortunate to have a fantastic group of friends. It’s hard to switch off when the company is yours and you are so emotionally attached to it. It’s also often hard to not take failure and criticism personally and to heart, but you have to step back and see yourself as a person as a separate entity. The greatest reward is the feeling of accomplishment of seeing the growth of a business and development of a brand and knowing that it’s something that you have created and it wouldn’t have existed without you!

What motivational tips can you give to our members about goal setting and managing both successes and failures?

Prioritising when it comes to goal setting is often very difficult, especially when things all seem equally important! We have become a slave to our emails and clients often expect responses in quick time. My clients are all 4 -5 hours behind me so I usually use my mornings to catch up with emails, hit the gym and walk the dog, as my afternoons into evenings become much busier. My industry is also very social so there are often work events happening at night. Look at structuring your day so you have time to look after your body. I work out a lot and I find exercise helps tremendously, not only giving me energy but helping to focus the mind on my goals.

I often take failure to heart but you must look back and analyse what you could have done better or different, learn from it, and move on, life is too short! Sometimes we loose clients but that’s the cyclical nature of business. Success can often boost your ego, so you have to be careful with how you manage it outwardly sometimes. Inwardly though go ahead and celebrate and share your successes with your closest friends and family, who will be the first to congratulate you and be truly happy for you.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a business owner?

Starting out is the biggest challenge, taking the plunge, the risk and just doing it. This is what holds most people back from going out on their own. My challenge right now is managing a currently successful business with launching a second one and ensuring I give that and my business partner the attention that it needs to grow.

How have you benefited from mentoring or coaching?

I listen and learn from people all the time. In my industry I have watched how others have decided to grow businesses similar to mine and what strategic direction they have gone in. I have watched what they have done and decided what direction I want my businesses to go in.

What advice can you give about the benefits of networking?

In my industry, networking is absolutely essential if you want to be successful. Nearly every opportunity that has come my way has been because of networking and meeting new people. We have to present our hotels to travel agents and potential guests all the time. I attend all types of events and meet all kinds of people. Working with the Caribbean is fun and attracts a lot of interesting people that enhance not on your business but your life in general. Most of my closest friends are amazing, strong and intelligent women that I have met in my industry.

What are your tips for scaling a business and how do you plan for and manage growth?

With Escape, I have actually avoided growth, this is from a purely strategic perspective. It’s a very individual business and my clients choose Escape because of my abilities and experience. I won’t be able to sell it in 10 years and retire, so I don’t see much point in growing it too much as my bottom line won’t benefit. However, with our new business, the Villa Collection, the opposite is true. The long term plan is to grow the brand so that it hopefully becomes a saleable entity. We will stay small and niche as our strength is on providing highly personalised service to discerning clientele. We plan on outsourcing some things such as website content writing and some PR/Social Media management, but keep core activities in house. We are lucky in that we have built a fantastic network of people that we can call on, and hopefully some that we will employ! We will want others to benefit in the growth of our business and are currently offering several contacts a referrals contract where they earn commission on bookings we receive via them.

What does the future hold for you?

I hope that I stay healthy and fit, an unfit body leads to an unfit mind. I have a small family, no children, and whilst my parents still live in Barbados, we are very close, and dad is retiring soon, so I hope to see them much more. I hope one day to meet Mr Right and settle down, and perhaps becoming a mum. From a business perspective, the growth of the Villa Collection is paramount. Hopefully in 10 or 15 years we will have developed a brand that we can stand back and be proud of, having given many people amazing luxury holidays, memories and experiences! I hope that I can retire not too being old and spend more time travelling, and of course enjoying the fabulous beaches of my second home Barbados!

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