Siobhan Byrne Learat
Siobhan Byrne Learat – DBS '88 & MBA '03
Capping 14 years of experience in the hospitality industry with an MBA was the kickstart for Siobhan Byrne Learat to set up high-end tour company Adams & Butler, which specialises in providing tailor-made vacations in Ireland, the UK and Africa and has counted Michael Jackson and Taylor Swift among its clients.
About Siobhan Byrne Learat
Tell us a bit about your education and early career
After my primary degree in Arabic and Spanish at UCD I did a master’s in Arabic. When I finished in 1987 it was almost impossible to get a job so I decided to follow up with the DBS. It was its pilot year, and I ended up doing very well, including getting first place in international marketing and discovering that I had an aptitude for accounting and finance. The DBS allowed me to enter the business world.
I got a placement in the Killiney Court Hotel through an Irish Goods Council programme. I was really thrown in the deep end: it was meant to be a sales and marketing role but I ended up getting involved in everything, from HR to making BES and ERDF funding applications. I spent 11 years there and it suited me very well – I had four young children but lived beside the property so there was great flexibility.
During that time I continued to do different things each year to push myself further. For example, I was very involved in the Hospitality, Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) and became president of the Irish branch and vice president of Europe, which had 10,000 members. I also did several diplomas, including one in applied finance at the IMI.
After 11 years, I had done everything in the hotel apart from operations but still had the title of director of sales and marketing. My family were all accountants and I was familiar with so many other elements of business so I decided to take up a position with Active Ireland as managing director in 2000.
I also started an executive MBA in UCD that year. Doing an MBA had always been one of my goals but I felt it was important to build up my practical experience first. Over and above the programme itself, one of the fantastic things about doing an MBA is the interaction with your classmates. There was such a wide mix of people in my year and I learned so much from them. Since then I have completed the certificate and diploma in corporate governance with the Institute of Directors.
In Active Ireland, we bought period properties, renovated and sold them on and then rented them out to the vacation market on behalf of the new owners. I was always lamenting the fact that although we had very wealthy clients coming in from all over the world we didn’t have the high-end and reliable back-up services we needed. One of my study group colleagues suggested I set up my own company so I would be in control of everything.
My MBA thesis became the business plan for Adams & Butler, an upmarket tour operator specialising in highly customised vacations and unique experiences and targeting wealthy and sophisticated international clients. I was very lucky to have Prof. Frank Roche as my supervisor and ended up getting a first-class honour which I was delighted with.
After setting the company up in 2002 the first few years were tough. I had a fellow director who had an amazing tourism brain and knew more about the industry than I did, but we weren’t really a good match. He was a bit of a naysayer – I’d have a good idea but by the time we’d discuss everything and I’d convince him that we had to go ahead, the opportunity would be gone.
After three years, we realised we just weren’t making money. We downsized to three people and moved the office to my home to save on office rent, and I took over the complete running of the company. We started becoming more profitable. A few years later we parted ways.
In 2006 we managed to win Michael Jackson as a client. Our other high-profile clients since then have included Taylor Swift, Uma Thurman, Harrison Ford and Senator Paul Ryan, and we also organised Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s honeymoon in Ireland in 2014.
We focused entirely on bringing people into Ireland until 2005 when we added Scotland. In 2007, we started doing the rest of the UK and South Africa. Then I went to Kenya with clients and met my husband Kasao, who was managing a property there and we started selling East Africa.
In 2005, we became a member of Virtuoso, a global network of agencies specialising in luxury and experiential travel with over 20,000 advisors. We’re the go-to people for them in Ireland and the UK for high-end bookings. And I’m now on the board of Virtuoso in Europe.
Our strongest market is the US – it represents around three-quarters of our business – followed by Australia, Canada, Mexico and Brazil, as well as a smattering of Arab and Russian clients. We’re don’t target Europe, because they tend to book themselves and are more penny pinching. The Americans appreciate a high level of service and the Arabs and Russians value the handholding.
Last October we launched ourselves to Irish clientele and will focus on the market here as we believe we have something different to offer.
What does your day-to-day role involve?
It’s very varied and there’s quite a lot of travel involved. In the first four months of this year, for example, I’ve spent a week in Northern Ireland doing site inspections; around eight weeks in the US on three separate trips covering over 20 cities, including New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Austin, Dallas, New Orleans, Savannah and Miami; and a week of site inspections in Kenya, and another in Tanzania.
On top of that is the day-to-day running of the business and also dealing with clients and suppliers.
I’m also constantly looking at new trends. When I was doing my applied finance diploma, one of the people on my course told us he always read American publications so he would be aware of trends before they hit Europe. That resonated with me: when I was in the Killiney Court and involved with international associations I always tried to work with or on American boards. And right from the start at Adams & Butler we always gravitated towards American models and looked at industry trends there so we were ahead of the curve all the time.
As a company we benchmark ourselves against international, high-end peers rather than Irish operators. For example, I’m the only person in Ireland to be an A-list travel advisor with Travel + Leisure magazine, which is a very big deal in America. We get a lot of business from that, and I’ve had that for the last four years. We also work with a lot of media abroad and have been featured in The New York Times on a few occasions, as well as Condé Nast and airline magazines such as American Airlines and Delta.
How would you describe your leadership style?
We’re a very flat organisation. We have a meeting every Wednesday for all the staff and a different person each week acts both as chair and minutes-taker. The person who started last week could end up chairing the meeting! One lady in our company volunteered to be the watchdog ensuring we followed up on our to-dos and I love and appreciated that someone offered to do that.
I guess that reflects my leadership style: I trust my people and want them to feel they’re involved and that what they think, and feel is important. Projects and their ownership are delegated. Everything is transparent. People are empowered. I’m not at the coalface with our customers every day but other people in the team are, so it’s very important that they let us know what’s happening. We react proactively, and any learnings internally and externally are integrated immediately. Our strategy is always a work in progress and accessible to all, and our values are incorporated into everything we do. They act as a blueprint to empower us whenever a decision or action needs to be taken. My strength is my people. I’m proud of them. Their strength is our culture.
What motivates you?
I love when the team is happy because we’re very much a family. It’s really important to me that everyone in the office is happy and having fun. We’re big into shadowing and mentoring so people can iron out any issues at an early stage. As well as regular performance reviews we have moaning sessions: every week the leadership team meets an employee for just five minutes to see if they have anything to get off their chest. It’s so important to deal with things quickly so they don’t become major issues.
I also love Africa, especially Kenya – I just live, breathe and eat it – so that certainly motivates me too.
Who inspires or influences you?
I’m inspired by people who have a good work-life balance and who achieve things and get things done. But for the most part, I look to the people in my office and also within to the very best version of myself, the person I know I can be. I have so much admiration for the people on my team who are able to deal with sometimes quite demanding clients and remain professional and level headed throughout. And then personally, I’m always trying to improve myself in order to be better at what I do. For example, I know I need a better work-life balance – and am definitely envious of people who have that!
What is your biggest achievement?
I think getting a first-class honour in my MBA when I was a single mother with four kids is definitely up there. Being able to make the company a success after quite a difficult start was also a huge achievement for me.
More recently, I’m very proud of being on the board of Virtuoso Europe and on their advisory committees in the US and being a Travel + Leisure A-List travel advisor. I was also blown away when we were featured in The New York Times.
What about failures?
I think there are times when I should have made difficult decisions quicker. And it is usually about people. Letting go. As an example, quite recently I remained quite loyal to someone where it wasn’t really in the best interest of the business. I would be a tiny bit soft. I’m learning.
We also had a joint venture in China for three years and Jack Ma was just one of our clients amongst many famous Chinese people. The strategy and the product and the marketing were perfect. What we didn’t foresee is that the Chinese elite do not disclose their private life openly or talk about their travels abroad so we had no referral clients which is the mainstay of our type of high-end travel business.
What is your advice for success?
People, people and people. Having a mentor or mentors can be very valuable. We have an advisory board of very high-profile people who told us to focus on what we do best when we were starting out. On that note, I would say stick to what you’re good at rather than trying to do everything.
Hire for the fit with the team and culture and not just for the skillset. It’s vital also to be able to trust your people, and always work to embed a culture within your organisation whereby your people support and encourage you as much as you support and encourage them.
What are your plans for the future?
We really want to push ourselves with the African product because we know it so well. And this year, we’re going to really promote ourselves in Ireland, where we want to build the business in the medium to high-end travel market. We really believe we are offering the Irish traveller something unique, which was unavailable up until now.
My husband and I have often been asked to accompany our clients to Africa and we demurred. However, my husband is one of the top private safari guides in Kenya, an elder of a tribe, and has worked on four documentaries about lions and cheetahs for National Geographic which are being re-aired constantly so we now feel we should share our love of what we do and share our Africa … the real Africa.
How has your degree benefited your career and/or personal life?
In so many ways. As a life-long learner they imbued in me a love and longing for knowledge. My arts degrees opened my eyes to different cultures, thoughts and philosophies. My business degrees instilled in me a confidence to succeed and excel in the business world. They gave me courage and strength to scale a career ladder and creativity to overcome any obstacles in my way. Combined, my awareness of a myriad of international cultures together with my business acumen facilitated successful sales and partnerships abroad.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit/Quinn School?
So many. Being introduced to Spanish, French literature and culture and the Arab world on my first day there. I particularly loved my master’s as I could spend hours in the library reading and writing. I also still laugh at an occasion when my friend Kathryn and I did not have enough money to share a cup of coffee in the restaurant at 20p and could only afford the plastic cup one from the bar machine at 17p!! We are still very close friends. We were both very poor students during the DBS.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
My family home which I bought when my mother died is on Foster’s Avenue across the road from UCD, so UCD has always been an important part of my life since babyhood. I love walking there. The network is a good way to keep in touch with many of my friends from the various courses I studied, and with my alma mater. UCD will always be part of my life.
What are your main interests outside work?
Dining with my family. My boys and husband are fun. Reading a lot, walking in the Irish countryside, and the African bush, and in cities. Skiing, horse-riding. Travelling. Catching up with my girlfriends, and niece Orla and cousin Helen.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you
I always eat dinner with my boys whenever I am in Ireland. No one misses dinner. We always eat the same meal together, and always have done since they were babies.
What pieces of technology can you not live without?
Sadly my iPhone and my Surface laptop. I love the Surface as it opens up immediately and I can do stuff without waiting. My iPhone lets me connect with work wherever I am and with my family if they need me.
What are your pet hates?
I hate ordering an espresso in a good restaurant or 5-star hotel and being served a Nespresso. A Nespresso is not an espresso! The art of fine coffee making is becoming lost. And couples out for dinner on their separate cell phones. Sad.
Who’s your favourite writer and/or what’s your favourite book?
My most recent favourite book is The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
Salif Keita from Mali. I also like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
What’s the last film you went to that you loved?
The film Colette. I love French period drama, films and literature.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Roast lamb, which my husband and family adore. Anything Arab or salads or pasta. I love tagines, lamb with prunes or chicken with marinated lemons. Or a Lebanese breakfast. I crave pasta once a week. In Kenya I love eating goat cooked on an open fire.
What teams do you support?
Always Team Ireland first. Then Morocco as my children are half Arab, and Kenya because of my husband and step-sons.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
Apart from Kenya, Rwanda and Savannah, Georgia. If I wasn’t married to a Kenyan, Rwanda would be my favourite country in Africa. Every part is beautiful. Its greenness and deep red earth has to be seen to be believed. My favourite experience was chimp tracking and of course visiting the gorillas. But …the Kenyans are my favourite African people. They are so like the Irish in many ways especially their self-deprecating sense of humour. You have to visit Africa not just for the animals but also for the people.
Savannah in Georgia is a beautiful city with lots of big oak trees dripping Spanish moss. Home to 23 picturesque and lush shaded verdant squares, the people are easy going and laid-back and there is a decadence in its antebellum architecture, horse-drawn carriages and cobbled stones, which makes me think of it as a naughty grand dame with character. Its southern food is sublime. The famed Charleston city nearby is boring in comparison.
Where is home and why?
Home is where I am happy and where I get my strength. My refuge. Ireland, Africa, Savannah and New York. All feed my soul and make me happy.
Name three things on your bucket list
Mongolia, Senegal and Mali, and Papua New Guinea.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
My husband and I set up a charity that I have yet to push - Nalepo Educational Fund Ltd. Up until now in my husband’s tribe – the Samburu in Northern Kenya – very few children go to school. My mother and sisters-in-law still live in huts and are semi-nomadic. They don’t even speak one of the two official languages of Kenya – Swahili and English. They only speak Samburu which is akin to the Maasai language. So, unless you go to school your opportunities are severely limited. There is no free schooling in Kenya for anybody. On average I worked out that it costs about €1,000 a year to school a child including food, clothes, and travel. All secondary schools are boarding. My husband and I sponsor several children, but we can’t do it all alone. We need help.
In Ireland, having eight sons in our blended family: four boys myself, two step-sons and two adopted step-sons, anything to do with vulnerable boys, especially teenagers.