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A dream destination: From law to luxury travel

Deborah Barnett completed her LPC with The University of Law and worked in commercial litigation before a discussion with her sister led her down a very different path. She is now the co-owner of Essential Escapes and Tots Too, luxury spa, experience and family holiday providers. We sat down with Deborah to find out more about how she came to make the shift from the legal sector into the luxury holiday business and what she considers the recipe for success when starting your own venture.

I completed my LPC at The University of Law in 1994 and moved straight to London. I started out as a paralegal at Allen & Overy but realised I’d prefer to work in a smaller firm, so moved to Anthony Oberman & Partners to complete my training contract. After qualifying I spent two years there working on Litigation, Intellectual Property and family matters. In 2000 I moved to Lawrence Stephens Solicitors to specialise in Commercial Litigation. I worked there for three years before my sister came to me with an idea.

My sister was working in publishing and had just launched a spa guide; it inspired her to set up a luxury spa tour operator. I wanted to take a break from the law and had been considering a sabbatical to do the gap year that I’d never done. Instead, I helped her with the business side of setting up her spa tour business. Once it got going there was more work than she could cope with alone. It was real ‘now or never’ moment for me. I haven’t regretted it for one minute.

We set up Essential Escapes in 2002 to specialise in luxury spa holidays. Initially our clientele consisted of mostly honeymooners, couple and young professionals who were looking for a relaxing place to unwind and de-stress. In 2007 many of our clients (and we) were married with children and wanted to continue holidaying in the same way, but with kids in tow. Tots Too was the brand we created to specialise in luxury family travel and it quickly became the main focus of our business.

By 2015 our lives and holidays had changed quite a bit. Our kids, and many of our clients’ children, were entering their teens. We needed to go beyond the kids’ clubs that had been enough until then. That year, my sister took part in MasterChef and was a finalist; she wanted to find a way to combine her love of food and travel and, as I’ve always loved the outdoors, we also wanted to create holidays that incorporated a little more exploration. Earlier this year we re-launched Essential Escapes incorporating what we consider to be the three pillars of wellness: Food, spa and adventure.

We’ve faced many challenges over the 16 years since our launch. There have been plenty of ups and downs, but I think that if you keep focused on what it is you’re trying to achieve you can tackle the obstacles that pop up along the way. So long as you have a real passion for what you do, and believe in your product, you’ll succeed. It’s down to developing three major key skills: Determination, decisiveness and tenacity.

I actually find that my legal education has come in quite useful when starting my own business. I handle most of the operational side of the business so even though we outsource our legal work (due to time restraints), I do still dip into my legal bag of skills. My negotiation skills are certainly put to the test on a daily basis.

Looking forward, we have quite different plans for each of the businesses. Tots Too will continue to do what it does well; catering to young families, but Essential Escapes is where we’re really focusing at the moment. We want to build on those three pillars from the re-launch – food, spa and adventure – to bring more choices and experiences to our customers. There are so many exciting products out there. I feel like the world really is our oyster.

In the 16 years that we’ve been running we’ve seen a lot of changes in the travel industry, the biggest of which has to be technology. From the way that we communicate with our clients (fax machines were still commonplace when we started) to the way that the internet has made booking flights and hotels so much easier for people. AirBnB has been another big explosion to affect the travel industry. Society will always be finding new ways to make things more convenient, but there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned personal service, insider knowledge and the art of conversation. I find that clients still really want these personal touches, especially the cash-rich but time-poor.

If I had to give any entrepreneurs one piece of advice, it would be this: Really love it. Whatever your idea is, you have to really love it and believe in it. There will be financial and lifestyle sacrifices along the way to make it a success, but if you have that love for it then it’ll be entirely worth it.

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