Being a full time single mother of two didn’t hold Christine Kimbrell back when it came to fulfilling her ambitions of running her own business.
Having travelled the world as a flight attendant for British Airways and United Airways, she managed to see some amazing places and wanted to share those experiences with the world. Now she sells the holidays that dreams are made of to some of the world’s richest people.
Ten years in and Christine has never received a complaint. The luxury holiday provider SeyExclusive, which focuses on the Seychelles, has made a profit every year, even throughout the recession. The company has a turnover of £2.5 million and anticipates that this will continue to grow to £3 million by the end of the year.
With two children, one with ADHD and autism, a full time job and an oncoming recession, it would seem nearly impossible to be able to find the time to actually set up a business, but Christine had a trick up her sleeve.
“I like a full life,” Christine laughed. “I always wanted my own business, I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I can see business in anything. I have a million business ideas that I come up with weekly and I always wanted to do something with travel as well because I love it so much.”
But when she told her employers that she was pregnant with her first child, they grounded her and sent her home on full pay for the full term of her pregnancy and maternity, where she had nothing but time. Not one to sit around and do nothing, Christine seized the moment.
“That very next day I went from being cabin crew to opening my own business. I saw it as an opportunity. I was getting full pay and this is what I wanted to do.”
Having been to the Seychelles for a friend’s wedding and also got engaged and married out there, it was a place that was close to her heart as well as paradise.
“The Seychelles at the time wasn’t sold properly. People would pay a lot of money to get there and then stay in some really pretty awful hotels. But since then, we’ve had the Four Seasons open, the Hilton then opened and then we have gone into all the islands as well. Everything’s been renovated, it’s one of the best destinations in the world – It was a good time to get in.
“When I got there on holiday, I thought it was just the most amazing, beautiful network of islands that not many people knew about, or if they had gone there, they would probably have only stayed on one island and not done a lot of island hopping.
“The island hopping is what it’s all about in the Seychelles. Every island is so different. You could be on a coral island or you could be on a granite island, one with mountains, one completely flat and it’s about how to sell it. It’s just stunning.”
A good grounding
With a total set up cost of £3,000 paid on her credit card in 2006, Christine started to create her new business, which would only sell exclusive holidays to the Seychelles, later expanding into the Maldives and Mauritius.
“I had built the website for about £1,000. I was paying myself and that was it. All I needed was a website and a phone. I made my money back within the first six weeks.”
She never resorted to turning to the banks for funding, which as the recession was fast approaching was a good thing, but it did mean that she was trying to get her business going on a very tight budget.
“We did do something sneaky, I had no money for investment, no money for advertising or anything, and of course you have to advertise, so I would always ask my customers, if they travelled with us, to put something on Trip Advisor. That’s how we grew as fast as we did.
“It was the only way we could advertise. Now, we spend thousands a month on Google Adwords and SEO.”
Juggling motherhood and running a business can be really exhausting with long nights and early mornings but Christine wouldn’t have it any other way. She would put the baby under the table rocking him as she was answering the phones and trying to arrange her work around feeding times.
She would run all the errands for the business herself, heading to the bank to make the transfers, update the website and, in the beginning, it was all down to her. She had to manage every aspect of the business.
“I pulled all-nighters a lot of times in the early days, I wouldn’t do that now. I took it really personally in the beginning if I didn’t get a booking, I would be so devastated. Where as now, we have hundreds of people contacting us weekly.”
Flying sky high
Due to the exclusivity of her business, Christine now has clients all over the world. The company has grown to employ five staff who are selected for their skills, not just in sales, but in knowing what is right for the customer.
“We have some of the richest people in the world on our books. Especially one client that books all of his travel, as of last year, with us. He nearly spends £1 million with us now. He is one of the richest Russians in the world and he’s worth billions. We’re very lucky to have him.”
Selling holidays from £4,500 for two people to over £500,000 a trip and having some clients who are just as exclusive as the holidays themselves, it comes as no surprise that Christine and her staff make sure that everything is perfect.
“We have never had a complaint. We don’t have complaints because we are not after selling that cheap 14 nights away that you’ll come back and not really remember. We want our customers to have a memorable experience and especially in the Seychelles where you can get to island hop, we want to ensure that all our customers get to see it for what it is. It’s an amazing network of islands.”
With 150 hotels on their books and another 500 that they work with, Christine makes sure she visits each and every one to make sure that they are right for both the company and her clientele. “That’s what we’re about, we’re extremely honest. We don’t sell the wrong hotel to the wrong person and that’s why we’ve never had a complaint.
“I loved the travel and I loved the hotels. That’s probably why I am so good at what I do. I’m very honest with where I stay and I can critique hotels quite quickly. That’s what I have to do whenever I go over there. We only take on the best of the hotels.
“It could be a two star but it has to be the most fabulous two star and run really well, which you can find, or the five stars, you can have some really awful five stars, so we make sure that they’re running at the best they can run at.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 86 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.