The founder and chief executive of Diamond Travel and vice lord-lieutenant of the West Midlands speaks to Samantha Mayling.
Q. How did you get into travel?
A. I was born in Jamaica and came to Birmingham as a teenager, then worked as a midwife and community worker. I was a single mother of two at the age of 20. When the ban on repatriation of money was lifted, Caribbean financial institutions came to the UK to promote their services and encourage people to save.
I became a marketing coordinator and developed contacts across the UK. I looked for an office and found a building in Edgbaston that was for sale, with an office upstairs and vacant retail premises downstairs. When I was a nurse, I had helped someone in travel, so I thought I would start a travel business. I started in 1987 and learnt on the job.
Q. How did the agency develop?
A. We sold everything, from bucket-and-spade holidays upwards, and we still offer money remittance services. The first booking was an Irish family going to Dublin. They were the first people to walk through the door and they booked with me for years.
My most memorable bookings were two weddings in the Caribbean that I booked within the same year – one was a group of 135 and the other was 99. I have been a member of Elite and [its earlier incarnation] Midconsort for more than 20 years. It is a wonderful group of people – they are always very friendly and hold lots of events and conferences that offer useful information and networking.
“The first booking was an Irish family going to Dublin. They were the first people to walk through the door and they booked with me for years.”
Q. Who works with you now?
A. I have three full-time and two part-time members of staff, including Marcia Oliveira. She joined in June 2019 from the University of Central England as she is in her third year studying international travel and tourism. She has been seconded to me for a year and she is an asset, helping with social media and new technology.
I like to take on younger people from universities to help with advertising and marketing. Changes in the industry and technology have squeezed us into a niche – most of our business now is flight-only, especially to the Caribbean with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. We offer VFR [visiting friends and relations] fares, and generation after generation have booked with us.
Q. Tell us about your community roles.
A. I joined the Rotary Club of Birmingham in 1997. I served as the president in 2012-13, the first African-Caribbean woman president in almost 100 years of the club. I am a longstanding member of the New Testament Church of God in Birmingham and in 2008, I was awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government. I received the OBE in 2011 for ‘services to business and to the community in Birmingham’. In July 2017, I received two honorary doctorates, from Aston University and Birmingham City University.
The Aston doctorate was from the faculty of business as I did a lot of work in the community – I was chairman of the Jamaican Association in Birmingham and raised funds for charity. The Birmingham one was from the department of health and life sciences for my nursing and business life. I do have hobbies too: I design my own gowns – including the one I wore at the Elite conference in Cyprus in November 2019.
“Changes in the industry and technology have squeezed us into a niche – most of our business now is flight-only, especially to the Caribbean with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.”
Q. Why is mental health a particular focus for you?
A. My son Sean took his life at the age of 39. We have to talk more about suicide. It can be a taboo subject in our community; we need people to talk more. I try to talk about it at events and helped host a mental health conference. When I spoke about it at his funeral, people came to me about the issue in their own families. You just don’t know who will be affected by mental health issues and suicide. The coroner at his inquest said it is very common among people who are successful. We need to talk about it, so people do not feel alone.
My role as vice lord-lieutenant of the West Midlands
In 2013, I was appointed as a deputy lieutenant of the West Midlands, followed in July 2017 by being appointed vice lord-lieutenant for a three-year term – it was a shock but a great honour. As vice lord-lieutenant, I represent the Queen in the county, and attend more than 400 engagements a year.
I was the first black female deputy lord-lieutenant in the West Midlands and the first black female vice lord-lieutenant in the UK. It means I go to lots of places and lots of events as I am the monarch’s representative. We meet and greet royalty when they visit, and I swear in magistrates, and do citations for awards. I have to make a lot of speeches.
“I was the first black female deputy lord-lieutenant in the West Midlands and the first black female vice lord-lieutenant in the UK.”
I don’t have much rest – someone said I am afraid to sleep – but I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I am not busy, God knows what would happen. I have been busy all my life. Volunteering is in my DNA – my grandma was very similar. I have to be doing something all the time. My philosophy is work hard and play hard. I can be the life and soul of the party.
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