A long-time Fairfield resident and one of FM’s regular advertisers, Emma Smith runs a travel counselling business from her home in Bronte Avenue. She met FM’s Deborah Kane for a drink at the Bannatynes cafe and shared a little of her story…

DK: Let’s start at home! How long have you lived in Fairfield? And have you always lived in this area?

ES: Yes, I lived in Letchworth and Baldock before Fairfield, so not far away. We moved here maybe 17… actually at least 17 years ago. Our eldest daughter is 15, we got married the year before we had her, and then we were here a year before that, so it must be about that long – which is pretty nuts, isn’t it?!

DK: I’m just coming up to 13 years and that feels crazy, so yes 17 really is! You must have been one of the first people to move here – in that first year or so when it really was just a few houses and a big building site!

ES: Haha yes! When we first came here we lived at the back of Bronte, and it was just Bronte and the streets to the south of that, and then the front bit of Dickens, and nothing else.

DK: And now look at how it’s grown! So, I’m talking to you today because you’ve been advertising with FM for ages now and we thought it would be nice to get to know the person behind the business. You’re a Travel Counsellor – how did you get into that?

ES: I’ve been in travel for my whole career. I started at Thomas Cook, worked my way up to Manager, managed various stores in the area – Stevenage, Letchworth, Bedford…

DK: So what made you decide to go it alone?

ES: Well, about the time I had my second daughter, things all changed at Thomas Cook. They restructured, which meant that instead of managing one shop I would have been managing three or four. And because I was part time, and I didn’t want to go full time at that point, I had to make a choice.

DK: So you started your own business?

ES: No, I went into teaching! I went to college and got my teacher training qualification and went and worked at Hitchin College for a little while, teaching travel and business. That was quite crazy… in all honesty I’ve never worked so hard in my life! You’re constantly getting emails… having to rewrite lessons – you would have thought you would use material over and over, but it just never worked out that way for me – writing assignments, marking work… it was just nuts.

DK: It does look like such a hard job! But it’s attractive to lots of parents because it fits around the family…

ES: Exactly. So, yeah, I gave it a try, but then I decided to go back into travel, but do it for myself from home. Which actually has worked out really well because I can still work around my family, and I can do more bespoke stuff as well, which is what I like to do – more than your bucket-and-spade all-inclusive holidays.

DK: Which I guess Thomas Cook do a lot of?

ES: Yes, and I still do a fair bit of that, too, because sometimes people just want to fly and flop. But what I really like doing is the niche itineraries. I did one to Japan in January and it was just mega, travelling on bullet trains and staying in the traditional houses, and just looking into all of that – because Japan’s not been an area that I’ve really specialised in, so I’m learning about it myself whilst I’m doing it.

DK: That must be quite difficult if you’re not familiar with the country or the language?

ES: With that one it was, but I’m able to use a tour operator to do the bits that I’m less knowledgeable about, so then I just act as a travel agent. And then on other trips where I do have specialist knowledge I can be the tour operator myself. I also have quite a lot of contacts who are on the ground to help me out. For example, I booked a trip once for a group of Thai boxers who were all going out to Thailand to train – so it was a bit of a holiday but also a training session – and I got in touch with my contacts in Bangkok, and they got in touch with the local gyms, and the clients ended up with a completely personalised experience – which is quite cool, being able to do that for people when they have a vision of what they want, but no idea how to make it happen.

DK: What parts of the world would you say you have specialist knowledge of? ES: Generally places I’ve been to myself are the ones I’m best at. But I’ve been to lots of places, so that doesn’t limit me too much! I’d probably say my weak areas are Africa and Japan, maybe Russia. And I’m really good at Canada and the west coast of America.

DK: Because you’ve spent a lot of time there?

ES: Yes, we did a big trip when I’d just had my youngest daughter, where we took three months and went on a big family adventure. That was amazing and it gave me loads of knowledge. We started in Toronto and did Niagara, then flew over to Calgary, picked up a campervan and went all through the Rockies, around Vancouver, Vancouver Island, then we dropped the camper and got a Greyhound bus – because we thought that was very ‘movies’! And actually the Greyhound buses are really quite dodgy. They’re very basic, take you into the worst parts of the city… but it was fine! And then we picked up a car in Seattle and drove down that west coast, went via Vegas, ended in LA, flew over to Hawaii… then from there to Beijing, saw the Great Wall of China, Hong Kong – that was a great city – and from there we did a couple of islands in the Philippines, and then home via Dubai.

DK: What a trip! Do you have any tips for travelling with children? I feel like that’s something lots of people are a bit scared of…

ES: The children were great. You just need to make sure you include something that excites them in your itinerary, so that they’re looking forward to it too. For us, we did things like whale watching and this amazing ethical aquarium where they only keep the animals a month and then release them and restock. My eldest daughter is a real home body, so she wasn’t fussed about the big trip at all, we definitely pushed her to do it. But sometimes I think that you do have to push them out of their comfort zones a little bit. And now she has such fond memories of the trip. It was definitely a good experience.

DK: Where are your favourite places in the world?

ES: I really like Canada and I really like New Zealand. They’re both good year-round destinations, too – you can ski in the winter, it’s warm in the summer, and they have mountains, natural beauty… but I just love travel in general. I think it turns you into somebody that you’re not necessarily able to be when you are at home. I remember when I went to New Zealand, I was going round saying “Who would do a bungee jump? Who would jump off a platform into nothing?!” And then I got there and I was like, “Let’s do a bungee!” It’s weird. And, again, there was this lake in New Zealand that was full of these horrible fish, and I’m like, “I’m not getting in there with all those fish” – and then I get in there and swim with the fish! I would never do that here! If you asked me to go and swim across the Blue Lagoon there’s no way I’d do it!

DK: It probably wasn’t quite as cold as the Blue Lagoon, at least! What are some of the difficult things you’ve come across in the travel business? How have you found the internet has changed things, for example?

ES: Well, it is a lot easier now for people to do the basics themselves. Some people just literally want the cheapest, and those aren’t really the people who I can help, if it’s just flights and hotels and no frills. But there are a lot of other people who are interested in bespoke experiences – seeing the real places and doing things like cooking with the locals… really making that trip a bit more than just going somewhere and seeing a few tourist sites. And that’s not so easy for people to do themselves.

DK: What about Covid, that must have hit you hard?

ES: Yeah, that really affected the business, but we’re coming out the other side, thankfully. One of my clients, when Covid actually hit they were in Lanzarote, and all the flights were being cancelled so I needed to get them home. They were from Manchester, but the only way I could do it was to send them straight to the airport to get on a Stansted flight. But then it wasn’t just getting them back to the UK, because the husband had respiratory problems and didn’t want to catch Covid, so they were worried about getting home from the airport on public transport… I ended up picking them up at Stansted myself, driving halfway to Manchester and meeting their daughter on the motorway so that she could drive them the rest of the way!

DK: Oh wow! That really is personal service!

ES: Well, it was important to get them back safely. But do you know what, now they’re my customers for life!

DK: Of course they would be! Do you have lots of repeat customers?

ES: People do tend to come back, which is lovely. But there’s always room for more! Now that my youngest has started school I’ve got more time so I’m trying to build the business up again. I’m going to a wedding show this weekend… sometimes it’s nice to get out and do something a bit different, because you’re stuck at home in your office all day, so you miss that contact with people – whereas when you’re in a shop you’re working in a team, and you have clients coming in. Working from home, you don’t even get phonecalls any more, it’s mostly email or WhatsApp.

DK: And the occasional drink outside Bannatynes for Fairfield Matters! Thanks so much for chatting to me today, it’s been lovely to hear about what you do.

Deborah Kane has lived in Fairfield since 2010 and is a regular contributor to Fairfield Matters. This new column aims to introduce a range of people who live and work in Fairfield. If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed or are interested in being interviewed yourself, please get in touch.