CMO to CEO: How Intrepid Travel’s Sarah Clark is balancing sustainability, diversity and personality in the pursuit of growth

MD of the A/NZ travel business shares her experiences rising from marketing to business leadership, building team alignment and skills development

Sarah Clark
Sarah Clark

Tweaking your leadership style to suit diverse personalities across an organisation and being ok with people not liking you are vital attributes marketers must develop if they’re to become successful leaders.

That’s the view of Intrepid Travel A/NZ managing director, Sarah Clarke, who caught up with CMO to discuss the shift from marketing leader to general management, what it’s going to take to lead people in the next phase of Covid-normal, and how sustainable growth can be achieved by leveraging the ability to say no.

Last month, Intrepid Travel confirmed Clark was back in the role of local MD after a one-year secondment building the group’s global accommodation strategy. She’s part of an all-female leadership team for Intrepid in A/NZ that includes GM marketing, Louise Laing; GM of inside sales and customer experience, Julie Ristevski: and GM of commerce and finance, Lauren McCormick.

Clark first took up the MD reins in 2018 after spending a year as Intrepid’s APAC GM of marketing. She’s built her career in the tourism trade, working her way up from Top Deck tour guide to reservations and sales, product marketing locally then globally and general management both in A/NZ as well as the northern hemisphere.

Along the way, a key leadership learning has been that you simply can’t worry about other people liking you.

“A quote on a coffee cup at one of my first international conferences said: The key to failure is trying to please everyone. I’ve kept that in the back of my mind the whole way through,” Clark says. “While you need to ensure you’re not being bullish, if you focus too much on trying to make people like you, you’ll lose focus on the job you are doing. Putting time into your relationships and making sure you’re being fair and a good person is one thing, but also there are personalities that will clash. You’re not going to be best mates with everyone at work. And that’s ok.”  

Understanding the wide assortment of personalities existing across an organisation can also be a big learning curve for those who have only been in marketing before, Clark says.

“Typically, the type of person in marketing is energetic, driven, extroverted. Whereas when you lead other areas like operations or functions, they may think differently. It’s about tweaking your leadership so you can work with lots of different types of personalities,” she advises. “It’s really important to have those different ways of thinking so you can operate as a business. If you all have ‘yellow’ personalities, a lot of which tend to be in marketing, you’ll miss potentially some attention to detail. You need to make sure in leadership style you are catering to all different personalities.”  

However, given the diversity of skills now existing in modern marketing teams, Clark sees this ability also becoming more important to the CMO. By way of example, she points out Intrepid’s structure of a global marketing support team, then regional marketing, reflects very different characteristics. The regional marketing focus is on digital, PR and partnerships, while global focuses on the website and owned channels, content and SEO and technical skills.

“Put those teams together and they’re vastly different. So I completely agree there are so many different teams within marketing now compared to 20 years ago,” Clark says. “It’s therefore the responsibility of marketing leaders to be giving your upcoming team members cross-skills. Because they are potentially being pigeonholed too much currently. You want to give them generalist skills so they can move up to the next level of leadership if they wish to.

“It’s awesome that we have specialisations. But understanding the whole ecosystem from a market perspective so our marketers are prepared to move up to the next level and lead a team that’s multi-faceted is critical. If we don’t do that, we will have major issues in marketing leadership in the future.”  

The 360-degree experience of travel

Clark has always been in the travel industry and she credits this 360-degree view as vital to her position today. She commenced as a tour guide with Top Deck while studying business tourism and marketing at university, before relocating to New Zealand for six months. That led to Europe, guiding for Top Deck then at HQ working on reservations and sales.

“One of the important things in tourism is understanding the business from all levels and doing all of these different roles,” Clark says. “I’m not someone who learns academically either, but more on the job; I gather new skills that way.”

These initial roles led to Canada and business development, working with agents and marketing in North America and South America. Clarks says her first big career leap was doing accounts in STA Travel in 2012, then becoming global VP of product marketing and online.

“I wasn’t qualified for the role, but with my experience they saw me as a good fit for the role,” she says. “I had 30 staff and learnt so much about digital marketing, ecommerce and managing relationship with agencies there. It was an amazing learning experience to learn off that team. We hired in experts and learnt from them, too.”

From there, Clark returned to Australia as GM A/NZ for Top Deck, focused heavily on outbound sales and marketing. She then moved to London for a global role and oversaw a website redesign, digital portal build and brand growth. A year of travelling and desire to work for Intrepid led to GM marketing of APAC in 2017.

“It was a great opportunity to come in, really understand Intrepid and lead brand and marketing for this region,” Clark recalls. “We had about 30 people in marketing for the region, then a global team. After a year, I moved into the MD position.”

While she never sought specifically to be an MD, Clark always wanted to continue learning and progressing.

“I took every opportunity as it presented itself. Throughout my whole experience, it was about learning from other people I was working with, even if I was not responsible for that area of the business,” she comments. “That cross-leadership experience and learning is very important when you’re trying to step into a multi-faceted role.”

With her own leadership team, Clark is encouraging them to wear two hats: Functional leader; and more importantly, being part of the leadership team responsible for what happens across the region.

“Our GMs need to learn off each other. This puts them in a good position to take my position hopefully, as that’s what we want to do – build leaders underneath us that are ready and prepared to take that next step,” she says. “But you are never really ready for the next role, you have to be confident and just take it on. I’ve always been in great environments, whether it was my managers, a good culture or the people around me. It does help you have the confidence to go for another role.”

Recalibrating to growth

Understanding what’s happening from a customer base and market trends perspective is a fabulous skillset marketers bring into leadership. And it’s been a critical one for Clark as she works to build Intrepid back up and tune up the employee base to pursue sustainable growth.

“When Covid hit, we had to decrease size of global employee base by 48 per cent. Our marketing team was decimated at the start of Covid. We didn’t know how long it would take to recover, so we just had a base-level marketing team and we had to turn spend off,” she explains. “We focused on our owned channels and how we continued to communicate with customers. This was important considering it was taking a lot longer to recover – we needed to keep speaking to customers and engaging them.

“Early on, I had focus on our local product and led a team to reinvigorate the local product suitable for domestic travellers. We sold a lot of trips and got people travelling in between lockdowns and it’s performing well now. The main thing was having something to talk about, sell and engage with.”  

In 2022, the emphasis is on how to make sure Intrepid is building tourism back in a better way. One of the levers is creating new journeys for people outside main cities, while another is travelling in a more environmentally and socially responsible way.

“People are more conscious when they travel now, and they want to understand what impact they have on communities they visit. Our focus is to ensure we communicate that in the right way so when they’re travelling, they can see the positive impact and are a more considered traveller,” Clark says.  

Intrepid has historically been known for its commitment to local community, so the current priority is to elevate that to the next level. Over the last year, the business introduced more low-carbon impact trips focusing on walking, hiking, more active trips. It’s also taken out flights under 90 minutes from many of its most popular itineraries, using ground transport options instead.

“As travel was coming back up at the end of 2021, we shifted focus on supply chain and what’s happening with the people we work with,” Clark says. “Trips consist of lots of different products – whether it’s accommodation or experiences – and making sure there’s nothing wrong or negative in the mix, whether it’s modern slavery, social impact or environment, is critical.

“Then it’s about how we can help people we work with by providing more information on how they be more sustainable. We have a 10-step guide to decarbonise travel, for example, available for free. It’s about getting the whole industry to become better. So many tourism businesses were hit so hard. They’re trying to build back up and they don’t necessarily have staff or savings now. So a focus is looking at how can we provide information to help them.”

More recently, Intrepid has had to be conscious of the impact of external factors, such as limited air capacity and routes, on Australians looking to finally travel overseas again.

Organisationally, it’s then about building the team back up in the right way. “It’s a beautiful opportunity you don’t get often, to start from bottom up again,” Clark says.

“We’re able to build the marketing team in a conscious way, and test and learn more. Also, the pressure everyone is feeling locally and globally with getting the right staff, and what salaries you need to pay for those staff, has a huge impact. We need to bring in the right people in the right way, that fit with the values and culture.

“How we achieve that flexibility piece is also a key focus and challenge. Without the right people, there’s no point having a strategy as we need people to deliver it.”

An evolving capability at Intrepid is digital. Thanks to the acceleration of ecommerce through the pandemic, the volume of people more comfortable with interacting online through live chat and booking has exponentially increased.

“We’ve had a big focus on digital transformation and how to engage with customers in all those touchpoints,” Clark says. “We are now hiring for a chief digital officer, which is not a role we’ve had before, which will be part of the core management team. This will be project focused to start with, but so much cost going into digital in businesses, continuing to monitor these costs, and keep elevating the business to the next level is super important.”

People alignment

It's not just the new either – Clark recognises keeping existing teams aligned and culture buoyant is an ongoing effort for leaders.   

“I think we thought when Covid was over we’ll all be fine and we’ll go back to growth, sales and it’ll all be ok. But we’re faced with a set of challenges now – whether it’s staffing or operating in this new environment,” she says. “The team has been through a lot, and our GMs have been covering anything from entry level to their own roles. I’m trying to alleviate the pressure of the GMs while we are ramping up our marketing, phones and sales are going crazy and partners want to work with us.”

Alignment and sustainable growth require the whole Intrepid business to be crystal clear on what can and can’t be done while it’s rebuilding capability.

“It’s been a good learning experience for my team to say no because you can’t do everything,” Clark says. “Then it’s making sure we have clear strategy that’s simple and ultimately ends in sustainable growth.”

Supporting this is Clark’s expectation for her own local marketing team to be both more efficient and effective with campaigns and relationships.

“Now spending is ramping up, it’s about zeroing in on the trackable pieces, then having a long-term strategy on our brand piece,” she says. “Sometimes, the most important part of marketing is the thing you can’t track. We need to make sure we’re not only focused on growth immediately and what we need to see to hit the bottom line, but that we are building the dreaming phase and a pipeline of customers that will potentially book in six- or 12-months’ time.

“Balancing the two across immediate bottom of the funnel and building top-of-funnel is critical.”

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