Mary Jean Tully’s story is fascinating. CEO of Tully Luxury Travel, she established her company in 1987, and knew from the tender age of nine that she wanted to work in the travel industry. Many decades of hard work later, her business is now recognized by Forbes and Condé Nast Traveller, and Tully has been named one of the most powerful women in her industry by Travel Agent Magazine. She proudly continues to employ her first hire from 32 years ago and has grown the business to a staff of more than 80 employees.
Tully Luxury Travel is more than just experiences. It’s about incredible, one-of-a-kind moments that are curated by Tully and her team. Just some of the highlights over the years include: organizing a meeting with a member of the Royal Family for high tea in London; organizing a dinner in an exclusive Bedouin tent under the stars in front of the Pyramids (including a private chef, musicians and belly dancers); discovering the secrets behind the renowned Sacher Torte recipe in Vienna; and participating in conservation and wildlife efforts to protect rhinos and elephants in Africa.
Tully herself also sits on advisory boards of many leading cruise lines, hotels and travel suppliers, and has received numerous accolades identifying her agency as one of the best luxury travel providers in the world. More importantly, she is committed to protecting the environment, and advocates for travel practices that are sustainable and respectful to nature. Ahead of World Elephant Day on Aug.12, she chatted with FAJO about luxury travel, her life and tips on how to have the ultimate unforgettable travel experience.
You’ve said in the past that, as a child, you had a neighbour who was a flight attendant and she inspired you to do what you do today. What was it about her that attracted you to the career in travel?
She changed my life! When I met my neighbour, who seemed to always be coming back from a new adventure, she encouraged me to become a global citizen. Despite not having the required experience, I took a chance, applied for a position at a travel agency and talked my way into an interview. Not only did I get the job, but I was promoted to a management position within eight months!
What, to you, is luxury travel?
“Luxury travel” is one of those phrases that means something different to every person. It could be the tranquility of a private beach, the adrenaline rush of an African Safari, a fabulous spa or exploring castles in the Loire Valley in France. The choices are endless! We say “luxury is defined by you” at our company and, for me, luxury travel can be as simple as turning off my phone and enjoying some uninterrupted downtime. Luxury does not have to be “expensive”, but rather something that saves you time, unnecessary expenses and enhances the overall quality of your experience.
When someone is planning a trip, where would you recommend they start?
We live in a digital space where we are overwhelmed with apps, information and social media. A person can find so many different ways to book their trip online, but what you need is someone to help put it all together. It is very time-consuming to try and do this all on your own, which is where a travel expert comes in, providing valuable insight that is greater than information posted on a website.
I always say “no one posts a bad selfie”—a hotel or tour operator, for example, is not going to share a bad photo or tell you that there is loud, intrusive construction happening next door. However, our travel designers will! We have inside knowledge and relationships around the globe, and can provide the most up-to-date, accurate insight into various locations and the benefits. While you might find, for example, a “third night free” promotion at a hotel online, we have the leverage to not only get you that promotion, but also apply extra amenities, such as a complimentary breakfast, spa credits and room upgrades. It is the small details and the special nuances that will enhance your trip.
You have been all over the world. What are some of your favourite spots?
My favourite place in the world is Africa and I travel there at least three times a year. I’ve been so lucky to travel all over the world, but Africa is the one place that I go back to time-after-time and that holds a little piece of my heart. It is where I have become a passionate conservationist and wildlife activist. I have participated in darting and releasing rhinos and, most recently, I assisted with a release from a probable poaching situation in South Africa, where we relocated the rhino to Botswana, allowing a much greater chance of survival. I have also collared elephants with the Singita Grumeti Fund to help save them from poachers, and I am also an active supporter of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that operates the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world.
One of my other favourite travel destinations is India—the culture and people are incredible, and it is a country that I always look forward to visiting. One of my favourite activities that I look forward to is the shopping! Whether it be for the beautiful silks, or the great cottons (especially the men’s shirts), India’s shopping is endless! The jewels that can be found in Jaipur are some of the greatest in the world. But what I really love most about India is the “organized chaos.” As you drive down the street, there is a man with a goat cart, or a camel walking on the side of the road, or a band of people celebrating a wedding. The streets are always filled with all sorts of chaos!
With World Elephant Day around the corner on Aug.12, what makes this day extra important to you?
To be in the company of elephants is truly remarkable. These gentle giants are so very protective of one another, and they display such affection and respect in the most tender of ways.
Elephants are on the very top of everyone’s list when they travel to Africa, however, many travellers are not aware of the torture that these beautiful animals are put through in order to satisfy our vacation bucket lists (i.e. elephant riding).
Over the past decade, the elephant population has declined by more than 62% and they are facing extinction within the next decade. It is important for me to spread the word and encourage travellers to not support any location or excursion that allows elephants to stand on their heads, do tricks, have their faces painted or permits guests to ride on their back. At Tully Luxury Travel, we only partner with ethical companies committed to wildlife conservation, and will only support trusted elephant sanctuaries and excursions that protect and preserve the well-being of wildlife conservation.
Please share a little more about your work with The Giants of Africa Foundation.
Personally and professionally, I am honoured to support this incredible organization and share its passion for helping Africa and its communities. Co-founded by Toronto Raptors president, Masai Ujiri, The Giants of Africa Foundation created a pathway for youth through sport, and uses basketball as a tool to educate and enrich the lives of African youth to help them accomplish their dreams. Last December, I was honoured to attend the Foundation’s annual fundraiser, “Mandela 100” and show my support by purchasing an exclusive and unique work of art by Ajiri Ujiri. The evening celebrated the legacy of Nelson Mandela and marked his 100th birthday – something that I hold close to my heart, as I had the most wonderful privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela on two separate occasions, which I will always cherish and remember.
Do you have any other advice for our readers?
Become a global citizen! At Tully Luxury Travel, it is a priority for us to educate our clients on ways that they can have a positive impact and not cause any harm to vulnerable species. Take risks and try something out of your comfort zone. If you truly have the passion and drive, you will succeed. Who knew answering a classified ad over 30 years ago would lead me to where I am today! Oh, the places you’ll go…
All images courtesy of Tully Luxury Travel.