Travel, sustainability and career progression with Tess Willcox

Travel, sustainability and career progression with Tess Willcox
Travel, sustainability and career progression with Tess Willcox
Travel, sustainability and career progression with Tess Willcox

We love chatting with like-minded business folk who are smashing it in their field and always find it super inspiring and intriguing to listen to what they have to say about where they started, what floats their boat and what their average day looks like. Tess Willcox doesn’t have any ordinary job. She is the CEO of World Resorts of Distinction, a sustainable resort marketing agency who are transforming the travel industry. We managed to catch the extremely busy Tess for an interview while she was sitting on a jet, sipping on champagne in the sky on her way to the beautiful Maldives. Read on as we chat about how she found her way from marketing into a leadership role with WRW, what helps her out of a creative rut and of course, we couldn’t let her get away without asking her about the number one travel spots from around the globe.

Let’s ease into this thing. How do you start your week? 

This highly depends on which country I’m starting my week in, but the usual start to my week is to wake with the sun at around 5am. I’ll either go for a run on the beach, F45 (if I’m home), or yoga and then finish off with meditation on the beach. I’m a firm believer in intentionally starting my days/weeks and so I do not check my emails before I get to the office. I sit down at my kitchen table, write out my objectives and to-do list for myself and for my team, and then read whilst eating a good healthy breakfast. I usually walk along the beach to our dream office (perks of living on the Gold Coast) at around 7.30 and sit in the cafe downstairs doing a brand debrief, and client analysis before sitting with my team to set plans for the week.

What about ending the week?

Wine? Gin & Tonic? Haha.

We usually end the office week with a creative meeting to throw any ideas around for clients or our brand. Then we actually do sit in our office nook at about 3 pm for a wine and or cocktail to wind the week down. IF I happen to be at one of our Resort clients, it will more than likely end in a meeting with operations team and then hosting a group of VIP’s for dinner and champagne.

You say travel is a non-negotiable for you. So, we have to ask, what has been your favourite place to explore (so far) and why?

Ah there are so many places I just adore. I’ve been to Morocco 9 times, it speaks to my SOUL. It’s a beautiful sensory assault there, offering such a contrast of worlds. The colours, the smells, the sounds, the sunsets. It’s just magic. I obviously have an affinity with all of our resort destinations. The staff are like family and the destinations take your breath away. Fiji, Maldives, Samoa, Anambas Islands, Sumba. I love them all.

I also split a lot of my time between home and Spain. It’s like home to me. I’m working on basing myself from there a lot more.

Give us one place that is yet to be ticked off your bucket list.

Right now the top of my bucket list involves Kenya and Mongolia. My brother is currently doing a month long trek through Mongolia and I have always wanted to go. Kenya just speaks to my heart and I know I will book tickets when the time is right.

Now, tell us a little bit about your career journey and how you eventually landed in your current role at WRD.

Ok pour yourself a stiff drink for this story. It is both long and lovely. I started as a Sales Executive with World Resorts of Distinction (WRD) back in 2004. Yep, over 15 years ago now. It was my first job out of university and I still remember the feeling when I got it. It was my dream job all the way back then! So I worked my way up from Sales Executive to an Account Manager, then after 5 years decided to take a job in Bali. I had a quick sabbatical over there and then came back to work at WRD for another 5 years. Each time I came back I grew in the company and tried to grow the company in the direction I was hoping it would head. I hit a bit of a roadblock with what I thought I could do there and also had a thriving business on the side (making skateboards?!?!) so decided to move to Spain and work for myself over there for a year. Serendipitously enough, on my return home for a wedding, I was given the opportunity to become a partner in WRD. So I ran the business in partnership for 2 years and then bought my business partner out 15 months ago. I have been running the business as sole owner and CEO for that amount of time, and we have undergone a complete rebrand and redirection. It’s been the most rewarding and challenging time of my life.

What drew you to marketing? And consequently a role in leadership.

I think fundamentally, it’s just how my brain is wired. I have always been able to look at things and formulate a marketable brand out of them. It’s like finding the beauty in something, the tipping point that makes it unique, and working out how it will speak to people. In terms of what drew me to marketing specifically with Resorts, it was either this route or becoming a Travel presenter and I just love the behind the scenes action. Now I get a fusion of both as my leadership role does warrant a bit of centre stage presence. Honestly, I am not someone who set out with an underlying goal to run my own business and become CEO, it’s just how my life seems to play before me. When I commit to something, I commit HARD. I saw this opportunity to take over the business and cement something I had been building behind the scenes for a long time. It just seemed like a natural course of action for me – and I do love being in leadership. It’s very ‘my style’.

What would the typical workday look like for you now?

Ahhhh a typical workday. We don’t have these in our little team 😉 Right now I am working from bed at 5 am, with a coffee, in the Maldives, and about to kick off a 2-week long environmental project with our leading sustainability client, Soneva. These are the parts of my job/life I live for – the out of the ordinary, the adventure, the unknown. If I was back in our dream hub I would be starting the day with a team coffee downstairs at Stable Coffee, then fielding a tonne of different emails for the morning around campaigns, sales enquiries, new clients, assisting the team with their clients. No day is ever the same because we are largely driven by what is happening in the market, and what our clients dictate. That’s why we have the best job ever, you don’t come in and tick off a to-do list. You create your own and think way outside of the box every day.

What’s one thing people would be surprised you do in your role?

Every. Single. Thing!! I don’t have a huge belief in hierarchy, so my team don’t get jobs that I wouldn’t be doing myself. I go to the post office, I mop the floors, I do our EDM’s, sometimes I even jump in and database (god forbid haha). I can also delegate and am not afraid of it, but there is a certain beauty in getting down in the menial with your team.

Do you ever find yourself in a creative rut and if so, how do you get out of it?

Oh absolutely. The girls in the office know when I hit my creative rut because I start wandering around the office with no purpose. From pillar to post with no goal! That’s when I know I need to go to the trees. So I’ll take myself on a little nature adventure and either go tree planting, hiking to waterfalls, or take my blankets and books and lie under the trees reading for a while. Also getting into the saltwater at sunset out the front of my place is SO majestic. That’s what gets my creative juices flowing.

One thing we love about the World Resorts of Distinction brand is your approach to sustainability and our social responsibility. How important is this for you – both as a brand and individually? 

It’s at the core of what we do and who we are. It is our focus and our driving force. We have copped a lot of flack about it over the past few weeks, because of how vocal we were about the climate strike, given we are a Resort marketing agency. The travel industry, and aviation industry specifically, play a huge part in the contribution to carbon emissions; so people seem to have a real issue with us promoting travel and being climate advocates. I wholeheartedly refute that. Firstly, our core clients are at the forefront of carbon-neutral travel and are doing exceptional things in moving their brands towards carbon negativity. They have been for years – this isn’t a marketing gimmick for them, or for us. It’s of paramount importance. Secondly, I have always been taught that to effect the biggest change in life you infiltrate industries from the inside out. So that’s our answer, we want to change the way people travel. It’s not about burying our heads in the sand and saying ‘NO’ to anything that emits carbon, it’s about finding effective solutions and implementing real steps in how we affect this planet. The fashion industry is one of the BIGGEST contributors to global emissions, but the people hating on us for standing up for the climate seem to still be wearing clothes, don’t they 😉

What is the biggest lesson your new role as CEO has taught you about life?

Oh, JUICY! Love it. Honestly, I would say being a CEO is wholeheartedly reflective of how you handle life. It’s hard being the leader sometimes, it bears a lot of responsibility and pressure. It’s taught me to own my platform and what I do with it. We all have platforms that allow us to effect positive change, but we don’t all use them. If the one takeaway my team have from working alongside me is that we all have platforms that allow us to change the world, that would be a win for me. It’s also taught me that people give some shit advice. I was given SO much advice about this journey that I have basically ignored because it didn’t sit true to who I am. ‘Don’t become best friends with your team’, ‘Don’t focus on sustainability as you will streamline your niche’, ‘The first year is the hardest’. At the end of the day, my team are my family and I wouldn’t change that for the world.

And finally, any advice for someone looking to enter the current marketing/business work landscape?

Go over and above. Always. The best attribute in any employee/person whether you are the cleaner or the CEO, is to do what you do as though you want to be the best in the world at it. If you are doing the dishes, DO the dishes and do them well. If you want to succeed you have to commit and be super passionate about it. It sounds cliche, but I love what I do so much that it never feels like work. I’m kind of lucky that way.

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