To Mauritius with love
PUBLISHED: 16:43 11 November 2013 | UPDATED: 16:43 11 November 2013
Susie Freeman lost her heart to the beautiful Indian Ocean island and now uses her expert knowledge so that others can enjoy this experience, Karen Falcke discovers
When Susie Freeman arrived exhausted and on crutches at a stunning hotel in Mauritius 21 years ago she had no idea how the experience would change her life. It was the beginning of a lasting love affair with the beautiful island that would eventually alter her career path completely – from highly qualified staff nurse to travel consultant.
Sitting in her office, a converted cottage in the garden of her Berkshire home, she smiles as she recalls the genuine kindness and warmth of the hotel staff and the wonderful care and attention she received.
“They even bought a footbath to my room,” she remembers. “The service was like nothing I had ever experienced before. When I went back the following year they remembered all sorts of little details such as my de-caffeinated coffee.”
Susie, 49, now runs her own very successful bespoke travel consultancy, Susie Freeman Travel, from her home in Lower Inkpen, specialising in luxury holidays to Mauritius, as well as South Africa and the Seychelles. She is passionately committed to ensuring that every one of her clients experiences the same extraordinary level of care she was given on that first holiday to the Indian Ocean island.
The wife of a serving Army officer, Colonel Nick Freeman, and mother of two boys, Charles, 19, and James, 17, Susie is the first person to admit that running her own own travel business was the last thing she ever thought she would be doing. The daughter of an American father and British/Romanian mother, her ambition was to be a doctor after leaving St Mary’s School, Calne in Wiltshire, but, as she puts it, physics and her did not get on and she just missed the required grade. Undaunted she decided to train as a nurse and by 1985 was a senior staff nurse in General Surgery at the Middlesex Hospital.
Route to success
Marriage three years later meant accompanying her Cavalry officer husband to Germany and Shrivenham, but back in London she got a job as a nurse practitioner in a busy South Kensington surgery.
“I really loved working there – I did everything, well-woman clinics, baby and travel clinics, the lot – but I became pregnant and we were moving to Germany,” says Susie. “I was sad to leave. The two doctors, who were husband and wife, became good friends and now book all their holidays to Mauritius through me, so in a way things have come full circle.”
Her second son was born in Germany and then she found out they were being posted to Glasgow, her eighth move in 12 years of marriage. Unfazed, Susie metaphorically rolled up her sleeves, went up to Scotland after contacting estate agents in the area, and found a wonderful house in 11 acres of land with canons, crenulations and a housekeeper. She lived in waxed jackets, held lots of reeling parties and found herself on the committee for the Game Conservancy Ball which was being held in August 1998.
“I was astonished at myself,” Susie laughs. “I enjoyed the committee meetings and found myself making all sorts of suggestions – one of which was a raffle in which the star prize would be a week’s holiday to Mauritius. I had been going to the island for nine years by then and had a lot of contacts.
“I wrote to the manager of a new hotel called The Residence, who used to be manager of Le Saint Geran where I stayed on my first holiday in Mauritius. I don’t think anyone really thought it would work, but I got a reply from him saying “Je suis enchanté!” I followed that up by speaking to Air Mauritius and got seats for two people. The value of the prize was £5,000 and it raised £13,500 for a Glasgow Hospice and the Game Conservancy Trust.”
Little did she know it at the time, but this was to be the beginning of her new career. People started ringing Susie up asking about holidays to Mauritius and she realised there was a gap in the market. It was then she noticed a tiny advert in the back of Tatler magazine placed by a travel agency looking for someone to expand their business in the Seychelles.
“I rang them up and said that although I did know the Seychelles, I knew Mauritius like the back of my hand. My husband humoured me and I flew down to London for an interview, they were very interested and I was asked to set up a Mauritius programme.”
Her first task was to visit the Director of the Mauritius Tourist Board, Toto Ghoorah, who is now one of her closest friends. He wished her lots of luck, warned there would be some knocks, lots of travel, and she would need a really strong marriage, but most importantly, promised to introduce her to all the right people to make it work. And work it did – in fact, rather too well at the beginning. Having gone to the island, visited hotels and secured contracts with them and the national airline Air Mauritius, Susie was ready to start.
“I placed two small adverts in a couple of national magazines and slightly to my surprise the phone started to ring. Then it really started to ring – off the hook – and I realised I just couldn’t cope,” she remembers. “I had two small children, a husband who didn’t really approve, and we had just moved from Scotland to Inkpen. I had to market myself which was completely new to me, and I was beginning to feel a total idiot about the whole thing.”
After advertising for help, her guardian angel arrived in the shape of South African Laine McMichael, who had experience of the travel industry and has now been with her for 15 years.
The personal touch
After finding her feet Susie left the travel agency, secured her own ATOL licence, and set up her own business which has gone from strength to strength.
Its success, Susie believes, is due to a philosophy of always treating clients the way she wants to be treated herself, and letting them know nothing is too much trouble. She offers a 24-hour concierge service so that while on holiday they can ring at any time of the day or night with any query or problem. Her list of clients includes royalty and celebrities, but she is adamant that no-one is treated any differently from anyone else and always talks to people at length beforehand to make sure she organises the right holiday to suit them.
The efficient staff nurse however, is never too far away and she still applies some of the same work practices. “As a surgical nurse I would book patients in, see them through surgery, post operative care, and then follow them up. I use exactly the same principles with my clients when they take a holiday!”
Although she has now expanded to provide holidays in South Africa and the Seychelles, it is Mauritius that holds a special place in her heart. She visits regularly and is well known on the island. She sponsors a race at the Mauritius Turf Club called the Susie Freeman Trophy, raises money for charities and even ran a half marathon for a Mauritian Diabetes charity 10 years ago with the persuasion of Michelle Roux who was opening a hotel restaurant in Mauritius at that time.
She has also, with great support from Mauritius hotels and Air Mauritius, raised thousands of pounds for the The Soldier’s Charity – The Army Benevolent Fund, the UK charity supporting British soldiers and their families, with auctions for holidays in Mauritius and is on the committee for the annual Lord Mayor’s Curry Lunch in the City of London.
So where does all this fizzing energy come from? Standing at just about 5 foot tall in bare feet, Susie has no intention of slowing down. She gets up between 6.30 and 7am every day, goes to the gym at least four mornings a week and sticks to a very healthy diet with lots of juicing.
“The more exercise I do the more energy I have,” she explains. “I do get tired sometimes from juggling everything, but I really enjoy working. I get a huge buzz out of creating great holidays for people – I had a fantastic experience when I went to Mauritius for the first time and I want other people to have the same. It also gives me a wonderful reason to leave England when it gets cold and rainy!”
But if her heart is in Mauritius, her soul is definitely in Inkpen. The lovely old mellow house, originally owned by the acclaimed conductor, Sir Roger Norrington and his wife, suits Susie and her family perfectly.
“I have told everyone the only way they are getting me out of this house is feet first,” she laughs. “I really love it, it has tremendous character and a lovely feeling about it and the location is perfect – eight miles from Newbury, three miles from Hungerford, and you can get to London in less than an hour. We have great neighbours and I belong to the Athena Ladies Networking Group which has been very useful.”
This year is significant for Susie and her family. It marks her 50th and her husband’s 55th birthdays, their 25th wedding anniversary, and 15 years of Susie Freeman Travel. So how are they going to celebrate these milestones? The answer, says Susie, is obvious. “We’re going to Mauritius of course. It’s just like going home."
For further information: Susie Freeman Travel, Weavers Cottage, Lower Inkpen, Berkshire, RG17 9DN. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel: 01488 668821.