My first million: Emma Barnett of Essential Escapes

Having spotted a gap in the market for a luxury tour operator dealing specifically with spas, Emma Barnett started out with just £60,000 and help from her family.

Emma Barnett's guide to the world's spas hadn't been out long before she realised something was missing and her readers were upset about it. She had written the guide while working for a specialist publishing company, and soon found herself handling disgruntled calls from people saying "I've got the directory, I like the look of the canyon spa in America, how do I go about booking it?" She realised that even though there were many luxury tour operators, no one was dealing specifically with spas.

At 27, and with no capital, Barnett felt she lacked the business experience to bring the idea to fruition, but kept mulling it over until a year later, she got chatting at a party to private-equity entrepreneur Jonathan Brod, a "very talented and intelligent guy". He agreed to come on board. So did Emma's sister, Deborah, and they started "putting together a brand concept. We didn't just want to be another travel company, we were creating a whole new niche."

A friend provided a desk in his Primrose Hill office for £150 a month, while the three and Emma's mother raised the seed funding needed in the face of investor indifference. The September 11th terrorist attacks and the Sars outbreak had sucked the life out of the travel industry, sending investors running. That meant that the £60,000 they had raised between them had to go far so they hired a PR and designer who, like themselves, were just starting out, and so were cheap. "The beauty with those kinds of suppliers is that they're young and new and want to get their name out. So we were lucky in negotiating some very good deals."

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The group's PR agent was particularly valuable, putting Barnett in touch with journalists, like Susan d'Arcy, a dedicated spa writer with The Sunday Times. In November 2002 d'Arcy called Emma to say she might include the new business, Essential Escapes, in a travel supplement. The day after it appeared Essential Escapes began to take off. Emma and her sister walked into the office to find their two phones ringing off the hooks. "We couldn't answer the phone fast enough. We drafted in our mum to take messages down and we sat there for the best part of the two weeks leading up to Christmas packing brochures into envelopes and sending them out." They sent out 500-600 brochures on the strength of the piece, says Barnett, enough to prove to them that the market was buoyant.

Of course, it didn't all run smoothly. ATOL, the body that regulates firms selling air travel, suffered huge losses following September 11th and passed some of those costs onto members. But at £2,000 a pop, their holidays were for the very well off, which meant that "we didn't need very many bookings to become profitable". Turnover has since hit the £2m mark, while profit has reached £100,000 as Barnett looks to the next growth phase in the business. "We've just started our brand new arm of travel, dedicated family spa holidays, which is the real route of expansion... Up until now we've been concentrating on keeping growing and just keeping one step ahead, whereas now I think we're on the verge of really turning things around."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.