Cyprus Mail
Life & Style Profile

Punching above her weight

It’s a long way from a council estate in northern England to leading a company keen to bring British tourists back to the island. NAN MACKENZIE meets a woman driven to promote the year-round potential of Cyprus tourism

Talking with Janette Bell one could easily find oneself basking in the sunlight of her certainty and sublime confidence; she has recreated herself so many times she makes David Bowie look like a slacker. Dressed in a silky top, short skirt, legs poised perfectly in the vertiginous heels (shoe size 3) that help boost her height from a petite 5ft 2inches, she is perfectly groomed with eyelashes like a camel’s. Even her hair has bent to her incredible will, blow dried to perfection – here is a woman who makes up for her lack of height by being more than capable of deploying a weapon’s grade charm offensive.

That said, she also has an honest yet sometimes controversial habit of saying what others in the tourist business would prefer to keep silent about. She has recently become the managing director of Amathus Holidays and is determined to put the brand firmly back on the map as the leading five-star holiday company on the island responsible for the arrival of UK clients.

Her background reflects her incredible drive and determination to succeed, to always move forward and improve her skill bank, for she was born into a working class family in a council estate in the once mining village of Penshaw, County Durham. Bell’s parents separated when she was four and her paternal grandmother stepped in to raise the toddler, a woman who Bell now credits as being the one person who really genuinely cared for her, and who single handedly worked to provide her with a childhood that brought much needed joy, security and guidance, helping her come to terms with her less than perfect start in life.

“The north east of England wasn’t the easiest place to bring up a child from divorced parents. I was the only child in school who was in that situation, making me ‘different’ in people’s eyes, I didn’t have parents so nobody came for parents nights or sports days as my Nan would always be working. I felt school was something I just had to get through as best I could and after I took my O-levels I couldn’t wait to leave. When I was 16 and leaving day arrived I rocked up to school wearing fishnet tights, short skirt and red kitten heel shoes – it was my way of saying ‘right I am off now to do my own thing and to hell with you all.’”

The first signs that Bell was a born saleswoman and negotiator came when employed in a local shoe shop where she beat all previous recorded sales targets in her very first week, which was quickly followed by a move to the box office at Theatre Royal Newcastle, when she also left her grandmother’s house in the mining village and moved into a bedsit in the more affluent area of Jesmond. “I loved my Nan but the need was so strong for me to get out and move from the council estate. As far as I was concerned I was on the up and to do that I had to also physically move up, and be prepared to work harder than anyone else”.

In 1990 North Tyneside Borough Council eventually opened the right door for Bell when she became the assistant to Alan Milburn, who was then head of economic development, which meant for Bell the chance to learn about how to promote inward tourism etc to the city. Her enthusiasm for the job was noted and she was promoted, being sent at the council’s expense to study for her degree in Marketing Economics and Politics. Later Milburn went on to become an MP and Minister of state for Health in Tony Blair’s cabinet.

Once Milburn departed for London Bell got on a plane to Greece and island hopped for a time, becoming a tour rep for Olympic Holidays once the money ran out and later working for the same company in Cyprus. Bell’s career has since taken her all over the world and her experience is second to none in the travel business – she also worked in a major Cyprus hotel believing that if she understood from the ground up the business of contracting etc this would be an invaluable resource. And so it has proved as she then went on to promote Aphrodite Hills, resulting in her being the largest UK tour operator for this Paphos based resort which now boasts a year on year increase of 300 per cent.

She is now set on turning the Amathus Holidays brand into yet another thriving business model. So how does she feel now it’s all kicking off for her? “It’s been a very busy time as we had to move very quickly after Preston Travel failed and with it Amathus Holidays, we had to work very hard to gain the licence and take over the company, and there was a good deal of negotiating and essential approvals required from both ABTA and the Civil Aviation authority also from Amathus Holidays UK before we could make the final announcement”.

Janette will now focus on bringing people to the island year round
Janette will now focus on bringing people to the island year round

When I ask if she has been given any help or support from the Cyprus Tourism Organisation (CTO) Bell tries to stifle a laugh before responding with the single word “nothing” then follows on with a bit of a gripe about our government run tourist board. “It’s clear that the CTO really don’t have a clue when it comes to what is going on within the travel trade and over the years there have been so many missed opportunities it’s really embarrassing. They rarely support nor indeed fully comprehend the needs of the new blood that’s here on the island, or of the many new ways of doing things. It’s perceived as a bit of an old fashioned entity that really has lost its way and that’s very sad, also frustrating for us, because in order to compete in a world market we need all the home based professional support we can muster to create a mutually beneficial relationship between our visitors, and the hotels, who in turn also need help in understanding that they are not just competing against each other but against the world. We also have to stop believing that Cyprus is solely a summer destination so it’s vital we aggressively promote the island in the world market, particularly within Britain as an all year round destination.”

It’s a far cry from growing up on that council estate, but what does Bell think she has learnt along the way? “In my experience professional women tend to be assumed to be lucky that they are where they are, seldom are they thought of in business as serious thinkers, of having any philosophy or of being someone with serious preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime. Many times I have come up against direct discrimination due to my sex, and of course it doesn’t help that height wise I am considered to be a bit of a tiddler, but in boxing terms I suppose I am seen as punching above my weight.

“I have, like so many other women, experienced the usual situation when a man has been promoted over me when I had a far better level of expertise for the job, also as a single mother (she has one teenage daughter) there have been times when I became somewhat weary from the constant male stereotyping of working mums. I remember one company I worked for in Paphos stating that they seriously doubted my abilities as I was having to breast feed my child – the mind set was solely of me as a mum not as a capable businesswoman who was more able than most in organising her family life and work in equal measure.

“I am however blessed with a very strong Northern work ethic, something my Nan taught me, and I will not ask others to do anything that I wouldn’t take on myself, but, I suppose my negatives have to be (other than acquiring expensive shoes and bags) that I find it hard at times to delegate but I am seriously working on that one. I also have moments when with all this juggling of balls in the air I sometimes have a fleeting pang of insecurity, and I, as everyone, have had moments when things have not turned out as planned, but with me, these have now been safely parked as experience markers.”

Such is her belief in learning from past mistakes, Bell is quick to reference a favourite quote, from CS Lewis: Failures are only finger posts on the road to achievement. “One should always take great comfort from remembering the two benefits of failure. First, if you do fail, you learn what doesn’t work; and second the failure gives you the perfect opportunity to try a new approach.”

Bell is one of a new breed of travel professionals who are taking on the challenge of making Cyprus thrive again as a popular tourist destination. “Cyprus is to many summer sun central, it’s beach holidays, it’s what people come for and in most cases the only aspect of the island they see, but there is just so much more for those who like to get off the sun lounger and explore and they can do this all year round, which is a huge selling point for Amathus Holidays. Despite the long hours, I still wake up every morning and consider myself so fortunate to live and work here, I have a dream job and am loving every minute”.

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