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Travel Leaders: Matt Leedham, founder, Karryon and Travel to change the world

Matt Leedham reckons he found his 'spiritual home' in the travel industry after arriving in Australia from the UK twenty-plus years ago. Ever since, he's made it his mission to try and make a positive difference in a sector he believes can change the world for good. We quizzed him (across the desk) on what he thinks good leadership looks like.

Matt Leedham reckons he found his ‘spiritual home’ in the travel industry after arriving in Australia from the UK twenty-plus years ago. Ever since, he’s made it his mission to try and make a positive difference in a sector he believes can change the world for good. We quizzed him (across the desk) on what he thinks good leadership looks like.

After a successful career as a Creative Director working in advertising agencies in London and Leeds, Matt Leedham realised his passion lay more in sharing the stories of the world and subsequently departed the UK in 1999 to see where it would take him.

Six backpacking months through Asia later, Matt landed in Australia, where he “found his sweet spot”, combining travel and advertising, working in Flight Centre’s Head Offices in Brisbane and Auckland for five years in the company’s creative areas.

After leaving for a year-long travel adventure in South America, including playing league basketball in Argentina and Brazil, Matt then spent a further five years in Sydney working for what is now Helloworld Travel Limited, setting up and leading its internal marketing agency and at the time, global brand portfolio.

When his first son, Milo, was born in 2009, Matt decided to go out on his own, starting specialist travel creative agency Leedham in Sydney, followed by Karryon.com.au nine years ago and sustainable travel publication, Travel To Change The World, three years ago.

Today, Matt is based in Byron Bay, where he lives with his family and spends his time working and travelling between Karryon’s Head Office in Sydney and the world.

What’s happening in your business now, and how does the forthcoming period look?

Matt In Fiji, for FTE this May

We’re incredibly busy on all fronts and it’s brilliant. More than anything, it’s so wonderful to be talking about a resurgent travel industry again after covering such dire news for so long.

While it’s still so early in our collective journey out the other side, the road ahead continues to level out as more destinations open back up, restrictions drop, and things get moving again.

Covering the daily news over the last two years while trying to stay afloat as a free publication has been challenging and exhausting for all of us at Karryon. So the positive news right now is precisely that; positive news!

I’m so grateful to get to work with our extraordinary team at Karryon and, of course, to our legendary partners and readers who continue to support us on a daily basis.

What are you excited about right now?

FTE in Fiji 2022. Pic: Matt Leedham

I’m excited to see so many wonderful people returning to the industry after being forced to leave in 2020.

That whole period was utterly devastating. Not knowing how it would play out or if and when travel would return after so many false starts and losses made it the absolute worst of times. So it feels incredible to be getting the band back together again after so much heartache.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to go on a number of international work trips since the borders reopened (including getting to see my mum again in the Uk after three years) and have appreciated every second.

Reconnecting and being reminded of why travel is so essential yet such a privilege has made me immensely thankful for what we get to experience working in travel.

Are there key trends you are seeing in your business or across the industry?

Matt caught up with his mum (plus one) in The Yorkshire Dales after three years

The pandemic has been the forced reset that has changed everything. Whether we realise it or not, I think it’s been the existential crisis of our lives that, globally, we have all gone through together, albeit in intensely varying personal degrees.

Our very being has been challenged and questioned in a way that I think will only continue to unravel as our mindsets evolve. From our relationships to how we communicate and work, and where and how we live to appreciating our freedoms and the why of travelling the world.

We’ve all been denied sharing, celebrating and, sadly, in some cases, commiserating many of life’s milestone moments in the last two years due to border closures and lockdowns.

For that reason, no one wants to wait to get any longer to get going again and is travelling like there’s no tomorrow. Our need to better understand and be mindful of the sentiment of ‘making up for lost time’ is paramount.

The eternal pursuit of happiness? The pandemic has reminded us that we must value, revere and respect time to live a truly fulfilled life.

What are the biggest challenges for travel?

In the short term, managing the world’s expectations and appetite for travelling and making up for time versus solving supply chain issues, connectivity, ongoing sickness, and rising inflation will continue to be a considerable challenge in the arrival revival.

Longer-term, fully committing to travel being more sustainable and regenerative is also a world-sized challenge but one that has to be non-negotiable.

The climate crisis is exactly that – a crisis. All of us have to do more.

From an advisor’s perspective, reimagining what an expert travel service provider could and should look like in the new era will take some time to iron out and be difficult for some without help.

We need more people to step up as leaders, with more discussion and inspired education to help level everyone up together.

What about the biggest opportunities?

I feel more collaboration to create fresh ideas, nurture talent and find solutions is a significant opportunity. I’d like to see more collective creativity and innovation on the table to look at this exciting time with fresh eyes and ask, “How can we make travel better for everyone and the planet?”

There are so many examples of people doing extraordinary things and thriving in the pandemic. What can we learn from them?

I also feel strongly that the individuals and businesses who selflessly and generously gave and supported people and their communities during the last two years will be the ones who will prosper out of the other side. The kindness pandemic was a beautiful thing.

How important is leadership right now? And what does/should good leadership look like?

Dynamic leadership has never been more needed. Anyone who leads with purpose and empathy and cares for people, places and the planet will be infectious and build a devoted following as an influencer of positive change.

The recent federal election showed us that the nation wanted a change in leadership style that is transparent, inclusive, caring, forward-thinking and aligned with their own needs and values.

No one has all the answers. But leading a team where ideas are always welcomed and diverse roles are respected and valued as equals are likely to be a good formula for success.

What would you like to see change? Or more of?

Matt at The Remarkables, New Zealand, with his youngest son, Sol

I’d like to see the travel industry elevated to be more respected in the mainstream, particularly as a prominent career choice.

If you think about the incredible life experiences, opportunities and social connections we are gifted with working in travel – how is that not an alluring drawcard for more people to join us?

While the industry was beaten up badly in the pandemic, especially early on, one of the more optimistic outcomes has been the importance and renewed relevance of using travel advisors.

The opportunity now is to further leverage the public sentiment of advisors as trusted experts, create sustainable business models and attract new talent into roles that can take people places for the long term.

How key is collaboration in the industry?

Collaboration is everything. As a people industry, I genuinely believe that when people come together, great things happen, and we can solve anything.

If you’ve been to any in-person travel events recently, you’ll have no doubt felt the energetic spark, excitement and connection that comes from sharing the good and the not-so with your peers. We’re social beings and need our colleagues and tribes around us to lift us.

Zoom was and still is necessary, but getting together in person to share the highs and sometimes the lows of the journey will always be the most rewarding feeling.

Do you think enough emphasis is being placed on sustainability in travel and addressing the climate crisis?

Travel to change the world

I think that awareness, sentiment and action have improved considerably since before the pandemic began, which is amazing to see. But collectively, we need to do so much more.

I’d love to see more sustainable products, experiences and initiatives created and celebrated by the industry.

From there, I think there is a significant opportunity to better inspire and equip the trade with powerful stories and help them join the dots to educate clients and confidently sell more travel products for good that benefits more than just the bottom line.

Anyone who still says sustainable travel is a ‘trend’ has missed the point. The impact of all our travel must be evaluated.

What are your learnings from the pandemic?

Aside from raising my two sons, working in travel has been the most rewarding element of my life. I don’t want to take anything for granted now working in travel where, perhaps before, I sometimes did.

I’ve learnt that nature doesn’t care whether we’re here or not and that only we can reverse the damage done to the planet. And that time is always ticking.

We should all be so proud to work in travel. All of us have an opportunity to inspire others to experience the life-changing benefits of travel and the positive change we can make along the way.

What’s holding you back from going for gold?

What’s your message to the industry?

Embrace change as the only way forward and only glance back to learn the lessons. We’re all going to need to continue to be patient and understand where we’re at as we move forward together, so let’s tread carefully and with kindness.

I honestly don’t think we should try to do it all independently either. Nor should we. Life is much more fun when we share the good stuff so look to collaborate where you can.

Go easy on yourself and those around you, and keep the laughter coming. The last two years have been overwhelming and mentally and physically exhausting, and there’s still a long road ahead.

But we’ll get there – together in travel, and every new day offers the chance for all of us to make a difference while savouring precious and fun moments along the way.

You can find out more about Matt Leedham or get in touch with him via his LinkedIn profile.