Published on Sunday, July 14, 2019

Ex-Kuoni UK boss featured on Desert Island Discs

Kuoni's former UK managing director Sue Biggs has told Desert Island Discs of her sadness at leaving the operator after 25 years and turning into a 'weeping jelly' at having to say goodbye to staff.

Biggs was a guest on the Radio 4's show in her capacity as director general of the Royal Horticultural Society, a role she's held for nearly 10 years.

She told presenter Lauren Laverne her first attempt at a career in the travel industry was short-lived, when she didn't get a job as cabin crew for British Airways.

After that, she joined Kuoni, where she worked her way up to being the youngest person, and the first woman, appointed to the board. She stepped down in June 2007 as part of a restructure.

She said: "It's a Swiss company and it was quite a big thing for them that a woman was coming on board.

"I remember going over for my first meeting there and they'd very nicely got me a present and a card so I opened the card first. 

"I looked at it and thought: 'Oh, this is a bit strange', so opened it and inside was: 'Congratulations. At last we've got somebody to iron our shirts'.

"I wish I'd kept it. Some people might get a bit offended by that, but I just thought it was very funny. If you laugh about them, it's really the best way to handle it."

She said such a card 'wouldn't be acceptable today'.

Included in her choice of songs was Time to Say Goodbye, sung by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, which Kuoni staff played at her leaving party.

She said: "I had an amazing quarter of a century at Kuoni Travel and had the most amazing times.

"But there did come a time when, it's safe enough to say, that the new boss in Switzerland and I didn't see eye-to-eye and it was time to say goodbye.

"I was very sad to leave after that length of time. But my team there was amazing and I had a leaving party and at the end of it they put this on.

"This song reduced me to absolute, absolute tears and my poor then-husband had to take me home a weeping jelly. I'm so grateful and appreciative for being 25 years with amazing people and an amazing company."

Biggs explained how she'd joined to set up a lot of Kuoni's programmes and helped put Maldives and Sri Lanka on the map.

"When I first went [to the Maldives], you arrived at Male airport and there were a few fishing boats to take you out to an island. You'd get to the island and there were a few thatched huts. There was no power, salty water only. All the food was tinned food.  

"We used to have to tell our customers you're only going to have a bucket shower, it's salt water, so your hair's going to get terribly frizzy, and you're going to eat baked beans and pineapple chunks for most of your holiday, but the beaches and diving are just to die for. 

"Sadly things don't always go OK. During my time at Kuoni, we had the horrors of 9/11 and the tsunami. If you are not with a tour operator and you've just done it all yourself, that's tough to deal with when something like that happens."

For her desert island book choice, Biggs chose The Book of Joy. She chose a bed as her luxury item and, for her castaway's favourite tune, she opted for The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

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