Sometimes we can wonder what impact we really have. This is the story of a woman who has changed the world and would say you have too. It’s the story of a travel agent who has gotten reporters out of war zones, has rubbed shoulders with celebrities, and has even been a Disney animation artist. This is the story of a woman with so many stories who will stop an interview to ask you yours. This is the story of the amazingly generous Susan Barton
Susan Barton of MTA Travel stepped in when we needed her, performing miracles with flight bookings amid the chaos of COVID.
Susan Barton offered to help arrange flights. She was the last of my angels. She got straight onto it. It was not a simple thing.
The travel itinerary was definitely not simple. Susan was amazing, picking her way through the maze of flight availability and travel restrictions for us.
These are not testimonials. These (and others like them) are peppered through the book, Freeing My Family: One Uyghur man’s epic battle to save his wife and son and bring them to Australia.
The book was an unexpected but powerful read for me. Susan Barton of MTA Travel had mentioned it almost in passing as a thing that had come out of the lockdowns. At the height of COVID, Susan had been approached by Human Rights Watch to help political refugee and eventual citizen Sadam Abdusalam be reunited with his wife and son.
After all the politics, the fear, and the waiting, the family were finally given the green light to be together. Except it was 2020. And Chinese government aside, no travel was easy in 2020.
“It was extremely rewarding for me during COVID to be approached and to work on things like this,” Susan tells Karryon.
But Susan is no stranger to this type of work.
The go-to girl
At 21, the girl who said she never felt like she fit in, who, as a child, would stand at Wellington Airport watching the planes fly off and wish she was on them, was married and living in Los Angeles. She’d been working in production for television and then as an animation artist for Disney in their studios in Burbank “back in the old days when we used to actually paint all the cells”. And she had travelled.
“I was in a massive hurry, I had rolled 10 years of life stages into three years. I was racing toward some invisible self-projected finish line of sorts.”
Her husband was a successful Hollywood commercial director and Susan admits she may have conformed to the norms of the day and given up her own career for his.
“But I had a lightbulb moment, I loved to travel, so I figured if I studied to become a travel agent, I could get cheap fares around the world. I was missing my family in New Zealand, so this was a way to go visit them,” she says.
Because of her experience working with film crews, she became an entertainment specialist for LA celebrities. She also moved crews around for networks such as CNN or television shows, such as LA Law.
“I’m showing my age,” Susan jokes.
Her family moved to Australia for a project and eventually, her marriage ended.
“With those heady days of Hollywood well behind me, I had gone from one extreme to another, living on the poverty line for years trying to make ends meet with young children.
“Survival meant a tonne of tenacity and resilience.”
But her experience soon led her to once again work as an entertainment specialist for Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes, News and Current Affairs and then SBS Dateline.
These news agencies were covering the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Bali bombings, earthquakes, presidential elections and then some. And Susan’s job was getting the reporters in and out of dangerous situations.
“Sometimes they were kidnapped, sometimes they were literally on the field about to get shot. I loved being part of a team at SBS that helped show the world’s injustice,” Susan tells Karryon.
“I thrived on it, I fit in and felt accepted. I had become known as the go-to girl who could get people in and out of war-torn countries.”
The Mindset Coach
Susan went on to partner in establishing two agencies, then, with MTA Travel, started her own home-based agency about ten years ago.
But it wasn’t all happy days.
“I had always believed that the old institutionalised conditioning or way of thinking in our industry had a hell of a lot to answer for,” she tells Karryon.
“I’m referring to those old beliefs that we had to be all to everyone and we had to accept all business, whether it was good or bad, and we had to beat our competition at all costs. That the customer was always right. That we had to work all hours just to prove our worth to them, and then do it all over again. And then we would give our time and knowledge away for free.
“That old institutionalised thinking was so rampant and widespread in our industry.”
Susan had studied to become a mindset coach, focusing on those working in the travel industry and says that challenging this institutionalised thinking was one of the reasons why she went into coaching.
“I wanted to help myself first and then as it progressed, I could see it would help other people.”
Fast forward to 2020, and travel shut down overnight.
“I lost any ability to make money and I allowed myself to feel pissed off and victimised. The media was slamming us!
“I was so angry with myself that I had chosen to go into this industry in the first place. I should have anticipated this.
“Then I realised that this was my opportunity to be at cause during the pandemic, not in effect of it.”
According to Susan when we live in effect, we perceive that things are happening to us and start to see ourselves as victims. We blame the external situation, the outside world, rather than being in control of our internal situation.
When we are at cause, we take control. “We see more opportunity and abundance all around us,” she says.
Susan was studying her Masters in Coaching and throughout the pandemic, coached some 300 travel agents.
What came out of her sessions with travel agents was the realisation that so many undervalued their skills.
“They were suddenly diminishing their own incredible talents and knowledge. And all the moments they had truly changed a client’s life with their work had disappeared in their minds,” she says.
“So many travel agents would say to me, ‘Anyone could do what I do, they’ll just go online now’, or, ‘Why would anyone want to pay a fee for my service?’
“The level of self-doubt and lack of confidence that had crept in was so incredibly sad and so many felt and experienced such huge personal losses.
“They took it personally and with way too much accountability, turning themselves inside out with worry for the future – all of this beyond their control. Some confided they were facing lawsuits, and some even wanted to end their lives.”
Changing the world
Helping travel agents come to value their worth at a time when their worth was being hung out to dry by the media, when they went unpaid and even used their own super to pay their clients is a tough job.
“It all really starts with understanding that we don’t experience the way the world is. We experience it the way we are. So if we need to make a change, we don’t change the world, we change ourselves.
“If you want to change anything in your life, you’ve got to first learn how to change your thinking. Which means to change your mindset. And once you know how to change your mindset, you can learn how to change your physical and emotional state, to experience the outcomes that you want.”
Susan would work with her clients to explore how they bridge the gap from where they are now to where they want to be.
“And a lot of that comes down to discovering our negative self-limiting fears, and where they come from, why we have them, what we get out of them and to learn to reframe it, accept it and move forward.”
The height of COVID has passed and the agents who survived have worked more than ever before. Time is at a premium and the charging of service fees has been fast-tracked, whether agents were ready for it or not.
“There was a lot of good that came out of COVID,” Susan tells Karryon.
“People had a chance to see that they could live a different way. And they could expect and deserve to have a bit more time and love and happiness in their life.
“COVID made us stop and really evaluate ourselves and look at our self worth, look at everything that we’ve done, and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to charge for this’.”
According to Susan, people pleasing is one of the biggest patterns predominant in the travel industry.
“It just comes so naturally to people who are in the service industry. Personally, people pleasing hadn’t really served me well. And once I understood the patterns and why I’d been doing it, I was able to take that and use that in the travel industry.
“It takes self worth, self confidence and courage to say no. But ultimately by saying no, you’re saying yes to yourself.
“A client may be taking up so much time, so much of your mental real estate that you’re letting other great opportunities get away. They’re knocking at your door, but you haven’t got time for them.
“We are in charge of our life. That’s how we get through the overwhelm. We start to learn that we can set up boundaries and we can decide what we will allow into our life so that we don’t have to live in overwhelm. We are in charge.”
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, call 000.
Credit: KarryOn https://karryon.com.au/community/susan-barton-mta-travel-travel-influencer/