A FORCE FOR GOOD hub | Katrina Barry’s Inspiring Story… What are you DOING for the MOVEMENT?
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Katrina Barry’s Inspiring Story… What are you DOING for the MOVEMENT?

Katrina Barry – Managing Director – Contiki

Inspirational stories have a way of reeling us in. They encourage us, give us hope, inspire us to push through barriers that stand in the way of our dreams and Katrina Barry’s story does just that. As the Managing Director of one of the most coveted youth travel brands across the globe – Contiki Holidays – Katrina has one of the most sought-after positions in the travel biz. She has taken the brand to new heights by embracing the power of digital media, and at just 39 years of age, the best is surely yet to come. But the outstanding beauty of Katrina’s story is that her success is truly organic. As a farm girl from rural New Zealand, she achieved what many young women dream of and broke through the glass ceiling with nothing more than raw talent, tenacity, and a smile.

Great things BLOSSOM from HUMBLE beginnings 

As the top student at her school in rural New Zealand, Katrina was encouraged to think big from a young age. But leading one of the world’s leading youth brands wasn’t on the scale of the aspiring leaders in her home town who said that because she was clever, hairdressing was clearly her calling! As a tom boy, she admits that hairdressing was an unlikely outcome. Instead, she did the recommended second-best option – her trade certificate in typing to kick off what could have been a sterling career as a secretary, surely! Luckily, the business and Wall Street movies of the 1980’s caught Katrina’s eye – and from then on, the game changed. As one of the few women in her high school who finished grade 12, Katrina made it over the line and went on to university where she studied Commerce and Law. At the time, she was told it was the “best degree you could do”, so she figured it was worth a shot. Katrina has thrived since then, which she attributes to her background as a competitive gymnast for the New Zealand national team. “Being a competitive gymnast teaches you the art of resilience. You fall over again and again, and you have to get back up and try again,” she says. “I wasn’t necessarily talented, so I had to work really hard to be good.”

For Katrina, the satisfaction of competing was addictive. It gave her a hunger to push through barriers, to focus, and to win. “It taught me how to be disciplined, and to have a high pain tolerance which is one of the key pillars of high performing leadership in a corporate environment,” she says. “After all, jet lag and exhaustion are all pains that you have to endure as a leader. If you want to be a high performer, you have to have a great tolerance for pain.”

No pain NO GAIN

Katrina also learned to strive for continuous improvement to develop as an individual. “You learn to become thick skinned after being judged in Gymnastics all the time. You also learn that it’s your performance that is being judged – not you personally,” she says. “Failing is okay – it doesn’t mean you’re a failure – but it’s how you learn from the experience that shapes who you become.” Katrina says her ability to learn quickly and think on her feet has been her secret to success. “I wanted to compete at gymnastics, and to do well at school and university, but I had such limited time. I would come home from Gymnastics training each night, sit with my injured feet in ice, and then do my homework and try to stay focused,” she says. Discipline has always come easy for Katrina – something she attributes to working on a farm in her formative years – and it was a seamless progression into business once she started university. A natural leader, Katrina was involved in AIESEC, which she describes as a combination of “Young Entrepreneurs” and a “Save the World movement” in her early 20s, which was where her passion for leadership first began. “It was like play business, but I learned a lot about leadership and what motivates people. At 21, I was running an organisation with over 200 volunteers, and I really started to understand that people are always looking for meaning,” she says.


Katrina discovered the art of multi-tasking early on, along with the ability to relate to people from all backgrounds and levels of experience. After finishing her university degree, she also discovered the power of versatility. “I started a law clerkship, but I got bored very quickly and joined management consulting firm McKinsey & Co in Sydney. We consulted to Fortune 500 and ASX100 companies on their most pressing issues – they call it a CEO apprenticeship.  I learnt how to read information properly and how to solve very complex problems. After four years with the firm, Katrina gave in to the travel bug and got a taste of the globe as a freelance Management Consultant over the next three years. Consulting in South Africa, London, and to the UN in Ecuador, she then ended up with Virgin Money for seven years. “I had some interesting roles launching credit cards and Virgin Gyms, but most importantly also learned how to implement strategy, build teams around core values, and how to redefine industries,” she recalls.


At Virgin she developed invaluable skills in start-ups, mergers and acquisitions, and in selling successful businesses to private equity. “At Virgin they cared more about smarts than years of experience, which was brilliant for me at the time,” she recalls. Katrina then went on to join the banking industry running digital, marketing, customer experience and various P&L businesses. But there was a lack of meaning that left her wanting more. Katrina turned her back on the financial security of banking to take on the role as Contiki Managing Director, and she hasn’t looked back. “I now ask myself why I didn’t work in travel sooner,” she says. “Our culture is innovative, smart but irreverent, dynamic and youthful. And above all, we love knowing “why” we do what we do – we help people have the time of their lives and by exposing young Australians to the world and the understanding, perspective and learning that travel brings – we make better humans.” “You feel more connected when you are working on a ‘why’, and somehow, I feel I am doing my bit to make the world a better place.”

BELIEVE in what you do and people will FOLLOW

A self-confessed workaholic, Katrina is passionate about the Contiki brand, and she firmly believes it has a purpose and a meaning in the travel arena. And she has the experience to prove it, joining a number of Contiki tours to experience the product first hand and engage with travellers along the way. Katrina has helped to transform the Contiki brand into a contemporary travel experience that allows travellers to tailor their own adventure. The reality of Contiki is a far cry from the “party bus” image that the brand struggled to shake for so long; all guides have firsthand knowledge of each destination, allowing them to tailor experiences. Ultimately, travellers return home with a greater perspective and understanding of international cultures, and a greater appreciation of global issues. These factors form the very essence of the ‘why’ for Katrina. They keep her motivated, grounded, and inspired.

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Collaboration is king!

Katrina is motivated by those around her and says her team is her secret to success. “They are far more knowledgeable than me, and they are fun, ambitious, focused – and they have a great time doing it,” she chuckles. It’s no surprise that people are attracted to Contiki by the promise of travel and the ability to sell dreams. And whether it’s the love of the job, or Katrina’s leadership skills, they stick at it because of the rewards it brings. “My team is always focused on what the customer wants and therefore continual innovation. We spend more time listening to their customers than most,” she says. “We understand that no two customers are the same, but we also make sure that like-minded customers can find each other.”


For Katrina, brand positioning is king. She says it’s crucial to manage your brand to make sure you have only one identity. “Don’t’ tell a customer one message and live another internally,” she says. “Make sure that as a business, your message is always congruent… Live your messaging!” Katrina admits that her professional journey is ongoing, but her advice for younger generations is to collect experiences rather than material goods. And follow “old fashioned” principles. “Hard work is the key to career progression,” she stresses. But Katrina is also a realist when it comes to work life balance: “I don’t believe in a world where there is work and then there is life.  One bleeds into the other. I am comfortable for my team to do personal stuff at work, just the same as we may need them on a weekend to manage global events like Paris for example”


While experience is often the golden ticket to break into the corporate world, Katrina “hires for DNA” to strike the right balance. “Good souls can create great relationships,” she says, adding that values are far more important that experience. Not one to forget her own humble beginnings, Katrina feels a strong affinity with rising stars, and she enjoys translating strategy to each individual’s personal goals. She also dedicates all of her energy to her team, but she is mindful not to push the limits. Katrina admits that she drove too hard in her early years and says it took time to acknowledge that others weren’t willing to work as hard as she did. “I had to learn patience and not sweat the small stuff,” she concedes. “For Virgin Active’s first club when I was running sales, I spent a week training the new staff and I thought they would all understand me. Turns out they understand very little of what I was delivering. I learned that sales people think differently and that it’s important to know your audience and the value of the key principles,” she says. “Sophisticated is not necessarily better – keep it simple! Katrina is undeniably one of the most successful and iconic women in the Australian travel industry. When it comes to the gender imbalance in the industry, she often sees women suffer from “imposter syndrome” because they doubt their experience and capacity in senior roles. “But you need to realise the only one that thinks you’re an imposter is yourself. Believe in yourself and sell yourself more if you want to make it to the top as a female,” she says. Katrina’s message to other women in the industry is clear – get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and let your inner critic go.


“Women are the worst inner critics, and they need to learn to turn it off,” she says. Her tip is to start demanding equality in the household in the first instance and only do half of the washing and cleaning. “Boyfriends have dumped me for not doing their washing!” she says with a hearty laugh. “We have a responsibility to continue the efforts of all the mothers who burned their bras… So, my question to other women is…” WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR THE MOVEMENT?

Katrina Barry - Managing Director – Contiki

Katrina Barry – Managing Director – Contiki



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