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Jane Stuart-Palikira got married in Corfu. The experience gave her the idea to start up her wedding business, Ionian Weddings. She has successfully built up the business against all odds after one of her daughters was diagnosed with severe brain damage.
That success was recently recognised by her selection as a finalist in Entrepreneur category of the IBM iX everywoman in Travel Awards.
Jane had always dreamed of starting her own business and having travelled around the world on her own, she clearly had passion for travel. She had worked in the travel industry for over a decade when she got married. It seemed a no-brainer to have the wedding in Corfu. It was cheaper, the weather was better and her husband is from Corfu. But the couple couldn’t find a wedding planner to help them with all the arrangements. Nevertheless, they managed to pull it off, despite both working full time. The day after the wedding a friend said Jane should consider setting up a wedding business in Greece.
She did some research, set up a website and established the business. It went better than expected. Jane had planned for 10 weddings in the first year. She booked 35. At the time, she was running the business on the side of her day job, working evenings and weekend. Her husband was helping with the Greek side of things.
The following year the number of weddings booked doubled. Jane handed in her notice, but was talked out of it by her manager. Three months later it was clear she would have to go full time on the business or give up. “I could see the massive potential and I knew I would regret it if I didn’t give it a go,” she says.
Her husband joined her shortly afterwards. Then she got pregnant. It was a big shock to discover she was pregnant with twins. At the time the Mamma Mia film was just out and it had fuelled demand for weddings in Greece. The business was getting a lot of press attention. “The business was really taking off,” she says.
But life has an uncanny habit of not keeping to plan. The twins were born 10 weeks early and one was diagnosed with quite severe brain damage. “I was running a very successful business, but my personal situation was very difficult,” says Jane. As people book weddings well in advance she had more than 200 bookings for the following year, 2011. The solution was to take on more staff and to delegate. Jane still describes that as the best thing she has done for the business.
Nevertheless, Jane still oversaw 80 of the 200 bookings that year. “Having the business was a distraction from the situation at home,” she says. “Internally I was falling apart, but I loved my work and I was working all hours. I’m really proud that none of my customers knew what was going on at the time. It was exhausting, though. I barely slept.”
She adds that she didn’t really have a choice to keep going or not as both she and her husband were working for the business. Moreover, looking after a severely disabled child is very costly.
In the early days, there were lots of hospital appointments to attend. “There is no way I could have worked in a full-time job,” she says, adding that most mums she knows with children with disabilities don’t work. “There is so much admin and fighting for provision,” she says. “My evenings are spent doing administration for my daughter. I have to work really intensively during the day.”
School holidays are difficult because of the lack of available care. Jane’s daughter needs one to one care and cannot do anything for herself. Then there is ensuring her other daughter doesn’t feel left out. The fact that both Jane and her husband work in the business means they can be ultra flexible. Ionian Weddings now does around 400 weddings a year, supports a team of 11, has local teams working in six countries, from Portugal to Cyprus, and has won lots of awards.
The business has managed to keep growing, despite the Brexit uncertainty, and Jane is keen to maintain that gradual, sustainable expansion. That includes organising weddings for people from all across the world.
Jane’s team are all women, apart from her husband. Most work school hours. One employee started in the North of England this year and works school hours but from home. Jane says her workforce is quite diverse and multicultural, covering a wide age range. “I think it’s very important to have that diversity,” she says, adding that she thinks mums often make excellent employees. “They tend to see work for what it is. They want to work hard and tend to be a bit more loyal and focused,” she says, “and they have great skillsets.”
Jane is delighted to have been shortlisted for the everywoman award. The business has won a range of awards, but she says it is good to recognised for her own personal achievement. Looking back she thinks she would not be get through the first few months after her daughters were born again. She says: “I’m so proud of the business, especially due to what is going on behind the scenes.”