An Olympian’s Advice: Stay Focused & Find Your Edge

by Mimi Kmet

With the Winter Olympics in full swing, many of us are watching as world class athletes push the limits of what’s possible. The commitment, focus and stamina of those elite competitors hold lessons for the rest of us, says entrepreneur, consultant and author Bonnie St. John.

St. John is a former Paralympic athlete and medalist who says she owes much of her success in the business world to what she learned as a competitive athlete.

Olympic athletes are always “looking for that extra edge.” That’s what travel agents and other businesspeople need to do too, said St. John, an Oxford Rhodes Scholar, keynote speaker and consultant to Fortune 500 companies.
St. John, who lost her right leg when she was five from a condition that stunted its growth, won a silver medal and two bronze medals in the 1984 Paralympics. Her outstanding performances made her the second-fastest female amputee skier in the world and the world’s first African-American ski medalist. 

She has authored six books on topics like leadership, spirituality and prosperity; her seventh book is due out in 2015.

St. John spoke with Travel Market Report about the lessons she learned as an athlete and how other businesspeople, including travel agents, can benefit from them.

What did training and competing as a Paralympic athlete teach you in terms of being a successful businessperson and entrepreneur?
St. John: The intense focus I learned while training for the U.S. Ski Team certainly made me a better entrepreneur.

I remember reaching a point in my business as a keynote speaker, author, and consultant where I saw that my worst clients were taking up most of my time and attention. They made unreasonable demands and had the smallest contracts, and some even had integrity issues.

Humans are wired to react quickly and strongly to negatives as a means of survival. My business turned a corner and grew when I overcame those natural tendencies, stopped reacting so much, and proactively focused on the kinds of clients I really wanted – those who partnered with me to impact their business strategy, had high integrity and were a joy to serve.

How can travel professionals benefit from those lessons?
St. John: There’s an old adage that 20% of our clients bring us 80% of our business. What are you focusing on? How much do you know about your 20%? Can you reduce the distractions from the 80% and spend more energy understanding the needs of your best clients?

Ask them directly, ‘What can I do to build a better relationship with you? How can I serve your needs better?’ Ask for referrals.

It’s so simple, but that’s what Olympic athletes do – eliminate distractions and focus on improving their personal best.  

For your sixth book, How Great Women Lead, you traveled the world with your teenage daughter. What was your biggest take-away from that experience?
St. John: The extraordinary leaders we met shared so many insights that can help travel experts grow their business.

Amy Pascal, a movie studio mogul, talked about sticking to what you’re good at. Eileen Fisher had to overcome skepticism about her innovative clothing designs before she succeeded on a massive scale. Condoleezza Rice told us how she struggled to learn to delegate.

Travel agents face increasingly tough competition today. As an athlete, what can you tell them about dealing with competition?
St. John: With the Internet, all of our clients have more choices. To stay competitive, we have to find an edge, find our unique value.

As a travel agent or meeting planner, you can differentiate yourself with specialized knowledge in a geographic sphere, an industry, or certain kinds of meetings.

To compete, you have to bring more to the table than just booking travel. If you hang around a group of Olympians, you notice that that’s what they do. Whether they’re going out to dinner or going to see a show, they can’t help but try to find a little closer parking space, a better way to get in, or even a slightly superior seat. They are always looking for that extra edge.

Your upcoming book focuses on resilience. What is the main message travel agents will get from that book?
St. John: I’ll be sharing secrets from research in neuroscience, sports psychology and physiology that show you easy ways to boost your energy, brainpower and mental toughness.

In this increasingly connected and accelerating world, travel professionals certainly need more resilience.

I also appreciate the resilience my travel agency gives me. When things go wrong as I am circling the globe, they are available anytime, anywhere, and will fix things fast. They know the speaking industry and use their longstanding relationships with the airlines to find creative solutions, sometimes before I am even aware of a setback.

You have overcome many obstacles. One of travel agents’ biggest obstacles is the struggling economy. What can they do to grow their businesses in this environment?
St. John: Over the last two decades of running my own business, I’ve reinvented myself a number of times. I am always researching new ideas and developing new speeches and seminars to make a difference for my clients. I spend a lot of time customizing and addressing their current needs.

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