Liddy Pleasants: 'I love helping families plan unforgettable adventures'
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
The Covid pandemic was undoubtedly scary for all of us. But one local businesswoman says it definitely wasn’t the most frightening experience of her life.
In 1997, having already endured a medical drama (more on that later), Liddy Pleasants and the guests who’d joined her on a tour in Egypt (one of her first ever jobs), were ambushed by the military as they cruised towards Luxor and its collection of ancient, historic treasures.
As they’d been ambling along, innocently enjoying the scenery, the site had been turned into a bloodbath following a horrific massacre. Sixty-two people, largely tourists, sadly lost their lives.
It remains one of the most dramatic moments in a career dedicated to travel, and, says Liddy (founder of Stubborn Mule Travel in Debach) taught her a big lesson – to never put all your eggs in one basket...well not in her industry anyway.
“After that very tragic event all business to Egypt fell away. The company I worked for survived but it really did show me you can’t have reliance on just one destination. I’ve been keen all along to have as broad a range of possible for my clients - and that decision was invaluable in the pandemic.”
Liddy says business is booming - “it’s completely mad” - and reveals far from sitting on her hands doing nothing during lockdown, she was constantly busy through this period, rearranging travel for clients due to fly out over 2020-21.
“Because we only do family holidays, when the first lockdown came we didn’t have many people away. There were around 100 due to travel in the Easter holidays though. We suddenly had to cancel those and we were unable to recoup the money immediately from overseas. Short term, we had to take the hit. Our suppliers just weren’t in the position to refund us so we had to pay those refunds out of our own pocket.”
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Travel has always been on the agenda for adventurous Liddy. Hailing originally from London, her first taste of real exploration was during a sixth form trip to India. “To go to India on a school trip is most unusual, even these days, but more so then. I had a teacher who desperately wanted to travel and could only afford it by taking students with him!”
It was life-changing.
“That’s when I realised travel was what I wanted to ‘do’. We were being driven around in an air-conditioned bus the whole time, but I wanted to be out in the markets and in the places I was looking at from the windows. I didn’t want to be inside.”
From that moment Liddy took every opportunity she could to get away to the furthest corners of the globe, spending a gap year working at a children’s home in Sri Lanka for six months, before doing the “predictable” journey around South East Asia, Thailand and Malaysia – backpacking mostly by herself.
The following summer Liddy worked at a leprosy centre in southern Pakistan where the warmth of the people fostered within her an ongoing love of Asia.
“I’d go off travelling every single summer,” Liddy says. “With my degree I was given six months’ release to do research, and I went to South Africa and lived in a black township. After I graduated, I went straight into travel, working as a tour lead in the Middle East.”
The first trip Liddy ever led was that fated journey in Egypt, which seemed vexed from the beginning. “On day three one of the girls complained to me of a very bad stomach. That’s often par for the course, so I got her to a doctor at the hotel who said she had acute appendicitis and he needed to operate there and then!
“In the group I also had a nurse who was present. She said, out of earshot, ‘there’s no way that’s acute appendicitis, it’s food poisoning, don’t let him operate on her’. So I had this doctor on one hand saying it’s dangerous, and this nurse on the other saying it’s not. And there’s me, aged 23, trying to manage.
“In the end we didn’t go for the appendectomy. We later found out the doctor was struck off for doing operations for pay-outs from insurance companies. It was such a big decision for me to make at the time.
“On the same trip there was then the huge tragedy. We were on a cruise boat coming into Luxor and as we approached a large contingent of military police entered the boat we were on, speaking in rapid Arabic. We could tell something awful had happened and it turned out 60 tourists had been shot there. We had to work out there and then what to do next. In the moment you just have to deal with it.”
Liddy says the experience, and how she was forced to make snap, life-saving decisions on the spot, only made her stronger.
She carried on working as a tour guide for four years, covering locations from China and Pakistan to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Jordan and Israel.
Is the life of a tour guide, jetting off around the world, as glamorous as it seems?
Liddy laughs. “No. But it is so exciting. I remember in my first year I was on a traditional sailing boat in Egypt and a friend sent me an email about how tough it was working in the office. I thought, ‘why isn’t everyone doing what I’m doing? It’s fantastic!’.”
That’s not to say it’s without challenges. “But, ultimately, I was leading small groups of other adventurous people who all shared the same interests and enthusiasm I did. It felt like I was being paid to do what I always wanted to.”
It's China that stood out most for Liddy during that time of her life, which surprised her as she had absolutely no interest in going to the Red Dragon after hearing “not terribly positive things” from other people.
“I went with extremely low expectations, and the minute I got there I fell in love with the place. It's so different. The people were quite reserved, but once I got to know them they were completely delightful. I would say though, if you want to get the most out of a trip here, you have to learn a bit of Chinese.”
Liddy certainly did, and becoming familiar with the language gave her some kicks.
“Once I was in a hotel lift. I’m very tall with extremely large feet so I stood out like a sore thumb. Fifteen Chinese women got in, pressing up against me. I was at least a foot taller than some of them. One peered up and said ‘look at that girl, she’s so tall’ and another looked down and added ‘oh my god have you seen the size of her feet!’.
“They were chatting away, clearly having no idea I might understand them. When they got out I said in Chinese ‘I’m so glad you’ve all enjoyed looking at my enormous feet’. They were just mortified,” Liddy laughs.
“This was over 20 years ago. China had only really just opened up to tourism, and my company asked me to research a tour along little-known parts of the Great Wall. I had to ask around, and go try some of them out. Those were really very very remote areas where I didn’t see tourists at all. I had to try and find a route to walk to connect the dots. I just remember that time felt so special.”
Liddy would later take a job for the same company, working in China, before becoming operations manager in the UK, which brought her to Martlesham Heath in the east.
“I’d never been to East Anglia before. The company told me if I wanted the job they had a house in Woodbridge I could stay in for a while. And 20 years later I’m still here. I eventually became operations director.”
When the business was sold, later becoming TUI, Liddy went part-time to have children Sam (16), Meg (14) and Luke (9) with husband Mike, who also works for Stubborn Mule.
In 2010, Liddy was made redundant, which turned out to be a real positive. Mike, then a recruitment consultant, took a six-month work break, and the family (then just with a five and two-year-old in tow) set off to Burma (Myanmar) for a month, then cycling around Thailand, Cambodia and Laos for five months.
Which sounds a bit bonkers to the average family but was, Liddy says, eye-opening and “surprisingly delightful”, opening doors she’d never have discovered while backpacking on her own in her teens and early 20s.
“When you’re cycling around with two little blonde children in that part of the world, you’re really quite a sight. And we found people were so kind and eager to offer us hospitality.
“On our very first day we found our map was wrong. We thought we had 25 miles to do, but it was more like 50. We couldn’t carry on so stopped at this roadside café. The people there could see the children were exhausted and couldn’t manage, so they offered us a place to stay.
“I don’t think that would have happened had we not had cute little children with us. I loved travelling with them. It wasn’t really that challenging. Obviously you have to take into account their needs, but they were incredibly versatile. We’d show them the squatting toilets we had to use and they’d just say something like ‘that’s interesting’ and use them perfectly happily.”
The idea for Stubborn Mule, a business that puts family at the heart of all it does, was born on that trip, and when they got back Liddy swiftly put the wheels in motion.
As for the name. “My husband says I’m extremely stubborn, so that was part of the reason for it – and as we’re a family company we wanted the name to be something fun.”
The first holiday Liddy booked was for a friend of her parents, who wanted to visit Burma with a three-month-old – this at a time when Burma had only just become navigable for tourists.
“The first booking we had from someone who wasn’t a friend of the family...I was completely beside myself. We had a lovely chat. She could tell we were new a start-up and said ‘I need to meet you’. She came up from London and we arranged to meet in the Botanical Gardens in Cambridge. I was breastfeeding a young baby at the time, so my mum came with me and spirited him away so I could make out I was a professional businesswoman.
“That lady’s gone on to travel with us many times since then.”
Liddy and her team, including staff she recruited from her former employer after they were made redundant, have access to a unique network of contacts all around the world, who enable them to plan truly bespoke trips, featuring once-in-a-lifetime experiences the whole family will remember forever.
“We tailor every holiday to the ages and interests of everyone, and have so many options at our fingertips. We think of everything. So if they want to hire bikes and have a seven-year-old, we make sure they have the right sized bike and helmet when they get there. It’s what makes us stand out, I think.”
With upheaval in the industry post-lockdown there have of course been shifts in where travellers want to go. Croatia, says Liddy, is climbing in popularity, but one of her top sellers is Costa Rica, which she says has everything, from beaches, to sensational scenery, amazing wildlife and interesting cities.
“A standard trip there might include four to five different hotels over a two-week period. During the course of the trip you might spend two nights in a remote nature reserve where turtles lay their eggs in the evenings. In the day there could be rides out looking for sloths and crocodiles.
“You could go white water rafting, ziplining, walking in an old lava field. In another area you could stay in a coastal national park, sea kayaking, looking for whales and dolphins. Then spend the last few days on a lovely remote beach away from it all, or at a nice resort.”
Stubborn Mule has built up a list of many regular, happy clients...with parents continuing to book with the company even after their kids have flown the nest.
“They might have children who are 20...22...who can still be persuaded to go on holiday with mum and dad for a bit of adventure – and if they’re paying! Of course, we have to weave those trips around exam results and festivals.”
Liddy’s current favourite place to go is the Middle East, which is often negatively portrayed. “The Oman would honestly be one of my top destinations. People think it’s just a big desert but it has canyons and forts and narrow river valleys where you can jump into pools. There’s guaranteed sunshine later in the year and it’s totally fab and amazing for families.
“The other destination that’s only just re-opening now is South East Asia – Thailand, Borneo, Cambodia. Those are my top picks and are fabulous if you get to them at Christmas. The weather is gorgeous, you can still get any hotel you want because they don’t have two years of bookings stacked up, and the scenery (especially Angkor Wat) is just gob-smacking.”
When she’s not away from home, Liddy, who lives outside of Wickham Market, likes to cycle around the countryside nearby, enjoying East Anglia’s beaches and rolling fields.
“I cycle to work every day, and even when it’s raining, I look around and think ‘how spoilt am I that this is my commute?’.”