Luxury Travel Expert Mary Jean Tully May Just Have the Best Job on the Planet

"All anyone talks about is where they're going, where they want to go, or where they've just been. Everybody wants to talk about travel."

If you’re a person of means wishing to have an experience along the lines of a live orchestra performance inside an Icelandic volcano or a private lunch (complete with pressed linens, fresh flowers and local chefs) along a closed-off section of the Great Wall of China, you don’t just hit up Trip Advisor. You call Mary Jean Tully.

Tully knows luxury travel, right down to the elevator wait times at certain five-star New York City hotels. Through her 30-year-old company, Tully Luxury Travel, she designs bespoke itineraries for a global roster of top-tier clients — some of whom you’d recognize from just their first name. She’s “lived the life of a millionaire ten times over,” jetting around the world, finding the next hot Miami restaurant and resting her head at various Four Seasons resorts.

Her desire to see the world, however, wasn’t born from a concierge-filled, globe-stomping childhood. Instead, her wanderlust came from a little down the road. “When I was I was eight or nine years old,” she says over lunch at Café Boulud, “I had this neighbour who lived three doors over. She was blonde and she wore her hair in a bun with this red skirt and white blouse, and she drove a little red spider convertible with a black interior. She was a flight attendant and she was going to Paris, and I remember thinking that was the coolest thing in the world.”

Fast forward a few decades, and Tully has travelled to over 100 countries. Her industry expertise has been recognized by Forbes and Condé Nast Traveler, and she’s been named one of the most powerful women in travel by Travel Agent Magazine. She’s grown her Toronto-headquartered luxury travel agency to a staff of 74 employees, planned destination birthday parties for A-List celebrities and put her arm down the throat of an elephant to measure its teeth. (An avid conservationist, Tully’s Instagram grid is a love letter to the protection of wildlife in Africa, where poaching poses an urgent threat to elephants, rhinos, and big cats.)

“All anyone talks about is where they’re going, where they want to go, or where they’ve just been,” she says. “Everybody wants to talk about travel. People like to hear good stories; they like to hear that you sat around the table and broke bread with locals, whether it was in Sicily or Delhi.” Here are just a few of the stories and insights Tully has collected as she’s travelled around the globe.

What’s your definition of luxury travel?

Luxury travel means different things to different people. For me, luxury is putting my phone on airplane mode. To someone else, it’s going to a beach and getting out of the cold weather to spend time with their kids. To someone else, it’s going to a spa. It’s different things to different people. Sometimes, that name can fool you. I think luxury is about time and how you spend it—whether you’re spending $1,500, $5,000, $15,000, $150,000.

It sounds like you need to have a strong relationship with your clients to understand their definition of luxury. Why should someone come to you, instead of using one of the many travel resources available online? 

You have to listen to clients, that’s the whole thing. Online can be the worst place for people to go. Let me just say this: you don’t post a bad selfie, do you? If you were trying to sell a house, you aren’t going to show the crack in the ceiling, right? Online is a great place to go for information, but it’s not the end all be all. There’s a place for expertise in this industry.

Why do you think it’s important for people to travel?

I think I’m a really good person because of the people I’ve encountered from travelling. My heart and my eyes have been opened. Wherever I am in the world—Palestine, Jerusalem, Egypt, Hong Kong—people sit around the table with their kids and they laugh. For example, I sat and ate on the floor of a cave with a family in the Berbera Mountains. I’m more enriched because of that. You don’t get these experiences staying in one city.

Is there somewhere you think will be the next “It” travel spot?

Right now, Japan is very hot. Iceland was very hot but is kind of on the cusp now; they still have a way to go with some of their hotels. Everybody wants to do Antarctica, and I think it’s because of global warming. People don’t know how much longer it will be around.

Egypt and Turkey are coming back in. And Morocco—Madonna just had her 60th in Marrakesh. It’s cosmopolitan, it’s cool, it’s funky.

What was the first trip you took abroad? 

I went on my very first trip at my first job with a travel agency, and I went by myself to Paris and London. It was truly a terrible experience: My bus to the hotel broke down; when I got to the hotel in Paris, the electricity had gone out; I locked myself out of my room and spilt food everywhere right when I arrived. Then I got really sick, and I couldn’t explain to the doctor what was wrong. Turns out I had an ear infection, so I couldn’t fly. But even when I was crying through the pain, I’d stand there and think: I’m in Paris, I’m okay.

Was that the moment you realized, “I want to do this for the rest of my life?”

Haha yeah, I think that’s when I knew.