Sarah Travers: 'I've reached prime time in my career'
She may have left our screens for now, but former presenter Sarah Travers tells us how busy she is with her new venture, the highlights of her TV career and how she is coping with the sad death of her father.
As a self-critical rookie reporter for BBC Newsline, Sarah Travers would feel intimidated at having to interview politicians. She also had a habit of nervous giggling, which she was forced to stifle with a pretend cough. But help was at hand; Newsline anchor Noel Thompson became the young journalist's mentor, passing on useful tips, and one evening, her shaky confidence was given a much needed boost, out of the blue, by the one and only Eamonn Holmes, the master of on-screen ease.
"It was around 1998 and it was totally unexpected," says Sarah, the surprise still in her voice. "He contacted me at the BBC and said 'I was just watching you - you're really good. Keep it up'.
"You never forget something like that at the start of your career, and eventually you learn to pass on what you know to those behind you and nurture and support them, without being afraid of them taking your job."
And that wasn't the end of Eamonn's encouragement for the Portstewart broadcaster.
"Another time, my dad (who was a salesman) was kitting out Eamonn's son's nursery at his Belfast house and he mentioned me, and Eamonn said 'I know her - tell her she's great and to believe in herself.'
"He always made time for us back here, and never forgot where he came from."
Sarah continued to learn from Eamonn (who also helped guide this reporter at the greenhorn stage) and has carried his influence into her new venture, training companies in presentation, media and communications skills.
"I would get giggly when I was younger at inappropriate times, like when you're in church," she recalls. "I remember seeing Eamonn walking in front of a weather report and just laughing it off. I learned not to panic; to relax and move on, and I've passed that on when I'm preparing CEOs and so on for public speaking. Humour is something we can use in those instances, too."
She's calling from Coleraine, where she and her Bespoke Communications partner, Camilla Long (not the Sunday Times journalist) are giving the benefits of their experience to a group of ladies at the Causeway Chamber business centre.
Having worked all morning, she's now missing her lunch-break. "Oh don't worry about that," she reassures. "I don't need lunch; I eat too much anyway."
Off to a likeable start, then, she further endears by trying to send me pictures while I'm on the line, and coming up against the inevitable glitches all us non-techie types endure daily.
"Oh dear, the screen's gone all blue. Why won't the cursor move? Umm, I'll ring you back…"
It's new territory for the chatty mother-of-two. This time last year, her breezy UTV show, The Magazine, had 32% of the Monday night audience ratings share and was beginning to get into its stride. But, with budgets flowing to the launch of UTV Ireland, the axe fell last December, and I remember her hurt face in the last edition.
"I was sad. It wasn't a knock to my confidence as such, but it was a shock when it wrapped up so quickly," she reflects. "But that's the financial world; it was a business decision, due to UTV Ireland. Some programmes like Joe Mahon's Lesser Spotted could travel over the border; ours couldn't.
"I loved working with that team and always believe in doing my best, and didn't want us to be seen as having failed," she adds. "The Press portrayed it as us not having succeeded but our ratings were good and we were just settling in well on Mondays.
"But I've no regrets - I wasn't a staff member and I got two years after being taken on for only one, so that was a bonus. And I'd be very keen to bring it back. This is not the end of my broadcasting career. I did cover Down Royal for the BBC during the summer and I've had to turn down other jobs, due to the new business and teaching broadcasting journalism - I have a class of 32."
Freelancing since she left the BBC and a 120-mile daily commute to work, the fresh-faced 41 year old has been on a journey of self-discovery since setting up Bespoke Communications earlier this year with Camilla (43), an experienced businesswoman from Portrush. The pair were introduced by Sarah's husband Stephen, an acclaimed author and head of the Northern Regional College media and performing arts department, where he met Camilla on a project.
"My husband spotted two sets of skills that could work well together and we had a Eureka moment," Sarah recalls in those familiar upbeat tones. "I instantly recognised Camilla as a brilliant, organised businesswoman with a degree in computer science and a good grasp of technical issues, and I have the contacts and the profile to connect with people, which is sometimes difficult starting up.
"We're not friends who went into business together but we spend a lot of time together and we've become friends. We're a similar age, both have two kids and both live on the north west coast. Other than that, we're complete opposites."
The divergence in the partners' traits has been confirmed by the Personality Profiling aspect of their communications training, which they use to help management and staff connect better in the workplace.
"I'm an insular people-person - I need to be liked and to make people feel good," Sarah admits. "I don't like criticism and I don't like to criticise. I've always been full of self-criticism though, so it's lovely to be my own boss and have that control.
"Camilla is dominant; into facts and statistics and proper information skills. It can be quite entertaining when we're doing courses - I'm into group hugs and she's 'stop that! and I'm 'stop dominating!'
"Or I'll say, in regard to presentations: 'You've got to pretend and role-play a shinier version of yourself', and she'll be 'shut that down. I hate role play."
It's a difficult time of the year for Sarah, with the second anniversary of her father's death tomorrow, October 4. A handsome, outgoing man, Ian Travers died at 67, five years after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of Alzheimer's Disease. Sarah and Stephen married the year after the diagnosis, in 2009, as she wanted her father to give her away at the wedding, where she sister Jennifer, a consultant haematologist, acted as bridesmaid.
"It is hard … all those anniversaries loom. It has only been two years and I'm working on Sunday unfortunately, but we'll be going out for a family dinner somewhere nice, all together, and raising a toast to him. He'd like us to have a laugh and not be morbid."
Although reluctant to discuss her father's illness at first, Sarah has gone on to raise much needed awareness of Alzheimer's. It must be tough for her, as I can hear that warm voice rising in an attempt not to cry, when she talks about him.
"I'm doing grand," she rallies. "I think losing him actually hit me before his death, because of the dementia. That was one of the reasons I stepped back from the BBC. I wasn't in a good place, whereas he accepted it and moved on.
"And poor dad, the end wasn't nice; not great at all. It was very sad. He couldn't communicate at all; he was severely disabled. People don't realise that can happen in some cases, but everyone's different and others are not as badly affected and manage well.
"Death was a release for dad, a blessing. He wasn't there. He was freed from the bind of dementia. I used to think I just wanted him to stay, just so I could see him, even just sitting there, but that would have been selfish. He had no quality of life at all."
Being a spiritual - if not overly religious - person, does she think she'll ever see him again?
All of a sudden, the line goes silent.
"Oh, I... who knows? I do feel him with me all the time," she falters, her voice breaking. "I get quite emotional talking about that… but I get strength, from him, I think, when I'm hit with a curve ball.
"Once you've cried and cried, you begin to heal and you gather strength. I feel I'm a better person now, to have gone through this. I have him with me in my heart."
Last weekend, Sarah had a conversation in a hotel with a medium, but decided against having a full reading. "He was a lovely man, the medium. I'd never thought about it before, but it's definitely on my radar now, even out of curiosity. I don't know if I'm a believer but I know some people get great comfort from readings.
"And I do feel it's funny the way things have come round for me when I've needed them. I've had so many co-incidences in the last six months, and I think, 'was this meant to be? Or is it just because I've become more open?'
"I was always in the habit of going to work and coming straight home - now I'm networking and connecting with people more. I'm much more aware of the people around me.
"Also, I didn't like to talk about the disease before; I'd have run a mile from it, but now I feel compelled to - like it's dad's voice I'm expressing, to raise awareness and help others with Alzheimer's."
She finds walking along Portstewart Strand therapeutic, and sees grief counselling and mindfulness as beneficial for the grieving. And she's full of praise for the way her mother has coped.
"Dad was a great showman - I get the gift of the gab from him. Mum's much quieter, and modest. She misses him terribly but she's one of life's copers, as women tend to be. She's had a lot of traumas in her life but she has kept going. She golfs and she's started to play bridge, and she's off to Cork with a friend soon. She's an inspiration."
At a recent Bespoke Communications event, Sarah met Apprentice 2013 winner Dr Leah Totton - and found a kindred spirit. The Londonderry-born beauty clinic owner (27) reaffirmed to Sarah her desire to enter the local political arena one day, as she told the Belfast Telegraph after her win, and discussed introducing business skills to children at primary level.
"It was fascinating to see how confident she was at 25 - there's no way could I have done the Apprentice at her age, but it's just a case of believing in yourself. She is hugely impressive, a wonderful role model for young girls. I'd love to roll out some sort of charity-based scheme bringing business skills to schools. In the US, kids at kindergarden are happy to do presentations. Here they're all so focused on exams.
"And we're very modest in Northern Ireland - there are exceptions - especially middle aged women like me, worrying about how we look and how we're being judged for it, whereas in the US they see maturity as bringing experience and trust, all essential requirements for promotion.
"Of course Dr Leah is in an aesthetic business which is all about looks but as she matures, her business is becoming more about non-invasive techniques. Anyway, beauty comes from the inside - if you feel good and powerful on the inside you'll look beautiful on the outside. Be happy in your own skin."
She always knew her father was a good-looking man, whose charisma shone from within, and she takes comfort in seeing that essence has passed down to her eighteen-year-old son, Jack.
"He works part-time in the golf club and they all say how like dad he is. He's not the spitting image but he has an expression, a look just the same as dad's. Even mum saw it and it took her back - 'oh my goodness', she said. Dad had a gentle face, and Jack's extremely photogenic like dad was. He just has to look at the camera and it connects with him."
The same could be said of Sarah herself, but she's too self-deprecating to acknowledge it. She laughs at the thought of giving her beauty tips but agrees to send them after her second presentations training session of the day, at the Fairhill Shopping Centre.
"It's a vital skill in so many ways now, with the dominance of social media. You can't be anonymous and be the public face of a brand nowadays," she concludes.
"We worked recently with a local CEO who absolutely hated public speaking but he's in Vegas right now, pitching to a very famous social media figure, who's very interested in his idea - wouldn't that be lovely if we could have helped him?
"That's what I'm all about now. It's so rewarding giving something back."
- Sarah and Camilla will give a presentation at the NI Chamber of Commerce's annual networking event on Tuesday in the Europa Hotel Belfast. See Facebook/Bespoke Communications, tel. 0779 306 1357
Sarah on ...
My skincare is probably my biggest luxury as I swear by La Prairie. It is expensive but I stick to a few core products and they tend to last up to a year if used sparingly. I cleanse, tone and moisturise every morning and exfoliate once a week. I also always use an eye cream. My night-time routine is much lazier though as I tend to use the dreaded wipes for ease followed by a night cream.
There's nothing better for the skin, though that lots of water and a good night's sleep. I need my eight hours a night.
Nerves are something I have battled with so when I'm taking a workshop I try to pass on some of the tips which have got me through.
Be prepared if you're giving a presentation and never arrive late or it adds to your stress levels.
Distraction techniques are great. Just before you take to the stage take note of the colour of the curtains or the clock at the back of the room or the vibrant red of the lady's dress in the front row.
Smile. Don't underestimate the power of a smiling to relax you and your audience and remember to breathe.