Global BC travel pro Claire Newell shares her journey from Abbotsford schoolgirl to globe-trotting TV personality

Work hard, play hard. It’s a personal motto that has served Claire Newell well. Very well. On a recent sunny afternoon she swings open the door of her Kerrisdale home, a stately manor that could perhaps more rightly be described as a mansion. She’s all smiles, clutching a barking Chihuahua to her chest.

“Hi, great to meet you,” she says brightly, extending a tanned hand in greeting. “This is my new baby,” she adds, introducing her puppy Joey, whose name is emblazoned in rhinestones on a customized collar.

Newell is looking fancy too, in a colourful sundress and heels. It’s not her usual attire, she quickly points out:

“Normally my hair is in a ponytail and I’m in sweats when I’m at home, but I literally just got back from the studio.” She’s referring, of course, to the Global BC studio in Burnaby, where she tapes a daily “Travel Best Bets” segment for the Noon News. It’s a gig she’s done every weekday for the past 18 years.

“I’m the longest-running permanent guest in Global BC history,” she laughs.

“What can I get for you?” she asks, clicking across the hardwood floor into an open-concept kitchen, a chef’s dream of gleaming quartz countertops, high-end appliances and not a single dirty dish in sight. A young Japanese woman, who Newell introduces as Megumi, stands silently nearby, ready to fulfill the request.

No mere employee, Megumi is the resident “house manager,” Newell explains. And if she’s treated more as valued friend than as an employee, Newell jokes it’s for a very good reason: “I can piss off my husband sometimes, but I can never piss off Megumi. I need her. Poor Megumi gets copied on everything!”

The Busy Schedule of a Travelling Professional

It’s no wonder this multi-tasking media maven needs a bit of help keeping her life in order. For starters, Newell and husband Jeff, a local businessman, are parents to two teenagers, daughter Lauren, 14, and son Grant, 11.

While parenthood is a full-time job in itself — especially now that the youngsters have outgrown their need for a nanny — Newell says she’s lucky to have  “really great kids,” making it easier for her to juggle her other ventures, which include operating a travel agency, penning a best-selling guidebook (Travel Best Bets) as well as a weekly travel column for TVW and hosting a television series, Operation: Vacation, which currently airs exclusively in the U.S.

Even with the luxury of hired help, it’s a daunting workload. So good thing Newell is blessed with an enviable abundance of energy. She needs it: Not only does she routinely tackle work projects before the kids have woken up — “there’s not a day that my alarm clock doesn’t go off at 5:30 a.m.,” she says — but her jet-setting lifestyle requires her to travel at least every other week.

Claire Newell

Newell's profession demands that she travels almost every other week (Image: Liz Rosa)

Breathlessly, she recites that just returned from Africa a few months ago, Thailand a few weeks ago and New York City a few days ago, where she taped an appearance on Today with Matt Lauer.

Of making her 12th appearance on the hit U.S. morning show, she muses: “You’d think they’d have their own travel experts, especially in New York, but Matt and I got on so well . . . We totally hit it off. I think that’s why I’ve been invited back.”

Bit by the Travel Bug

If she’s now living large, it’s a far cry from her early years, where Newell, the only daughter in a family of five, enjoyed a quiet upbringing on an Abbotsford farm. Still, the Scottish-born future TV personality was no stranger to privilege. Her father, now retired, was a general surgeon at Abbotsford’s MSA Hospital and her mother is a successful entrepreneur.

“It was from them, definitely, that I got the travel bug,” she explains. “As you can imagine, being a surgeon is a stressful job, saving people all day every day. And though my dad never ever brought it home, I think he really needed the stress release, so whenever we had school breaks, we were always away, in Palm Springs, Maui, the Caribbean, Europe . . .”

As much as she enjoys travelling (“I’m a gypsy at heart”), she had no intention of making it her life’s work. Instead, Newell, an accomplished student, had long planned to become a lawyer. After graduating with a degree in English and geography from UBC, she was all set to enter law school when a summer cruise prior to her freshman semester led her to plot a different course. It was then, while sailing the aqua waters of the Caribbean, that she met and befriended the founding family of Gullivers Travel Associates, a British travel-agency dynasty.

Intrigued, the ambitious 21-year-old returned home to Vancouver inspired to start her own agency. She took out a $15,000 bank loan on her new car — a graduation gift from her parents — as collateral to launch Jubilee Tours & Travel in 1992.

“I didn’t tell my parents at first,” she confesses. “One of my priorities has always been to make them proud, and I didn’t want to disappoint them by explaining that I wasn’t going to law school. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

She needn’t have worried. Just months after opening her fledgling agency, Newell approached a Vancouver TV station to pitch the idea of advertising travel deals on the air. “I thought I’d just be feeding a reporter the information,” she says. “I never once thought I’d be the one in front of the cameras.” But the producers, impressed by Newell’s telegenic looks and down-to-earth personality, helped set her on a career path that would transform her from anonymous travel agent to well-known TV personality.

As welcome an opportunity as this was, Newell insists it didn’t come easily. “I could barely put a sentence together on TV, I was so nervous. For years and years and years,” she says. “I used to have to practice, and then I’d just read the deals and get the heck off. It’s gotten a lot easier . . . but it has taken me 20 years of practice.”

Claire Newell

Newell knows that the professional traveller is constantly on the go (Image: Liz Rosa)

Turns out, it wasn’t the only phobia she would have to conquer. Surprisingly, this intrepid globetrotter is also a recovered white-knuckle flier.

“I was always a little nervous. Whenever the plane would take off, my hands would break out into a sweat,” she admits, chuckling with embarrassment.

Her fear of flying was overcome only after her father-in-law, a licensed commercial pilot, sat her down a few years ago to explain “just how much planes can endure.” Good thing, because for Newell, a life without travel is really no life at all. It’s an attitude summed up in her favourite quote, which she reverently recites: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

The Adventures of a Lifetime

It’s this appetite for experience that’s also behind her willingness to venture into the travel trenches. Sure, she gleefully goes on two glam getaways each year “no matter what!” — to Las Vegas with her best friend and to Manhattan with her mother — but she’s game for grittier adventures, too.

“I swam with great white sharks in Cape Town. I’ve gone on voluntouring expeditions with my kids. I went on an elephant trek in Thailand. I even had a fish pedicure, where schools of little fish nibble the dead skin off your feet.”

She visibly shudders at that last memory, leaving no doubt it was definitely not her favourite travel experience. That was her recent “epic journey” to South Africa, where three generations of Newells went on safari to the Kalahari Desert.

“Look at this,” she exclaims suddenly, pointing at her forearm. “I get goosebumps when I talk about Africa! I’ve never seen any place like it. It was just so different. I hope I’ll be able to get back there.”

And though this tireless traveller says there are still some exotic destinations she’s keen to visit (the Galapagos Islands, India, Machu Picchu and Jordan, among them), don’t expect to spot her wheeling her suitcase through YVR this summer. For once, she’s planning to stick close to her own backyard. Literally.

“We just had it redone,” she says excitedly of her private backyard oasis, complete with a shimmering swimming pool. “I really just want to stay home and enjoy it.”

The moment she utters the words, she pauses, the gypsy in her soul beginning to stir, and adds with a laugh, “But, who knows, maybe I’ll squeeze in a trip to Naramata. And maybe Tofino, too.

Originally published in TVW. For daily programming updates and on-screen Entertainment news, subscribe to the free TVW e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.