The Road to Recovery

In an industry that is subjected to so many external pressures, it is rare to find a business that has not only survived but thrived during tough times. Deb Caruso discovers the secret behind building a sustainable business.

by @helenflanagan on Tuesday, 17 Mar,2015

In Noosa, the tourism industry is particularly vulnerable to external factors that can have a negative effect on business – bad weather, global financial issues, terrorist threats – the list goes on. In an area that is heavily reliant on Tourism as one of its main sources of income, stability in the market is a must.

One local business that has gone from strength-to-strength in the past decade is The Discovery Group, a privately-owned company specialising in providing water and land-based experiences of the Noosa Everglades and Fraser Island.

From a husband-and-wife team operating from under their house in 2005 to one of Noosa’s most awarded and recognised businesses, Group Managing Director Wade Batty, believes a strong business model and the ability to understand market demand had been integral to their success.

“When we first started out, we were like most start-up businesses,” he said. “I had not long returned from a life-changing trip around Australia and chose to live in Noosa because we truly believed that this was the best place in the country.

“Travelling around Australia in a troop carrier with my best mate, a rifle, a fishing rod and a swag, we lived off the land and immersed ourselves in all that the country had to offer,” Wade said. “We climbed Ayers Rock, cruised Kakadu and slept under the stars on Fraser Island.

“It was wild, I wore out three pairs of thongs in a year just experiencing everything and that inspired me to want to share what I had discovered with others.”

Those thongs are now framed alongside a map of Australia with the journey marked in pen as a constant reminder of the experience.

A builder by trade, Wade worked on Stage One and Two of Viridian before the opportunity came to purchase Suncoast Safaris and realise his dream of building a local tour company.

Not long after, more opportunities presented themselves to purchase other businesses and a business model was born.

“Purchasing existing businesses to bring them under the umbrella of Fraser Island Discovery or Noosa Everglades Discovery allowed the business to quickly grow while at the same time, reducing competition by consolidating businesses that would previously compete with each other,” he said. “There are also significant environmental benefits to operating tours through one central business. There used to be four to six different tour boats on the Noosa River daily and now we run one, maybe two.

“We are one of the rare tourist areas that don’t have a plethora of different operators all dodging around each other. For example, in Kakadu there are many licensed operators. How do you control that? You can have price wars, all it takes is one operator to not respect the environment or to provide a bad experience and it taints everyone.

“We operate in a finite market that is controlled by commercial permits because it is a National Park and with that comes great responsibility.”

In three years the business moved from having three staff offering 4WD day trips to Fraser Island to more than 20 staff with four boats and six Landcruisers , which were soon replaced by twenty-seater buses that delivered larger capacity. Today, the Discovery Group operates four buses with capacity for more than 90 passengers.

The acquisitions also allowed them to move out of the home office to a bookings office on the Noosa River in what Wade recalls as a critical move.

“We started to feel like and operate like a serious business and saw the potential for national and international growth, particularly with the everglades, so we started targeting that market,” he said.

Wade got back on the tools to refurbish the booking office and create a professional base for both the staff and the customers.

“We were just starting to reach our potential when the recession and the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) came to town. Overnight, the tourism industry came to a standstill as the superannuation-funded retirees disappeared.”

Five years of torment spearheaded by the GFC, the recession, and successive record-breaking floods that were followed by consecutive soggy summers crippled most tourist operators however it was during this tumultuous time that The Discovery Group made some of its smartest business decisions.

“We continued with our plan to invest in buses and phased out the 4WDs which allowed us operate more efficiently; we entered and won the Tourism Awards; and we secured game-changing contracts with the biggest commercial touring companies in Australia,” Wade said. “We also stepped up our focus on the Everglades and started targeting the youth market.

In 2008, The Discovery Group won the Queensland and Australian Tourism Award for Best Tour Operator. This was backed up 2009 and 2010 when they won the state award again and then were entered into the Hall of Fame.

While awards bring credibility and attention to the business, for Wade the awards weren’t about collecting trophies but more about putting the focus on the business, holding it up for scrutiny and finding out how it really stacked up.”

More awards and eco-certification in Advanced Ecotourism have followed and with it came confidence to move forward with plans to target the international and national markets more aggressively. Wade was becoming more focused on securing the international market and in 2011, James Kendall was brought on board to focus on the national market, particularly the youth market.

“It was a good time to take Discovery to the market because agents were starting to look for new product,” Wade said. “Everyone else was declining but we were growing because our product delivery made sense - we’re close to a source market of Brisbane with international flights; we’re close to the Sunshine Coast Airport; and we have what we call the ‘beach highway’ where you can access Noosa to Fraser Island in one-and-a-quarter hours .

“In no other market can you cross two National Parks and neighbouring Biosphere Reserves along one of Australia’s most stunning beaches.”

In 2010, The Discovery Group secured a contract with Contiki Tours subsequently, AAT Kings Group and Top Deck Travel.

“The three biggest commercial tour companies in Australia were now promoting the Noosa Everglades and positioning Noosa as the launch pad for Fraser Island to the local, national and international markets.

“Those three contracts bring thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to the community,” Wade said. “The benefits from that are far-reaching and extend to accommodation businesses, restaurants and cafes and even the retail stores.

“At the start our market was 100% mature-aged and family clientele, that’s why in2008-2009 the first signal of the recession was the interest rate drop and the decline in this mature market. We needed to make some changes and find a new market immediately. I started investigating the youth market, initially for guided canoe tours and that saved us.”

Wade said another critical component to the business was the people.

“Sustainability and security in our business model allows us to offer employment year-round, despite the cyclical and seasonal nature of the industry,” he said. “There is generally a six-week slowdown during autumn and into winter so our permanent staff know it is the best time for a holiday, which means that our casual staff can remain employed and engaged.

“Furthermore, we use the downtime to train staff in new areas. It’s important to invest in their training and ensure they understand all areas of the business. You might work in the kitchen, in the courtesy bus, be a tour guide, cleaner or answer the phone – if you can work in all areas of the business, then you can get the hours.

James said the local and domestic market was less motivated to explore its own backyard.

“For the international tourists, a trip to World-Heritage-listed Fraser Island is a dream come true. It’s up there alongside Uluru, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. Team that with the Noosa Everglades which is home to more than 44 percent of all Australia’s bird species - more than Kakadu National Park in an area 25 times smaller.

“We have a world-class ecological environment yet how many locals have experienced it? Probably only about 10 percent.”

Moving premises to just off the busy Eumundi-Noosa Road in late 2014 has given them a more visual presence and highlighted the need to better communicate who they are and what they do to the local market.

In October last year, the booking office that signalled the move to a more formidable business was refurbished again and reopened as The Jetty, a commercial marina berth with a café, tour sales and an on-site photographic exhibition space.

“For me personally, this adds value to the experience of going on the river and it’s become a portal – it’s an investment for the business but it’s also a hub for the community.

“This was always our dream,” he said. “The future is going to be about solidifying and developing our distribution in key markets and staying abreast of changes – that’s the key.

No two days are alike for the company that estimates it provides more than 1000 departures a year with experiences starting at $75 for a half day cruise into to the Noosa Everglades; right through to a $395 for a private cabin twin-share overnight experience in The Discovery Group’s resort on Fraser Island.

Wade quotes the ‘Bar-B-Canoe’ as a good example of designing a product to meet the market. This day trip has opened up the experience for all ages and has been popular for young and old.

“We’ve got so many ‘tick-the-boxes’ here and we’re proud to share that with people – whether they’re local, from interstate or overseas,” he said.

The feedback and response has been overwhelming – one American tourist returned from the three-day trip only to turn around and book it again; groups often report that the only people they see for three days was each other; locals are amazed because they didn’t realise what they had in their own backyard; local retirees swap photos with young backpackers.

“People have such an emotional reaction to it, once they experience it, it stays with them,” Wade says. “I think that’s because it’s an unknown so it exceeds expectations and ecologically it’s just so stunning.”

He admits they have received criticism before for being over-achievers.

“If we weren’t doing what we do, someone else would be – and it could be a national or international chain that has no real investment in the area,” he said. “We’ve started small and have built the business on-the-ground. Our kids go to school here and we’re here for the long haul.”

In a changing environment and fast-paced industry Wade says one thing that wouldn’t change was the company’s ethos and passion.

“We are committed to showing people the best we can, the natural areas that we are passionate about - to educate and inspire,” he said.

“Through dodging bullets, we have learnt and survived and grown a successful global business.

“We’re always discovering…”

Read more articles by @helenflanagan

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