Man standing in front of a paddock and hills

Exceptional Kangaroo Island’s tourist numbers are still recovering, but the support from the Strengthening Business service has helped Craig Wickham set a new strategy for resilience.

From camp ovens to tumble dryers: warmth, service and survival

Craig Wickham grins as he deftly folds and packs away a pile of fresh laundry. “Never as a young man would I have said I wanted to run a laundry… but here I am.”

He walks past a row of large, commercial washing machines to pack the bright red laundry bag on a shelf with a score of others. They are all tagged with the names of different Kangaroo Island accommodation businesses.

A former National Parks ranger, Craig has for the past 32 years run an internationally renowned eco-tourism business, Exceptional Kangaroo Island, with his wife Janet and son Blair. In January 2020 the business was abruptly shut down by the devastating ‘Black Summer’ bushfires – and it stayed 90% closed for the next two years as the bushfire disaster was followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had almost half a million dollars worth of cancellations in a week or two when the fires were still burning,” says Craig.

The fires had destroyed the Flinders Chase National Park, that his tours were based on, and then the pandemic closed global tourism; his primary marketplace.

The fires were still burning when COVID-19 shut down almost all travel.

Craig says that buying the laundry, after the owners had decided to leave, was about cashflow, about business diversity, and about retaining for the community a service crucial to the island’s accommodation and tourism businesses overall.

“It was about survival,” he says frankly.

Craig says that central to this and to keeping his mind thinking about the future rather than what had been lost was the relationship he developed with business support facilitators from AusIndustry and Regional Development Australia (RDA). Through them, he accessed AusIndustry services, including the Strengthening Business service – utilising local experts to help make a business stronger and more resilient.

Customer story: Exceptional Kangaroo Island

The service enabled Craig and his team to turn a disaster response into a business growth and diversification strategy. His first step was to keep some of the touring business functioning by creating new tours, primarily for South Australians looking for holiday experiences within the closed-off state: “Okay… we can’t take people to Cape du Couedic Lighthouse but we can go to Cape Willoughy… we can’t see kangaroos in that area, but we can see them in this area… and so forth,” he says, explaining his early response to the crisis.

Because of the COVID-19 social distancing rules he sold some of the company’s touring vehicles and replaced them with e-bikes with funding from the Department of Innovation and Trade. The bikes introduced a whole new experience and one that is now a permanent feature.

Importantly they allowed us to hold to our business’s environmental philosophy. We’ve got a big solar array on the roof so we recharge the bikes with sunshine.

During the initial upheaval and then fitting together new ideas and business strategies, Craig says he leaned heavily on AusIndustry support, and especially facilitator Sue Arlidge.

“Sue understood what we needed, what our capacity was and the fact that while we were under the pump, we hadn't gone to pieces completely. We had skills, we had an amazing staff and we were flexible,” he says.

“The alternative tours, e-bikes, pop-up restaurants and the laundry all became part of a plan. Sue and the Strengthening Business service kept us disciplined. Sue made sure we stuck to the values the business had been built on. That included its community integration.”  

Craig points out how his team knows the local ecologists, winemakers, artists and the like so guests can leverage these relationships and gain a deeper understanding of the island and what sits below the surface in terms of people’s connection with it.

Craig says the confidence to implement a multifaceted response to the fires and the pandemic was a direct result of the AusIndustry and RDA facilitators’ support: “There was stress and uncertainty, but having someone you could touch base with and say, ‘look, I'm struggling with this, what do you think we should do? We've got a choice of this or that. To be able to bounce ideas off someone who was outside the business but understood us and was a good, clear, thinker, was critical.” 

During this time Craig also stepped up his marketing, keeping clients, particularly international travel companies, constantly informed about the island’s recovery; telling the world through an unrelenting social media campaign that Kangaroo Island was still “exceptional” and would be open for business as soon as circumstances permitted.   

Sue Arlidge says a key element in her role as the Strengthening Business facilitator was to maintain a high-level strategic overview, especially when no one knew how long the pandemic would continue to impact on businesses.

“It was evident that some businesses had more capacity to pivot and survive because they had cash flow, a war chest, or assets they could sell. So one of the things we did was to bring businesses together to talk with each other about how they could potentially work together. There was a lot of integration of businesses and business ideas during that time,” she says.

In the case of Exceptional Kangaroo Island, it went from a $3 million income to one per cent of that over two years. Its capacity to survive came from pivoting into the laundry business. Sue says that while it generated vital cash flow for that business it also helped a lot of other business. It came to represent how a lot of businesses survived by finding synergies with other businesses.

Reflecting on the past three years, Craig Wickham says that running a business can be a lonely journey. What came to the fore was the support, particularly the on-ground support, from Federal and State agencies and the university sector: “There are resources out there that as a business owner you just don't know about … you’re too busy pedalling to keep up with every day pressures.

“What I learned through this experience and working with business-support facilitators like Sue Arlidge, was the importance of taking a step back and realizing we were not the only people facing challenges.

“If I have any advice to share it would be to say to another business owner, take a few days a month to look around and say, okay, what else can we be doing, who else can we be talking to and where can we get advice? 

“Our journey post fires and through COVID was certainly not linear. So being willing to look, with professional help, at where the business is at, where the business environment is at and in doing so, work out the best way to keep moving forwards. Flexibility is key but so is recognizing there's support out there.”

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