“Are we being heard?”: Cairns small business owner shares the struggles of COVID-19

Cape York Motorcycles

Renae and Roy Kunda run Cape York Motorcycle Adventures with their two children. Source: supplied.

I’ve just heard some unfortunate news this week. A long-term friend of mine has closed the doors on an iconic tourism business in Cairns. The firm has been operating for 35 years; they’ve taken 600,000 customers on a quad bike and horse riding tours; they marketed to every country in the world and have employed hundreds of people over the years.

This is not the first company to close its doors in our great city that survives on the tourist dollar, and it won’t be the last.

It is a constant worry to me as a tourism operator, running motorcycle tours between Cairns and the tip of Cape York. 2020 was our 30th year traveling and there were big plans to celebrate it, but, when COVID came along, those plans were decimated. We were all pretty jovial about it then, and I chose to look at it as extended service leave and an opportunity to get some wishlist projects done.

We’d survived the airline strikes, bird-flu, the GFC, swine flu, cyclones and floods before, so it felt like this would be just another glitch on the radar.

The heart of our season, gone

Let me give you some context as to what is happening now. Cairns, particularly Cape York, works on a seasonal basis from April to November, with the most popular months being in winter: June through to September. That’s the heart of our season, and it’s been ripped out twice. 

We can’t just extend the year when things open up because ‘Marge, the rains are coming!‘, and the whole peninsula becomes an impassable wetland. 

June through to the middle of September 2020 saw us lose around 120 riders because they were in lockdown, which is around a $530,000 loss out of that season. We were lucky and all re-scheduled into 2021, and we were fortunate because we weren’t in lockdown.

Through 2020 we were supported by JobKeeper, and it gave us a safety blanket to feel all warm and fuzzy about; the financiers gave us reprieve with payment-free terms. We had access to two government support mechanisms in the form of a readily accessible small business grant and a larger, low-interest loan. We were going to survive the year okay.

Our confidence was high, and we invested in a second fleet of motorcycles and another Isuzu support vehicle to cater to the swollen numbers. With 2020 rolling into 2021 and its usual bookings, we were preparing to operate a double season. We hired and trained more staff. In March, at the beginning of the 2021 season, it looked amazing!

Sidebar: we started operating in April of 2021, and it was the wettest April in recorded history. It was the first time, in our 30 years, that we did not make it to the tip. That was a real knock to the ego! We did absolutely everything in our power to conquer nature, and she won. However, we soldiered on with all the confidence that the tropical weather was coming, and we had big numbers to share our beautiful backyard. We had extraordinary experiences to share.

Cape York Motorcycle Adventures 5

Source: supplied.

No end in sight to COVID

Then it all went pear-shaped with border closures again, and my stress level went through the roof. June lost a quarter of its riders, July lost half, and August lost all; September is canceling along with some of October, and there is no end in sight. So now we are up to approximately 260 riders being re-scheduled into 2022. The financial losses grow out of my brain’s willpower to quantify.

What have we been offered in the way of support in 2021? Well, for my company: nothing.

Small businesses have been told there’s a $5000 grant available, but the qualifiers knock most of them out of the running. Let’s consider the size of the loss. Is $5000 worth the paperwork even if we were eligible to apply?

I’m not feeling so jovial about it all this year, and neither are my clients. I am in a constant state of wishing I could throw up to make my gut feel better, and then I worry about those effects on my health. It’s a double whammy. You’d think that since we are not operating that I could rest and take care of myself. Well, no, I’m busier than ever; re-scheduling all of those riders has tripled my workload. 

One snap lockdown that comes to mind occurred at 3pm. I work from home and am at my desk in the quiet hours from 4am onwards; 11 hours into my day, the phone started ringing, and I was bombarded with 56 phone calls within two hours. Every single call required about 30 minutes of work (28 hours). The beeping of another line coming into each call was torturous; trying to get a note of each number I’d missed was seriously stressful, and I just wanted to cry! “Not today, you big baby, suck it up; you’re a one-man-band here!,” I’d tell myself. “Serve the client!”

Every single one of those clients calling me was deeply saddened, on the verge of anger, and feeling desperate that they’d lost their bucket-list adventure again. Everyone wanted to tell me their take on the whole coronavirus situation, and every one wanted me to give them guarantees that the next date they chose would go ahead. How can I do that? Nobody knows what’s going to happen next.

I’m a compassionate person; I literally feel what I hear, and I will always listen, but that day, I wished I had done a course in counselling or a course in self-protective disconnect; I’m not sure which would have benefited me more. I will never forget it.

“This too shall pass, this too shall pass, this too shall pass.” 

But what if this adventure was the last chance for a father suffering from cancer to ride out with his son? He won’t be here next year! I’ve heard all of the heartbreaking stories. 

Are we being heard?

After all the calls are reconciled and we were able breathe, it was time to cancel all those pre-booked logistics for the tour. I called small businesses in the Cape that rely on us coming through to keep their doors open. Small cafés that we pre-book numbers so they can order in what they need, the accommodation houses that schedule staff to be in remote locations, my travel agent who books all of our flight components. I tell them all that we have to cancel, and I take that worry onboard too.  

What about my staff? They’ve prepared to be away from their friends and loved ones for the seven months of the season. They’ve given up other jobs to be here, and some have traveled a long way for a dream job in North Queensland. Now I have no work for them and no financial means to keep them on. I’ve had to let them go and send them home. That’s my family and they’re my people that I’m letting down. It’s a bloody dreadful feeling!

Does anybody hear me?

Does anyone know we are here, suffering the mental and financial strains of this new ‘C’ word?

Is there going to be any safety net?

We watch the news about the mass uproar of big-city businesses and hear all the talk of support to help. I guess we are too far away from mainstream media to take any notice. We’re outside of the budget to get crews up here to report our stories through this situation.

And what if this happens again next year?

So I’m writing this to tell our story. Do you have a small business with an untold story? Write it, please! Let’s get our stories heard before it’s too late. 

We started in 1990, and we built an industry from scratch. We’ve survived disasters in the past. We’ve grown two beautiful adult children who are now working within the family company. We’ve planned for the future, we’ve worked bloody hard, we’ve paid our taxes, we’ve educated ourselves on business, and now what? How do you plan for this? 

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I am looking for a brains trust to give me some nuggets of gold. Best of luck in business! Those of us who survive this are going to be unstoppable in the future. 

Do you have a COVID business story to tell? Send us an email at [email protected] if you would like to follow Renae’s suggestion and write your story.

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Renae Kunda
Renae Kunda
1 month ago

Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me. We are doing OK, we will survive 2021 but if 2022 is affected by border closures again it may be a very different story. Please submit your stories wherever you can so small, regional businesses get heard.