“An immense responsibility”: Sydney’s iconic BridgeClimb re-opens as third generation family business gets back on its feet

Sydney Harbour Bridge BridgeClimb

Sydney Harbour Bridge.

After six months navigating the worst bushfire season in recent memory and a pandemic to boot, David Hammon will wake up tomorrow just hoping it doesn’t rain.

The veteran tourism operator will swing open the doors on the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge BridgeClimb this weekend after several months in hiatus and —climate permitting — the first physically distanced customers will ascend 1,002 steps to the apex of the world famous monument.

It will be a pretty special moment for Hammon, who’s family has operated tourism businesses in New South Wales for 75 years. He’s just managed the company through the most challenging trading environment it has ever faced.

“I feel an immense responsibility,” Hammon tells SmartCompany.

“We’re very, very determined to keep going.”

When Hammon’s grandfather Harry worked out how to turn a Blue Mountains coal mine into Australia’s first cable car tourist attraction in 1945, he planted the seed for what would become Scenic World, a thriving tourism attraction that subsequently saw the family expand into the now world-renowned BridgeClimb.

But the past six months have pushed both businesses to the brink. Before 2020, BridgeClimb only ever closed for New Years Eve celebrations, which cover Sydney Harbor Bridge in explosives.

“Our family has experienced a lot in 75 years,” Hammon says.

“You usually have an event that takes place then there’s a gap before another, this time we got two events back-to-back … we’d just finished dealing with the bushfires when I sat down with my sister in January and put a line through Chinese visitation for the foreseeable future.”

At that time, it wasn’t clear how bad the coronavirus outbreak would get in Australia. Few thought the kinds of lockdowns emerging in China would ever take place Down Under.

But by March, after the Morrison government closed international borders and began talking about trading restrictions, it became clear COVID-19 was going to become an existential crisis for businesses like Hammon’s.

Scenic World had already been devastated by bushfires in NSW, and the prospect that BridgeClimb would not be able to bring in any revenue in the interim was difficult to come to terms with.

“We just kept putting lines through our projections, and within six weeks we were closed,” Hammon says.

Now, when BridgeClimb opens tomorrow, things will look very different.

All customers will travel in small groups and comply with physical distancing restrictions, while the entirety of the BridgeClimb business will be subject to cleaning schedules, ensuring surfaces remain sanitised.

It’s been a journey to get the business to a point where it could open, and comply with so-called COVIDSafe regulations. But now Hammon is optimistic customers will come back in droves.

“There’s a lot of pent up demand,” Hammon says.

Still, beyond the immediate future things remain unclear. International travellers, which make up a significant proportion of BridgeClimb’s business, will not return for the foreseeable future, and fresh outbreaks of infections in Victoria have everyone on edge.

Earlier this week, NSW Premier Gladys Berijiklian advised residents in her state not to interact with travellers from Victoria, a directive that somewhat takes the wind out of Hammon’s sails.

Nevertheless, as long as the weather co-operates, he is planning on a big school holiday period, betting kids will be keen to get out of the house.

While new business will be welcome revenue coming through the door, Hammon is under no illusions.

“I don’t think it will fully compensate for lack of international visitors,” he says.

He expects international travel to come back in stages, first through the much-discussed ‘travel bubble’ with New Zealand, and then progressively as people from other countries start holidaying again.

“I don’t think its going to be a carte blanche, everything’s open again,” he says.

“It will move through a sequence of countries.”

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