Walking through the main street of Airlie Beach, it’s hard not to notice the ‘staff wanted’ signs. Almost every business has one, advertising for waitstaff, dishwashers, sales assistants.
The popular tourist destination in Queensland’s far dry north is experiencing the dual-effects of Australia’s closed international borders. There are fewer international tourists visiting the town, and without an international workforce, it’s harder for local businesses to find the staff they need.
According to Tourism Whitsundays chief executive Natassia Wheeler, local accommodation providers are currently only operating at 75% capacity because they do not have enough staff to increase occupancy to 100%.
The region’s tourism body has been using targeted campaigns to attract both job seekers and holidaymakers to the Whitsundays, but there’s a sense among those SmartCompany spoke to during a recent visit to Airlie Beach that the hardest challenges are yet to come for local businesses. International borders look set to remain closed for the foreseeable future, and financial support from the federal government via JobKeeper has been withdrawn.
“The challenge for small and medium enterprises is around, first of all, they’ve got to restart their tourism businesses when they’ve gone through a period where they’ve lost a lot of staff,” Wheeler tells SmartCompany.
“These people work in their businesses, so if they don’t have the staff, they’re cleaning rooms or they’re working on the frontline, and then they don’t have the time to actually invest back into their businesses.”
But there is optimism too. The outlook for bookings appears strong, says Wheeler, and Tourism Whitsundays is focused on developing and promoting local land-based experiences for Australian tourists on behalf of its more than 300 members. It sees Top Shelf International’s Agave facility — which will eventually feature a distillery, eatery and conference centre — playing an important part in bringing new visitors to the area.
Tourism Whitsundays saw its membership base grow by 15% last year, and its $1.6 million in marketing spend resulted in $9 million in value.
The organisation is now shaping a number of its upcoming marketing campaigns around these land-based experiences.
The first day of an upcoming event, which will see hundreds of people sit down and dine on the sand at Whitehaven Beach, sold out in a little over 24 hours. Wheeler says this shows there is “definitely a market for those boutique, high-end experiences”.
Meanwhile, the new ‘Whitsundays holiday dollars’ campaign, to be run through visitor information centres, will allow visitors to redeem up to $200 off an experience in the Whitsundays. The campaign, says Wheeler, is “all about putting money back into operators’ pockets”.
This week, the Queensland government also unveiled a new $7.5 million package aimed at enticing thousands of job seekers to take up work in regional locations with grants and travel vouchers.
However, Wheeler says the local tourism industry is at somewhat of a “turning point” and critical decisions need to be made about what support is going to be offered to businesses that need international visitors to survive.
Put quite simply, Wheeler says it’s possible these businesses are not going to get the same “pickup” from the domestic tourism market.
“So are we in a position where we need to help those businesses hibernate for two-to-three years so that they’re there when we restart international? Or is there a market for them domestically, and if so, how do we help them pivot?” she asks.
Those businesses that do pivot towards local visitors face a steep learning curve, says Wheeler. For starters, marketing to a domestic tourism segment is vastly different from marketing to an international one, and some Whitsundays businesses have never had to exclusively target Australian tourists before.
“It’s a completely different market and … consumers are looking for something completely different,” she says.
The role of an organisation like Tourism Whitsundays is to help with this education piece.
“What can we do to raise the profile of, say, the accrued overnight sailing sector, which doesn’t have a domestic footprint at all, it’s all international?” asks Wheeler
“How do we help Aussies understand what that experience is so we can help the businesses?”
SmartCompany travelled to the Whitsundays as a guest of Top Shelf International.