How Aussie founder Zoë Manderson repurposed her travel tech platform to support bushfire-affected businesses

Zoë Manderson

Zoë Manderson, co-founder of Alpaca Travel and Roadtrip for Good. Source: supplied.

As Aussies come to terms with the scope and consequences of the bushfire crisis, people all over the country are considering how they can support affected people, and businesses, beyond simply dipping their hands in their pockets.

Zoë Manderson, co-founder of travel startup Alpaca Travel, has turned her tech skills to good use, creating a platform to highlight businesses in bushfire-affected areas and encourage people to take their tourist dollars there.

Alpaca allows brands and tour operators to create maps and plot routes, tours and itineraries for prospective travellers.

Manderson has repurposed that capability to plot the locations of small businesses in need of a cash boost. The site, Roadtrip for Good, also invites people to plot their own journeys, based on the information.

Speaking to StartupSmart, Manderson says she saw people responding and supporting communities where they could, based on where their own skills and strengths were.

“We already had this platform that we’ve built over the last few years,” she says.

“We already work with the tourism industry, and most of our clients have been affected.”

She understood the need to get footfall to affected businesses, once it was safe to do so. And she had the platform to help make that happen.

“One of the best ways to do that is give people a way to visualise where the places are, and help them plan that trip.”

Manderson and the team got the initial website up and running within 24 hours, she says. It now has the capability for business owners to submit their listings directly, to go live almost instantly.

“We’ve had an influx over the weekend,” she says.

“We’re almost having one listing every couple of minutes at the moment.”

Business owners can also share their personal stories, if they wish.

“There are just some really heartbreaking stories coming out of these areas,” Manderson says.

“It’s not just the areas that were burnt, it’s actually a really broad area surrounding them — lots of regional areas in general, because no one is travelling. Everyone’s cancelled their trips.”

For someone who runs a tech platform anyway, it’s also rewarding to be able to find a way to help. For many, in tech and otherwise, there’s a sense of frustration and helplessness as fires continue to burn across the country.

“We’ve been developing our platform over the past couple of years, and it’s been a big investment on our part — we’re still very much in startup phase.

“For us to be able to put that to good so quickly, to benefit so many people, is pretty amazing,” Manderson says.

“This has given us the opportunity to put our skills to something good.”

An unexpected use case

Although Manderson didn’t design the Alpaca platform with the intention of using it for emergency situations, or in the aftermath of disaster, “this is exactly the use case for why we set it up”, she says.

“It’s to get people moving, and get people on the ground.”

And Alpaca is not the only startup that’s gone above and beyond in its support of affected people.

Campervan sharing startup Camplify is pairing people in need of temporary accommodation with people who own campers and motorhomes and are willing to lend them for the cause.

Shop My Town founder Melody Jarvis and East Gippsland business owner Tenille Bull have also launched a new platform, It’s My Shout, which allows people to buy anything from a coffee to a hotel room from affected local businesses, to donate to people in the community.

For the small businesses affected, these tech-enabled solutions can be invaluable, Manderson says.

Their industries often can’t move quickly enough to effect change as swiftly as is required.

“They can’t put a platform up quick enough to help the people on the ground,” she explains.

Roadtrip for Good is partly intended as a way for them to show they’re open for business again.

“I think they’re grateful to have a way to put their hand up and say, ‘we’re here, we’re ready’,” the founder says.

Long-term thinking

And, while seeing the platform make a difference in the short term is satisfying, Manderson stresses this is a long-term solution.

In the coming weeks and months, she will be working on directing people to Easter and winter roadtrips.

Roadtrip for Good will try to encourage people who had summer trips planned in January to simply push them to autumn and beyond, “trying to flood those towns with people”.

Manderson is also working with the #gowithemptyeskys social media campaign, she says.

“We’ve got these messages to share to get people really motivated,” she adds.

“For us, I don’t think it’s a short-term thing. It’s going to take a while for some of these towns to recoup what they’ve lost over summer. And so, I think it needs to be a longer-term solution for people planning road trips.”

NOW READ: NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern thrusts Aussie small businesses into limelight during family holiday

NOW READ: Grants, loans and tourism support on the table as government moves to assist bushfire-hit SMEs

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