Give tourists what they want

Tourism Minister, Malarndirri McCarthy says a new Tourism Strategic Plan is needed to guide the industry from 2013. Will Alice still have a tourism industry then, and what needs to happen to ensure we will?  Deborah Rock (pictured) gives her views in our Food For Thought series. She has been in the tourism industry for 20 years, is currently running a Bed and Breakfast, and has a history in sales, marketing, car rentals, tours, inbound and promotion in Sydney and overseas.

Like many sectors of business in Alice Springs, the tourism industry is having its ups and downs and it’s worrying a number of people.

My first principle of marketing is: “If you want to make life easier for yourself, work out what your clients are looking for … and give them that.”

In these challenging times when people seem to be watching their spending more closely, we shouldn’t rule out new ideas, but it seems more important than ever that we listen to our market.

Using that as a starting point, I put together a few observations and ideas that may stimulate thought and discussion.

The cost of visiting and changing patterns of investment
Tourism Northern Territory has for years been pushing the idea of increasing yield i.e. higher priced services to get more spend per visitor.

Here’s the reality: Due to the current buying power of the high Australia dollar, domestic travellers are getting more bang for their buck by travelling overseas. Domestic destinations are struggling as we compete with cheap overseas holidays and each other, for business. From the international perspective, poor exchange rates mean overseas tourists are arriving in lower numbers and with less real spending money than they have in years.

Bottom line is people are watching very closely every dollar they spend.

Stories are all over the internet about how expensive Australia is, and sadly for us, Central Australia is particularly viewed as a pricey place to visit.  If we want people to visit and stay longer, then we need to be – and be seen to be – affordable.

I see Central Australia has two big problems when it comes to our perceived cost – the lack of competition on flights into Alice Springs and the much discussed high price of accommodation at Ayers Rock Resort, also a monopoly situation. But they aren’t the only ones failing to appreciate the trend.

When I look back at how it began, I see a tourism industry in Central Australia founded by a number of small, passionate owner / operators whose imagination and dedication gave us most of our existing infrastructure. Over the years as the destination has shown its potential, we have seen other passionate people take their place but we are also seeing big outside companies buying into the region and a shift in the ownership demographic.

Excuse me generalising wildly as I appreciate there are some fine exceptions, but what I see is that large outside companies are less committed to developing our region and more focused on what will maximise their own earnings.  Having seen prices at Ayers Rock Resort skyrocket in the 1990s when Voyages took over and Ross River Homestead now part of a corporate portfolio, recently fade from view, I wonder what will happen now that two of our four major camping safari companies have been purchased by a foreign travel group and are in the process of merging?

Will their profits be invested back into the region as happened in the past? Will they set affordability as a goal. Will their representatives continue to travel the world promoting Central Australia? We’ll have to wait and see. It does concern me.

What worries me most is that currently, there is little about a Central Australian holiday that screams affordability. At this time of financial uncertainty, there needs to be. We should all keep this in mind and look at what we’re doing.

Revitalise our image
Travellers, like consumers of other products, enjoy experiences that are safe, familiar and comfortable. But just like other consumers, they get especially excited about what’s new. Sometimes all it takes is to change the packaging.

In Asia, Africa and the Middle East, there are plenty of emerging destinations that are attracting their share of attention this year. Meanwhile Central Australia – and particularly Alice Springs, continues to plod on selling ourselves in roughly the same way we always have.  I think it’s time for a destination makeover and a new way of viewing and selling ourselves.

Our tourism gurus might have their own ideas, but here are a few of my own, particularly for Alice Springs, that I’ll throw in to stimulate thinking.

Alice Springs: Australia’s Adventure Capital
Locals already know that Alice Springs is amazing place for bushwalking, mountain biking, rock-climbing, shooting, dirt biking, off-road buggies, gliding. On top of that we’ve got camel trekking, golfing, 4WDing, quad biking, ballooning and the list goes on. How can we turn how locals already spend their weekends, into activities that draw in tourists? I’d start by talking to local sports clubs and see what products can be developed working with them. It wouldn’t hurt to push us as an exciting destination and we just might be more exciting than we realise.

Alice Springs: Australia’s Capital of Aboriginal Culture
My impression is that up till now, Aboriginal culture has been sold with only the vaguest nod to integrity.

While telling the world – come and meet the oldest culture on earth, we’re simultaneously seeing the NT Intervention, various policies designed to assimilate rather than respect cultural ways and little acknowledgement around Alice Springs that this is an important Aboriginal centre.

There is much that is positive that could be shared but isn’t, so in the end all that is seen by visitors is what’s going wrong. No wonder tourists are confused.

The world is very interested in the oldest cultures on this planet and we could take our place as THE destination to discover them, if we just acted with greater integrity. I dream of Aboriginal languages having a greater mainstream presence in the town through local signage (this would also serve to encourage people to learn to read and write their own languages). Just imagine if all the signs along Todd Mall were in both English and Arrente! I envisage maps of the town from a cultural perspective listing important Jukurrpa sites and their interpretation so that tourists can wander the town learning about it from this angle. Most importantly, we must have an Aboriginal Culture Centre. It is embarrassing for us that we don’t!

If I was to start anywhere, I’d talk to existing organisations like IAD or the Desert People’s Centre and work out if some sort of cultural information centre could be incorporated into their current operations. If we can do this right and with integrity, it would be a big boost to our town.

And finally…

Alice Springs – Autralia’s Bush Foods Capital
September’s Bush Foods Festival was very exciting but sadly lasted only a few weeks. Food is major incentive for travel and this concept has significant potential for us. We have one restaurant specialised in Bush Tucker all year round, but several who have shown capacity to introduce amazing bush tucker dishes as required.

I think there is a very exciting theme here that we could develop up and market to the world as a year round attraction.

We are an amazing and unique destination and it all starts with believing in ourselves. I wish everyone in Alice Springs a great 2012. May this year bring health, happiness and prosperity to our town and our region.

PICTURED above: Chris Vaughan, former publican of Bo’s Saloon, a popular watering hole for locals and tourists alike. It was put into liquidation this month.

COMMENT from Max (email address supplied):

Early this week (1/1/12) I returned by road to Alice from WA across the Central Highway. This road has 1100 km of unsealed road from Laverton to the Olgas in the NT. 900 km are on the WA side, 200 km in the NT, from the border (Docker River) to the Olgas.
The WA section is a 90/100 kmh road with caution and is well maintained. HOWEVER once into the NT, I don’t think that this section has seen a grader for many months or maybe years.
If this is the welcome visitors to our Territory get when coming in on mobile holidays or just passing through we should be ashamed of our roads. That piece it shocking!

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7 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Tourism Operator
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 10:38 am

    Budget flights into Alice and onto Darwin, and an Aboriginal Cultural Centre would massively boost Red Centre Tourism. Someone tell the Government!

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  2. Vincent Réjane
    Posted January 14, 2012 at 6:10 am

    Hello Debbie and happy new year 2012!
    Je suis venue chez toi en avril 2010 j’habite dans la drôme France avec ma mère et ma fille et je m’interesse toujours à ton magnifique pays dont je lis les nouvelles; je trouve que tu as de bonnes idées et ça ne m’étonne pas, tu es formidable!! j’espère revenir te voir un jour. Bonne journée.

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  3. Domenico Pecorari
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 11:40 am

    As Deb says: “If you want to make life easier for yourself, work out what your clients are looking for … and give them that.”
    This simple but effective approach needs to also be adopted by the town’s (and the region’s) government-funded tourism offices, in conducting continuous visitor-based research which in turn will allow them to provide valid and up-to-date advice to operators in the local tourism industry.
    I don’t think we know enough about the “visitor experience” that tourists are taking away with them when they travel on, but I’m pretty sure it is playing a part in the continuing decline in our town’s visitor numbers.
    Research data is essential if the industry is to survive. You cannot come up with the right answer if you do not know the problem.

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  4. Rebecca MacTavish
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Great article, Ms. Rock. As an outsider (Grass Valley California), I would a agree that you covered the main elements that we look for in travel. Being from another country, my biggest interest is the culture. I can four-wheel, bike and balloon anywhere, but I can’t learn about the Aboriginal culture or enjoy bush “tucker” (love that term!) I think an Aboriginal Cultural Center is a awesome idea and a must. It would be one of the top five things I would expect to visit. That and any historical centers. Hope to see all of your Alice Springs sights someday soon!

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  5. Posted January 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Thank you David. Happy New Year to you too. Totally agree with Deborah Rocks – Give the tourists what they want. Alice Springs has potential to grow.
    I will return to Alice Springs for the second time, one day. ( My husband has been there five times!)
    Zie and Harry

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  6. Posted January 5, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    Great perspectives, Deb with some excellent opportunities to re-vitalise our industry. Focusing on the “can do” is imperative.

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  7. acaciajack
    Posted January 5, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thinking and insights Deborah. You’re right – whilst this place is not immune from global ups-and-downs, there is absolutely no reason why a town like Alice can’t be a resilient tourism hub!
    Every industry has to adjust its positioning and approach from time to time.
    Let’s get on with it!

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