2020 has been a challenging year for all businesses, especially tourism, however there is strength in leadership of one of the region’s greatest success stories. We speak with the inimitable Pip Woodward, Director of CaPTA, and Ben Woodward, CaPTA Director of Sales & Marketing on the future of tourism and how we can help.
Pip Woodward, Co-Founder and Director of Cairns and Port Douglas Trips and Attractions (CaPTA), is a woman of many skills, talents and passions. But being the Director of Uniforms is most certainly not one of them.
“We have over 300 staff across the whole group, and monitoring uniforms for all the staff is definitely one of my least favourite tasks,” she laughs. “I’ve handed that one over to HR!”
Pip and her late husband Charles are widely known as the pioneers of tourism in Far North Queensland. They met when he was visiting London, where she lived and worked as a nurse. They married there and then came to Cairns.
“My background was in nursing; I joined the NAVY and then I met Charlie. He was doing what everyone else in the ‘70s did – travel. After two years, we got married. Charlie always wanted to return to Cairns and get into the tourism industry – he had seen what Europe had to offer and just knew that Australia could achieve greatness. We were always going to come back to Cairns where Charlie grew up. He was third generation; I was straight from London in the ‘70s to Far North Queensland – it was an interesting move!”
They began their venture into tourism in 1976 with the opening of Rainforestation Nature Park.
“Charlie’s father had the Orange Grove up in Kuranda. The plan was always to turn it into a tourism spot driving Army Ducks through the rainforest. We picked and sold oranges from the grove, had three children in three years and opened a business. You could say there was a lot happening. I learnt the trade of hospitality very quickly – I had to! Charlie always had the vision, and I worked on the execution.”
These days, CaPTA comprises of several tourism attractions in Cairns, Port Douglas and Kuranda including Rainforestaton Nature Park, Tropic Wings Coach Tours, Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas, Cairns ZOOM & Wildlife Dome and Jungle Tours & Trekking. 2020 has been an extraordinarily challenging year for almost every business across all industries, tourism certainly being one of the hardest hit. However, it’s not the first-time tourism has been in this position.
What has been the biggest hurdle to overcome in the 40+ years of business in Tropical North Queensland?
“Tourism is a fickle business,” muses Pip. “The pilot strike in 1989 was big, and it devastated so many businesses in the region. Strangely, there doesn’t seem to be much literature about it – it’s more a collective memory of what those eight months were like here in the north. But it was nothing on the scale of what we’re seeing right now. Tourism was smaller, there wasn’t as much product as there is now, or as many family businesses. Now, seeing any tourist information centre or travel agent and the options of things to do are endless. COVID-19 has affected so many more businesses than it could ever have done in the ‘80s.
“Pioneers of the tourism industry all remember the devastation of the pilot strike. People who keep saying, ‘we got through that, we’ll get through this’. But the ripple effect of what is happening now has a far greater reach. Tourism has taken an enormous hit. We are so far north here; we really are the end of the line. There are so many places people can drive to, but unless we have those flights coming in and out, it’s tough.
“One of the biggest challenges we currently have is in the aviation industry. All reports are saying that the flight path between Brisbane and Cairns is one of the busiest in the country at the moment, but it’s still not enough to bring in the volume of people we need to be sustainable.”
How is CaPTA recovering? And how is CaPTA helping others in the recovery mission?
“It has been really positive over the school holidays,” says Ben. “Many in the industry have been pleasantly surprised and relieved with the uptake of business. We had the opening of the Rainforest Habitat aviary at Wildlife Habitat, as well as various activities at our other parks.
“Everything has been in peaks and troughs, which is normal for business, however the varying degrees of the peaks and troughs are not. Initially when we opened up, there was huge local support as well as the domestic drive from intrastate areas, and over the last month that’s tapered off.
The fatigue has set in a little. The population mass that exists in Queensland is really only at its most dense in that small south east corner pocket.
“The big challenge for most businesses in the tourism industry is that we can’t really plan for much more other than the triggers of what will change – like borders reopening. There’s a short lead in time, and everything is hypothetical. We can only prepare for those triggers, but not for time frames.
And that’s the part that is worrying.”
“While we think CaPTA will be okay, it’s a fact that some businesses just won’t make it. We have plans in place,
as we always have. What has always driven us is the passion and desire and ability to improve continually rather than sitting back and thinking, ‘oh, that’s pretty good, that’s enough.’ Continuous improvement is a key. We’re doing all the right things to adapt, but those adaptions don’t happen immediately.”
CaPTA has always been supportive of the local community, and always very generous and philanthropic. Are you seeing that in return?
“As much as people can,” says Pip. “For example, we do a lot of giveaways for schools. What we’re seeing now is school groups coming to us for excursions. Some schools have been in touch to simply say they knew how tough tourism was doing right now and were happy to pay for their passes. Nearly every raffle that happens locally includes prizes from almost half a dozen tourism companies, and I don’t think anyone is asking any tourism company for prizes right now. While it’s difficult and tricky, it’s also warming to see that people are acting mindfully.
“The tourism industry as a whole has been supportive because we all know what we’re all going through,” Ben continues.
“I’ve found that we’re a region that always ‘hunted in packs’ – a term that’s been used frequently to describe tourism up here in terms of destination marketing. We’ve always supported each other. Even though we don’t have the same opportunities to network like we once did, the tourism community is far more cohesive and committed to a successful end goal than it ever has been.
“Rather than asking for industry rates or contra swaps, the broader community is open to what the more-far reaching effects of tourism are. The region has been affected, and the flow on effects are becoming more apparent.”
What has been your driving force?
“We are so grateful for our staff,” Pip says. “When we had to shut the doors, we kept a number of our wildlife keepers on to continue caring for and looking after all the animals. As wildlife keepers, that’s what they do, so not looking after the wildlife – paid or not – was never an option for them. There seemed to be a broad sentiment that we’ve looked after them, so now they’re looking after us.”
“Even some that didn’t qualify for Job Keeper, like some of the casual staff at Wildlife Habitat, kept on coming in to volunteer,” Ben adds. “Mum and Dad created broader family values, which has been disseminated through CaPTA. When we went into lockdown and had to stand down our staff who had become like family, it was heartbreaking for us. But to then have them turn around and ask, “But how are YOU going through all this? This must be hard on you” was just so touching. And to also have staff say, “Make sure you look after (other staff) – give them the shift over me because they need the financial support more than me” it just chokes me up. It’s stories like this that just make an impression.”
What can we do to help tourism, both locally and on a wider scale?
Pip is quite adamant on how we can help support tourism in our region. “We need to stay positive.
There is a real sentiment to support local businesses. Generally, restaurants are getting volume. Everyone needs to eat and drink, but not everyone needs to visit a wildlife park. Tourism in Cairns used to be very family orientated, family owned and run. But it really just isn’t that way anymore. If nothing else, COVID has been a big wake up call to everyone, on how much we all really do rely on tourism to be the driving force behind much of our economy.
“This year more than ever, we’re encouraging people to look for experiences over toys. When was the last time you went to the reef, or got up close to a koala? Explore the rainforests and reefs, get an annual pass to the parks. We have so much to celebrate in this beautiful region. Our locals are our most important advocates. Visitors always look to the locals to find what the best things to do are, so recovery is about getting locals