Big 4 Parkgate Resort, Halls Gap
Licola General Store & Caravan Park
In the lead up to the hot summer of 2005, Samantha Magill’s well-established business, Parkgate Resort in Halls Gap, was enjoying good patronage and reliable turnover. After bushfires roared through sections of the Grampians National Park later that year, however, the business landscape changed just as quickly as the natural surroundings.
Although the property was not damaged by the fires, roads to Halls Gap were temporarily closed and the ensuing media coverage about the blaze was substantial. The general public responded by staying away from the area which had significant impacts on local businesses. Samantha said it felt like they were back in the start-up phase of running a business, “counting every dollar, having to watch our budget meticulously.”
“The advice sometimes given to businesses of putting money aside for times such as this is very unrealistic,” said Samantha. “If you have a lump sum of money, you’re going to put it to good use to build your business.”
“While we had business interruption insurance, it only covered us for ten days when the roads to Halls Gap were closed so we couldn’t trade. There was no insurance support for the longer term impact of a huge reduction in visitors when people put off visiting the region thinking the park had gone up in flames.”
“We had to draw on whatever methods we could to keep the cash flowing,” said Samantha, “including refinancing our interest rates, credit cards, overdrafts… The support we had from some of our financial partners was fantastic, though - from the bank, the tax department, our insurance broker, the Big 4 Head Office - they all helped to get us through that time.”
Few townships in Australia have had to contend with the number of natural disasters experienced by Licola in central Gippsland during 2006 and 2007. It’s also likely that few people would have the tenacity and resilience to remain in business after them all like Mary and Ray Winter, proprietors of Licola General Store and Caravan Park.
Just prior to Christmas in 2006, Licola was threatened by bushfires that surrounded the town. Fortunately, the Winters’ store and caravan park and other buildings were unharmed by the fires. However, visitors stayed away from the town, nervous about visiting a fire-prone area in the summer months.
Cash flow into the business slowed down to a trickle. “Locals kept buying goods at the store but there were few visitors,” said Mary. Although the Winters had business interruption insurance, they were told they were ineligible for a claim because their shop and caravan park were unharmed by the fires, even though for a period visitors could not enter the town due to road blocks.
Licola was still recovering from the bushfires, when February brought a wild storm that lashed through the area and created a serious mud slide.
The Winters’ property was not so fortunate this time. Mud destroyed their store, home and garage which they had to completely replace. This time the insurance company agreed to cover the damage. “Without this cover”, said Mary, “there is no way we could have remained in business. As it was, we had to close our doors for over two months.”
Their recovery funds were also supplemented by income from a part-time job that Ray had secured, and kindness from community members and other businesses.
After Easter, the store and caravan park were re-opened and people slowly started to return to the town, mostly as day visitors.
Four months later, Licola was again beset by another freakish incident, with heavy rains causing the Macalister River to flood. While the Winters’ property survived mostly intact, the bridge over the river at the entry to Licola was washed away. The town was cut off from the rest of the world for weeks until a makeshift bridge was built.
Not surprisingly visitor numbers to Licola again plummeted. Mary and Ray had to work out how they could make ends meet to keep the business open. Within a short time, Ray found full-time work which provided financial relief. Workers, who came to restore the bridge, patronised the store and accommodation creating at least some turnover.
Reflecting upon the whole ordeal in late 2008 Mary said, “Visitor numbers have been slowly recovering ever since but they’re not yet back to pre-bushfire levels.” To get through so many disasters Mary believes, “It is important to be positive and have faith. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel, a positive coming out of a negative. To someone in a similar situation, I can only say - hang in there!”
When an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease was tracked to the cooling towers of the newly opened Melbourne Aquarium in 2000, the impact on the business was instantaneous and devastating.
“We’d had a massive opening,” said Tom Smith, former Manager of Melbourne Aquarium. “We were on track to reach our first year target of 1.2 million visitors.”
“I was away at the time and received the telephone call with the news that people were falling ill from our cooling towers. There were families in great distress and a barrage of media looking for comment. We had to find a rapid solution to fix the contamination problem,” remembers Tom.
“On the flight back to Melbourne, I had a brief but critical window of two hours to think through how we should respond to this. The Aquarium had an Emergency Management Plan that identified just about every possible occurrence, but not Legionnaire’s Disease. However, it did relate loosely to every sort of event. That period of time on the aeroplane was so important to be able to stand back from what was going on and think through our course of action. The minute I was off the plane, it was full on into emergency management mode.”
Managing the message
A guiding principle for Melbourne Aquarium’s extensive response to the outbreak was the decision to accept responsibility for the outbreak of the disease, even though contractors were employed to clean the cooling towers, rather than to deflect the blame. “If it was my mother who’d fallen ill, what would I want from the company?” said Tom. “Undoubtedly it would be honesty and integrity, and to know that the Aquarium was accepting responsibility, not for them to pass the blame on to someone else.”
With over one hundred confirmed cases of the disease resulting from the outbreak, including the death of four people, the public pressure on the Aquarium was intense.
Managing the media
In keeping with its philosophy, the Aquarium never turned down a request for an interview with the media. One person was appointed as media spokesperson to ensure that a reliable and consistent message was given out. While these interviews were sometimes brutal, they were an important part of taking responsibility for what had happened.
“We established a process of regular communications with the media,” said Tom. “We held press conferences to answer questions. We gave radio, television and newspaper interviews. Our approach was to always tell the truth, and as a result we had a much more positive response from the media than if we tried to be what people might term ‘politically’ saavy.”
“We also communicated directly with the families of those affected and set up a Helpline to respond to questions from the public,” said Tom.
Managing the problem
As a result of the outbreak, the public had started to perceive the Aquarium as “diseased”. Even though the cooling towers were cleaned as soon as the problem was identified, this was not enough to redress the damage to the Aquarium’s reputation.
Noted world experts were brought in to recommend the most appropriate solution to the problem. Under their advice, the air conditioning system was changed from water cooling to air cooling, at a cost of $500,000, so there could never be a repeat performance.
Relaunching the business
More than three months after the outbreak of the disease, and with a new cooling system in place, the Aquarium held a relaunch (even though the business had never actually closed). The press were invited to the towers to show them it was safe and that there was nothing to hide. An open letter was printed in the metropolitan press to express the Aquarium’s acceptance of responsibility for the outbreak, and to outline the steps that had been taken to replace the cooling system.
For the next two months, a public relations strategy was rolled out which involved hosting launches and events at the Aquarium that would link it with positive news stories. A series of small advertisements was also printed in a variety of publications. Management staff visited a large number of community groups across the state to talk about what had happened and to answer any queries.
By the end of its first year, against a revised visitor target of 870,000, the Aquarium was able to attract 850,000 people. This was an extraordinary result given the year of upheaval.