The business of tourists’ pleasure

Advocate, LIBBY BINGHAM  p.D02 – 27 July 2013

REGIONAL tourism guru Ian Waller is a workaholic.
“I live to work,” he admits.
“I find it really hard to stop.” Ian is known for sending  emails in the wee hours.
There is a touch of obsessive compulsive behaviour in having to check his phone the minute he wakes to clear his inbox.
“It controls my life,” he nods. There’s some irony in the fact that if too many people behaved just like he does, it would hurt the tourism statistics it is his job to improve.
“We have been running significant intrastate campaigning – far more than any other Tasmanian region over the past 12 months,” Ian says.
Apparently all the campaigning has paid off. For the year ending March 2013, latest data from the Tasmanian Visitor Survey
reported changes in visitor numbers in the four regions showing: Southern, up 12 per cent; East Coast, down 8 per cent; Northern, showing no significant change and Cradle Coast was up by 2 per cent .
But Ian doesn’t gild the lily. He says the region has to get serious about competing globally in changed markets. China and India are emerging as important growth areas and the Cradle Coast Authority tourism crew has been conducting workshops.
“Do you put a berko in the room for guests who like to boil noodles before bed?” Ian says. Never under value what people do.
“It might sound cliched but I think it is our people (in Tasmania) that are our greatest strength.
“Which is why it is upsetting to get people who can be rude and aggressive and you would like to say ‘perhaps the tourism industry isn’t for you’.
“The last few years we have seen a downward trend (in visitation) and that’s been an enormous frustration to everybody and often we try to find excuses – we say it’s the economy, it’s the Australian dollar, it’s airline strikes … the reality is we are an incredibly competitive (global) market and if we don’t compete aggressively by providing quality product, outstanding service and quality experiences we will just get smashed by the opposition.”
The former motel owner understands what the regional tourism operators have to deal with. As the person paid to sell the region it makes him a bit embarrassed at times.
“I get a pay cheque at the end of the week to put in the bank and sometimes the tourism operators don’t get to do that,” he says.
Ian is passionate in his belief the value of tourism is being undersold and that he is the man to help change it.
He was humbled to be recognised for a 10-year contribution to regional tourism when he was inducted into the Australian Regional Tourism Network Hall of Fame.
He is speaking to ‘Scape hot on the heels of last week’s successful Cradle Coast Regional Tourism forum, where Australian tourism royalty, Terri Irwin, was guest speaker and gave one of the great lines. “If you haven’t been to Tasmania, you aren’t fair dinkum Australian,” Ms Irwin declared.
Ian Waller says the Irwins rate the North-West corner of the state in particular and often sneak in and out for holidays. IAN Waller came home to North-West Tasmania 11 years ago after 25 years away.
He was born in Launceston and moved to Ulverstone where his parents had a newsagency. Ian left to complete course in community welfare in  Melbourne but halfway through found out the government job he was promised lost its funding. The year before he earnt his board as a supervisor at a home for the intellectually disabled in Hobart while he did a hospitality management course. He worked for a hotel chain in  Melbourne and moved through ranks to assistant manager but found it wasn’t for him.
Next he got a job running a home for 30 physically disabled people, which he did for four years, and found it rewarding work. He still looks back on this time as having a big impact on him.
Ian resumed his hospitality career when he bought his own motel outside Bendigo and was there four years.
Disaster struck when Ian and his Victorian wife Lorna sold their business and invested all in a gold mining company only to lose every cent they had. “We were stupid. We put all our eggs in the one basket,” Ian says.
“We had two kids and ended up living with Lorna’s parents. “I was devastated. You can understand why people do things they should not do to themselves.” It took a long time to pick himself up again.
“We moved to Mildura and for six years managed motels.”
Until the general manager of  the Mildura City Council called with a challenge to take over the local tourist association that just fell over.
“I said there was ‘no hope in hell’,” Ian laughs.  He thought: “they were useless bastards”.
“The next morning my ego took over and I thought I could do a better job.” From scratch he built the new organisation into Sunraysia Tourism. Ian found his niche and kept working in regional tourism when the family of five moved to Mount Gambier for seven years.
“They were an incredibly successful seven years where I learnt a lot about the industry,” he says. It was Coonawarra wine country and Ian developed “a love of red wine that continues.”
The area was renamed Limestone Coast Tourism with some reluctance from locals but they changed their mind after it was a success and he sees a parallel to the Tarkine issue.
Ian came back to Tasmania to work as Cradle Coast Authority regional tourism development manager.
He said it was not clearly understood within the industry what his role was. “It took a while to build some credibility around the fact the CCA supports the tourism industry,” Ian explains.
What helped was having a huge bucket of federal sustainable regions funding to pour into tourism projects – until it ran out.
Ian said tourist operators can not continue to look to others, be it local councils or government, to market their businesses, it’s up to them to do that and to work together with partners to build a more vibrant industry.
He said there is still a lack of recognition of the true value of tourism to the region.
“We’ve got to create more quality tourism product because it’s important to everyone in the region,” he says.
“When the (West Coast Wilderness) Railway issue came up, some people were saying ‘it’s a shame’.
“It was not a shame it was a bloody crisis – we need more product we can’t afford to lose product.”
“I think we have to be honest with ourselves about our market, which is people who want to have a real Tasmanian experience and who don’t necessarily want to be city bound. “They want to get out and see and touch and meet the real Tasmania which is what we do exceptionally well for all market sectors.”
Ian backed recent comments made by Tourism Tasmania chief executive Tony Fitzgerald.Mr Fitzgerald said visitors are intrigued by the state’s evolving story and the passion and conflict around issues like the Tarkine are all part of the story.
“It has shaped who we are and it appeals to our visitors,” Mr Fitzgerald said.
Ian said Tasmania should not try to hide from the conflict of the forestry debate or its indigenous history.
“We should be talking about it and working with our indigenous community to tell the stories of the West Coast and the far North-West and that includes the tragedies”
“We should ask why isn’t a place like Tiagarra in Devonport a dynamic tourism product open 365 days a year? “We should be prepared to tell our whole story and it’s exactly the same with mining and forestry in the Tarkine.

He said the process to name the Tarkine “was a dog’s breakfast and was embarrassing to us all” but the outcome can benefit everyone.
“Take the local aggro out of the Tarkine because nothing from a tourism perspective should impact on locals enjoying their recreational playground, or agriculture, or industry,” Ian said.
“The new Tarkine drive project will create access to a wilderness area – but we’re not for one minute saying it’s all pristine environment.
“It is up to us to build the Tarkine product and that’s about signage to say ‘welcome to the timber industry story’, ‘welcome to the mining story’, ‘welcome to the wilderness’, ‘welcome to the indigenous story’.
“I believe in five years the Tarkine will be the environmental spot where people go to say ‘wow where are we’. “It represents the very soul of what our region is all about and ultimately the people of the North-West will benefit.”
Ian warns the most important part now is delivering.
“Tasmania is the only state in Australia where word of mouth is within the top four or five generators of business so we have got to deliver.” It’s the job Ian takes to heart.
Ever affable, he says he can tend to use his quirky sense of humour to hide when cracks appear.
“I try not to take things too seriously or exhibit anger but I do take them incredibly seriously.
“I believe in the region and I believe in the tourism industry.
“I feel fortunate doing what I am doing.”
Even more since his brother Doug died from lung cancer at 61 and left Ian his caravan which he did what he never does and went away for three weeks.
“I came back with a changed attitude to life,” he says.
“You have to go away sometimes life should be more fun.”