On the Road Again

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 - 09:55

Like most people, Terry Goodall fondly remembers the motor trips and caravan parks of his youth. Overseeing 172 sites, the CEO of BIG4 Holiday Parks says the industry is growing up fast. By Jason Day

The family car and caravan park form part of sunburnt holiday memories for many Australians. Before cheap airfares, holidays for many meant a car loaded to bursting, dad waking the kids up at 4am to beat the traffic, and a week or two travelling between, or staying in, caravan parks, fishing and swimming.

Facilities were usually basic; you got a spot to park and power. The ubiquitous utility block with its intermittent hot-water supply and dubious sanitary conditions. A kids' 'adventure' playground with tyre swing and a busted seesaw was the norm, as was the desultory games room, with a pinball machine with one working flipper and a netless ping-pong table.

Of course, many parks were in fabulous locations near stunning natural attractions. They were also cheap and a place to prepare the evening meal, relax with a drink, refresh and meet fellow travellers.

Tourism is big business. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures for the December 2007 quarter alone have accommodation takings of some $2078 million for hotels, motels and serviced apartments with five or more rooms. The numbers vary, but there are about 1800 caravan parks in Australia, with the ABS reporting takings of $258.3 million. This translates to an industry of around $1 billion a year, and on the up. Not too shabby at all. Elsewhere, a Tourism Australia report, Through the Looking Glass: The Future of Domestic Tourism in Australia, forecasts that the total number of nights spent in caravan/camping accommodation will increase from 37 million to 45 million by the end of the next decade.

Terry Goodall, CEO of BIG4 Holiday Parks, grew up in Frankston on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula. He fondly remembers going to the beach at Dromana and staying with his family in the foreshore caravan park.

Goodall started out as a lab technician with a biscuit manufacturer, before his interest in marketing moved him eventually to pharmacists Amcal Australia - where he ended up as its national advertising manager - before being asked to establish the Amcal brand (as Community Pharmacy) and its retail pharmacy model in New Zealand. Goodall has spent time with the New Zealand Automobile Association, where he was instrumental in selling items such as maps, guides and insurance products through their retail outlets, before returning home to Melbourne to work with the RACV. Eventually, in 2002, the BIG4 role came up, where his background in marketing, retail, and his exposure to tourism got him the nod.

A cooperative model

To survive, says Goodall, caravan and holiday parks have simply had to evolve as the tastes, expectations and sophistication of the domestic holiday-maker has changed. BIG4 was established by four Ballarat caravan-park operators almost 30 years ago to compete with the large council-operated parks. It was a cooperative. The parks referred customers to each other if they were at capacity. It holds true today for all the 172 parks throughout Australia.

"That model is still basically the same," says Goodall. "Park operators pay a royalty fee to belong to BIG4, and with those collective fees we run the organisation, promoting the brand, the business and putting business tools together for the parks. Essentially, all of the individual owners own BIG4.

"A cooperative is a great model because people band together in solving issues. Although it can be slower to implement changes, it works very well precisely because we don't, as a franchise would, mandate everything." In fact, this difference of park experience is a strength BIG4 actively cultivate.

Changing market

Yesteryear's caravan park has moved on substantially in terms of product and service offerings. This has meant significant change in key areas including operators, customers and communication.

Traditionally family owned, now the corporate dollar is interested. "Institutions are seeing that parks are a viable, profit-making operation," explains Goodall. "Aspen Parks, owned by the Aspen Property Group, have 23 parks, and Discovery Holiday Parks is a consortium owning about 40 parks."

The customer demographic has also changed. And it had to. Self-promotion was not enough any more.

"We had our traditional markets of dyed-in-the-wool caravaners, and the tourists in peak periods," says Goodall. "But if you're only promoting to them, you really just slice up the same pie." New markets simply had to be found.

The big innovation for BIG4 was in using cabins as a new accommodation offering. The cabin provided parks with two opportunities: one, to bring a different customer base in, one that doesn't want a caravan, and two, the ability to extend the season into colder months.

"A year after I came in we did a review with no rules," says Goodall. The review found that BIG4 parks could be confident that they were top in safety and security, facility quality was viewed favourably, and people felt comfortable.

"We found that the family market was the most obvious target," explains Goodall. "Mum, dad and the kids want to go into a park, be able to relax and have their kids in a safe environment.

"So we targeted families, and they started noticing holiday parks again." It is, of course, one thing to get the market interested, another to meet expectations.

"The industry is going through a real paradigm shift with a range of things happening at the same time," says Goodall. "We have needed to adapt, and quickly."

And BIG4's customers are increasingly sophisticated, says Goodall. "For customers who are using a park for the first time since childhood, we are telling them we've changed, you'll get great service and quality.

"You'd better give that to them, or they'll say, 'Ah, it hasn't changed, next time it's the Novotel resort'."

Dedicated research

BIG4 has addressed the need for market knowledge through its commitment to research to find out what it is doing right or wrong. The cooperative spoke to 40,000 mums in 2007 to find out what they wanted in their holiday experience. That research has driven BIG4's branding, and images of happy, waterlogged kids adorn website and marketing materials.

Naturally, BIG4 look to identify who uses holiday parks, and why. Goodall says there are three types of customers: tourists who come and go; annuals who rent the same site each year, and permanent residents.

"We say to our parks and prospective parks that the BIG4 brand should be able to cater to different markets," says Goodall. "We should be able to extend your seasons, and the cabins provide for this. You've got the core product of caravans and motorhomes, and tourists locked into peak holiday periods, plus the grey nomads of 55 plus, who will be an increasing part of the market. In addition, young couples saving up for a home don't all want to go shooting off overseas to an expensive resort; they could get that here, outside of peak periods, outside of school holidays.

"Today, lots of parks are looking to build their tourism business because: a) it provides a great turnover; and b) if there is a BIG4 park they're able to extend the season, reducing the gaps of little activity."

Recruiting for expansion

BIG4's expansion to over 170 parks is part of the organisation's ongoing recruitment drive to fill in gaps in distribution. Recruitment is a two-way street.

"We're generally approached by parks to join up," says Goodall. "Our deal is that by joining the market leaders, you will get high occupancy and premium yield because you will be part of a premium brand."

As part of joining the cooperative, new parks share in BIG4's marketing, with a 145,000-strong club membership program, distribution of 500,000 printed guides and a great hit rate on BIG4's website.

"None of our competition will provide any of that," argues Goodall. "And you get an intranet service; we will help you put regional marketing together, and we're about to launch an online reservation system."

Moreover, the cooperative's brand awareness research shows that 26 per cent of people surveyed mention BIG4 off the top of their head; their nearest competitor is sitting at 3 per cent.

Naturally, to maintain the BIG4 brand and experience, Goodall's primary role, requires the maintenance of standards. "We inspect the parks before recruiting and then follow that up with annual inspections. If you fall below quality, a works order program will be issued; if it's not done, you can be terminated." Interestingly, if a park starts to fall below standard, the first party to let BIG4 know is usually other parks, a legacy of the old referral tradition.

What standard setting is not about is ensuring the same holiday experience in each park. Part of BIG4's considered strengths is the variety of experience. This is a great USP, but one that is very difficult to market.

"The last thing we wanted was to create the McDonalds chain of caravan parks. Every park is different, and that's the attraction," says Goodall.

"We advertised in the mass media in the Women's Weekly. The hardest thing was to describe what a BIG4 holiday product was, because every one of them was different. You'll have a great experience with all of them but it will be a different great experience."

Challenges

While the outlook for the caravan holiday park industry is, on the evidence available, increasingly rosy, challenges remain for holiday-park operators.

This includes technology take-up, particularly getting operators to understand the benefits of such necessities as engaging websites that include online reservation systems demanded by consumers.

Another problem is simply holding on to park land. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Nathan Wiltshire, an analyst with CBRE Hotels, says the long-term growth of the market in NSW was at risk by a lack of supply, with caravan-park numbers dropping 3.7 per cent in the two years to September 2007.

Wiltshire attributes the decline to market forces: the most significant one is that parks are being acquired by developers to be converted into other forms of development such as residential or up-market accommodation due to the location of many park sites.

"You would hate to see them lost to the public, and the only people who benefit are those who can afford two- or three-million dollars to buy an apartment," says Goodall. "I believe the government is certainly looking at how they can retain these sorts of places. Because a park is a unique beast; it's something that is totally different to a resort, for instance.

Along with staffing issues (the mines are sucking up so much of BIG4's traditional source for its peak-season staff needs), communication is perhaps Goodall's biggest challenge. After all, how do you communicate with 172 park owners?

"I guess it's the same for any national multi-sited organisation," says Goodall. "Trying to get the park owners to read what you send them." BIG4 employs a range of tactics including a fortnightly e-newsletter, a quarterly hard copy Big News, which deals with major news, as well as opportunities to meet park owners at state meetings, caravan and camping shows, and at the national conference each year.

The future

A regular and multiple award-winner at annual tourism awards, Goodall says his role is to keep the brand a market leader, the parks profitable, and provide BIG4 operators with help to ensure their edge. He also does a pretty good sell job.

"I don't think it's appreciated by the rest of the industry that we have been the top-performing tourism sector for the past seven or eight years," says Goodall. "You come to a park with your family. It's relaxed, you wander around, the kids make friends.

"I went to one park where they were holding outdoor movies. It was like a rock concert. There were people coming from all over with their fold-up chairs and the kids in their dressing gowns.

"I don't know of another accommodation model that offers that sort of experience and environment."

Makes you want to see for yourself. Time to load up the car.