National award for MARK and JOANNE SKINNER … and Narrows Escape

HAVING WON the Queensland Tourism Award for hosted accommodation in 2011 and 2012, Mark and Joanne Skinner from Narrows Escape Rainforest Retreat at Montville recently edged out the competition to win the national award at the Qantas Australian Tourism Awards. Julie Shelton went to speak to them about their winning formula and why attention to detail is so important.

IMAGINE YOU and your partner are a guest of Narrows Escape: you’re driving toward Lake Baroon, looking forward to a romantic weekend punctuated by a rainforest walk, massage, meal at a local restaurant…

On arrival, you’re greeted at the car by name and with a warm handshake, perhaps an umbrella if it’s raining. While checking in, your hosts prepare a sumptuous breakfast basket that includes huge Chevallum strawberries, a sweet Kiels Mountain baby pineapple and jams made on the property from local produce. You’re assured that fresh croissants will be baked the next morning and delivered to your cottage.

Your hosts then introduce you to your cottage home for the weekend – chocolates are on the bed together with a welcome card. A welcome platter is in the fridge, complimentary port from a local vineyard is on the table. From the verandah you gaze out at the green rainforest
and clear babbling creek. You reach for each other’s hand and take a deep breath and relax…

It’s for this experience that Mark and Joanne have been recognised by the National Tourism Alliance, which runs the Australian Tourism Awards, as achieving excellence in their category of hosted accommodation.

Judging of the Awards is rigorous, and centres on the application – an important process in itself, explains Mark.

“Doing the awards applications makes you seriously think about what you believe in, what your product is, what about it is better than another product and how you can improve it,” he says. “It helped us to identify that our unique selling proposition is the personalised service that we offer our guests – the generosity and the personal touches.”

Mark and Joanne offer a complete service, which includes organising flowers and massages, and making restaurant reservations. Not surprisingly, Narrows Escape is often chosen as the perfect venue for a marriage proposal.

“We’ve got a pretty good strike rate for proposals,” jokes Mark.

Joanne adds, “It’s really nice when the girl is so excited and she wants to tell someone – she comes down to see us, knocks on the door and says, “look, look, look!”

With an enviable repeat customer rate of around 60%, Narrows Escape accommodation is being booked further and further ahead, with bookings up to 15 months in advance.

A key to Mark & Joanne’s success is their foray into the international market.

“We do a lot of business with the German and Germanspeaking market,” explains Joanne. “That’s come about through working with Tourism Queensland and Sunshine Coast Destination – they identified that market as being attracted to the area. The German tourists don’t want to come for a beach experience but are more interested in the walks. Nature is a key driver for them.”

Having the Sunshine Coast Hinterland Great Walk on their doorstep is a big attraction and gives the property its uniqueness. However, chasing the international market has meant Mark and Joanne have to be more prepared and think further ahead than for the domestic market.

“When we first started we did a program on international marketing,” explains Mark. “We had to do an ‘international ready’ workshop to start with to make sure that our product was suitable for international marketing, which meant that experts came in looking at our property and elements like our cancellation policy, booking procedures, WH&S policy, etc.”

They regularly host familiarisation tours for journalists and travel agents from throughout the world, including a film crew from Chinese Golf TV. It’s the aspect of their business that they enjoy the most – sales and marketing. So much so that they took a big decision last year to step away from the day-to-day running of the property.

Back when they first bought Narrows Escape, knowing the repetitiveness of the job and wanting to avoid burning out, the couple took it on with a five-year plan. Consequently, in early 2012 they put the property on the market and Joanne took a job in Brisbane as part of the transition into their new phase of life.

“It was good using my brain again!” she says enthusiastically. “I was going down Monday mornings and staying down during the week and coming back Friday afternoons. But after a while I realised that it wasn’t much fun being tied to an office desk from 9am to 5pm.”

“Then, when Narrows Escape hadn’t sold by the middle of the year, we looked at everything again and had a change of plan. We agreed that while we love the business, we wanted to be not so tied to the property and have more time to do the things we really love doing, like travelling.”

So they withdrew the property from the market and in December installed managers, Karen and Michael, who have embraced the Narrows Escape philosophy of attention to detail, leaving Mark and Joanne to focus on the sales and marketing.

Mark explains, “It means we can work ‘on’ the business as opposed to ‘in’ the business.”

Meanwhile, with applications for the Australian Tourism Awards closing in August last year, Mark and Joanne were in two minds as to whether to apply.

“We hadn’t yet sold but that was still our plan at the time – we thought how awful it would be to do all that work for the application and then win and it wasn’t yours any more,” reveals Mark.

The award, in part, recognises Mark and Joanne’s excellence in property management – over the years they have systematised and documented every procedure in a manual that includes how to take the initial phone call to make sure all the requisite information is obtained, and what to do if the power goes out and the generator is required.

It’s a great model that could be applied to another property.

“That’s where we’re heading,” agrees Joanne. “To help other businesses to adopt this approach and these systems.”

They’re also passionate about continuing to promote the Sunshine Coast – and in particular the Hinterland – as a destination, which, according to Mark, has a very low profile both nationally and internationally.“We found that the Hinterland didn’t exist on the international circuit. Sunshine Coast hardly existed, with perhaps Noosa having a small profile.”

They’ll continue to work with Tourism Queensland and Sunshine Coast Destination Limited, with Mark now on the Board of Directors. He believes strongly in collaboration and enterprises working together to offer a better range of options to potential visitors. He’s also keen to explore other international markets.

“Chinese tourism is a massive market but we’re not embracing that in this region,” he laments. “It doesn’t help that we haven’t got a lot of attractions up here – it makes it hard for us to sell the region. People are not going to book a holiday from across the other side of the world just
to go and sleep somewhere. That’s not why people come to an area; it’s to see whatever there is that’s spectacular in the region – that’s why we sell Fraser Island. We’d love to have more attractions in the Hinterland.”

While getting visitors to the Hinterland is a challenge, once they get here they love it. “It’s an aspirational place to visit – this is evidenced by the number of real estate magazines left in the cottages. Pretty much everyone that comes here would like to move here if they could find work.”

With Narrows Escape continuing to live up to its highly awarded reputation, Mark and Joanne’s future is about selling the dream. While living it…

Visit www.narrowsescape.com.au for more information.