22 Oct 2018
Words Catie Langdon
Mission To Make Camping Cool Again
After a phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the global financial crisis, Adelaide-based Discovery Parks is on a trajectory to become a $1 billion company, transforming the caravan parks industry. Over the past decade the company has reshaped the holiday park sector, investing in resort-style parks in some of the nation’s most beautiful destinations.
Having brought the company back from the brink of disaster in 2009, CEO Grant Wilckens, backed by majority shareholder Sunsuper and the Discovery Parks board, has built Australia’s largest network of holiday parks.
Under his stewardship, the business has evolved as a digital challenger brand to shake up the Australian accommodation category with a mission to make camping cool again.
Discovery Parks has invested heavily in waterparks, resort-style pools, and safari-style glamping accommodation in Byron Bay and the Barossa Valley. There’s even an eco-resort in the pipeline with a joint-venture development on Rottnest Island to come on line by the summer of 2018-19.
“Many kids of the 1970s probably remember holiday parks as a daggy affordable holiday option, mostly sites with some rough and ready shower blocks, and a few creaky swings,” Wilckens says.
“What Discovery Parks has done is bring holiday parks into the future. We wanted to keep that sense of the authentic Aussie holiday, where the kids can roam free on their bikes and mum and dad can sit by the pool and relax with their friends.
“But we wanted to add the modern ‘wow’ factor with fabulous resort-style pools, waterparks and jumping pillows. We’ve created comfortable cabins for quick and easy minibreaks, and an easy digital booking system,” he explains.
It’s a rollercoaster ride that began in 2004 when Wilckens and a couple of business partners conceived of a plan to establish Beston Parks, buying holiday parks in prime locations to bring corporate systems to largely family owned and operated businesses.
They expanded quickly after their initial investment in four parks, but were forced to restructure and sell parks when the GFC hit and their property portfolio was revalued.
When the partners exited the business, Wilckens – with a background in accountancy at KPMG and corporate finance at Rothschild – faced the daunting task of rebuilding the balance sheet and finding new investors and a new board. Beston Parks became Discovery Parks with a new purpose: to help people “discover what matters”.
“We nearly lost everything in the GFC, but it was a matter of determination to turn it around. We’ve worked incredibly hard to create a culture where people are encouraged to reach ambitious goals: we’re always about driving forward at a cracking pace,” he says.
Parks have been reimagined as resort-style sanctuaries for families, gateways to the wilderness, havens for grey nomad travellers, and mining support villages. Increasingly, there is a focus on eco-tourism and glamping to provide a luxurious experience in nature.
The company uses sophisticated data-based systems and artificial intelligence to truly understand and deliver on what the customer wants, and has implemented rigorous quality standards in park maintenance and customer service.
“We’re about bringing the authentic Aussie holiday to new audiences, recognising that people are time-poor and they expect a greater level of customer service and digital connectivity when they are away from home.”
With this strategy, Discovery Parks has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Complementing its range of holiday parks, corporate workstay parks for fly-in-fly-out workers provide revenue outside peak seasons.
Having grown revenues to more than $150 million and recently negotiated a licencing deal with the Top Parks holiday group to form a national network of 250 parks, Wilckens now has his sights firmly fixed on new ventures.
These include new digital services for customers, more parks, and further investment in cabins, waterparks and glamping.
Discovery Parks owns and operates 65 parks and, with Top Parks on board, Wilckens expects the network to grow to 400 parks generating $184 million in revenue by 2020.
The company has recently acquired parks in Airlie Beach, Broome, Coolwaters Yeppoon and Fraser Street, Streaky Bay, Townsville and unveiled 12 luxury glamping tents in the Barossa.
Rather than sticking to the traditional approach of charging a flat rate, irrespective of demand, Wilckens has developed a pricing model where rates rise and fall with demand – as they do for airlines and hotels.
A new loyalty program ‘G'day Rewards’, involving a range of partnerships with major corporates, also promises to shake up the sector. It grew to more than 140,000 paid members in just three months.
And, for Wilckens, what began as a corporate challenge has become a labour of love and deep engagement with the caravan industry. He is Chair of the Caravan Industry Association of Australia and a fierce advocate for its growth and development.
“I’m passionate about this industry – it’s a massive industry, worth $20 billion to the Australian economy.
“Most of the revenue generated by the caravan and camping industry occurs in the regions and we are a major employer, providing opportunities for regional communities,” he says.
“Our industry is full of passionate people: these passionate people deliver great experiences. We connect Australians, and increasingly visitors from overseas, with nature and the outdoors.
“Industry research comparing campers and non-campers tells us that campers are comparatively happier, more satisfied, optimistic and energised. Campers are less stressed, bored, frustrated and lonely.
“From my perspective – what a fabulous business to be in! I love being out of the office, talking to park staff and our guests, and reminding myself that this industry happens on the road, in the field.”
And while some in the industry have been wary of corporates, Wilckens is adamant they have delivered for customers and family businesses alike, attracting capital, providing training, building professionalism and driving up property values.
“Companies like ours have ambitious goals and dreams but, in the caravan and camping industry, the project has to be more than a business if we are truly to engage with our customers.
“I’m passionate about helping people to connect, unwind and have wonderful holiday experiences and, as a company, being the best we can be.”