Innovation in business with Women In Tourism

Innovation with Women In Tourism

written by Sarah Colgate

Business Tips for 2024 | Helpful tips for tourism operators

August 19, 2021

I come from a family of business owners. My maternal grandfather built a multi million dollar trucking company that started out with him selling flowers on the roadside between Newcastle and Sydney prior to World War 2.

My dad immigrated from Ireland as a teenager and has had a building business for 50+ years, 

My mum inherited her love of business from her father and at the peak of her business career she had 5 specialty shoe stores across Newcastle & the Hunter region. She still dispenses business advice like hand sanitiser during a pandemic. 

My two brothers and I have had multiple businesses in our lives as well as working for others.

My first business was in year 4 at school. I gathered up all of our little rubber smurf figurines from around the house and sold them to the kids at school for a tidy profit. Needless to say my brothers were not impressed when they realised their collectables had been used as my inventory!

Little Rubber Smurf Figurines

Following that my next business venture got me into a little more trouble. This time around I charged the kids at my small catholic school to be baptised and blessed by me. I filled a plastic orchy bottle with water from the bubbler at school, poked a hole in the lid and charged everyone 25 cents per baptism. 

It’s interesting how many catholic kids needed multiple baptisms. Mind you the principal Sister Mary was somewhat unimpressed with my blasphemy and ended my business with a very long stint in lunch time detentions. 

Despite my early entrepreneurial tendencies I had planned to study political science in Canberra after finishing high school. But before heading off to Canberra I answered an ad to become a rotary exchange student in Canada for a year. An opportunity too good to miss.

That year the travel bug bit hard. The following year I ended up at university studying Business, tourism and marketing with an aim to travel and work for the rest of my life. Politics never got a look in after that.

Over my 25-year working career, I have worked in 6 Australian cities covering every aspect of the travel and tourism industry at the big end of town with companies like Accor, The Travel Corporation, The Star and Cathay Pacific right through to a two-person travel agency and family owned tour experiences.  I have also had at least 7 businesses as a side hustle or full time job. 

My passion is business development.  I love creating, building and growing businesses. That isn’t easy to do in multinationals, so about 10 years ago I started working in small and medium business, where I would have the most impact and the most fun growing the business. 

The Aquaduck business

The Aquaduck business

In mid 2018, I joined forces with my then boss and a business owner friend who had a tourism operation on the Gold Coast. We purchased Aquaduck. It was my first ownership in a business of this size. 

The business I was running at the time for my boss was the biggest sales agents of Aquaduck tickets. Therefore it made financial sense to vertically integrate Aquaduck and the ticket sales business. 

The plan was for me to run Aquaduck – be the GM and Managing Director, my business partners would provide support and mentoring as needed but they had their own businesses to run on a daily basis.  

I was of course nervous but I relished the opportunity. I had thousands of ideas on how to make this business great. All these ideas had come to me while I was sitting on the outside looking in. 

The family who had owned the business for 16 years were not from tourism. They had a massive amount of business experience in bakeries and machinery. They were great people who were very happy having the business just tick over. 

The owners didn’t look at ways to change or improve the business. They had a set way of doing everything, they refused to try anything new or move with the times. 

As the travel and tourism industry went online they got left behind. The business deteriorated over the years, it was losing money, had a mass of unnecessary expenses attached to it and were at war with their competitor. 

Things were grim. We knew this to a certain extent and believed we could turn it around. But like everything we had no idea of the full extent of the problems we were buying.  

I remember the afternoon we signed the sales contract on the business. My business partners and I joked that we had never actually been on an Aquaduck tour. The owner booked us in and assured us the best staff he had were delivering our tour. We were so excited. 

After our hour long tour – The only word I can use to describe the tour was horrific! The tour content was cringy, the staff didn’t know what they were doing, they seemed to make up the commentary, they repeated what each other had said,

They made endless inappropriate jokes. The owner’s son who was the tour guide treated it like his very own stand up comedy club.  I will never forget the sinking feeling as we got off the duck from our tour. 

That night I had a meltdown. I didn’t sleep a wink, the stress I felt about taking on this business was overwhelming me.  At that moment, the Aquaduck business felt one dimensional, touristy and seemed to have too many problems for me to fix. I no longer believed that I could turn this around.  

In addition, I was freaking out about the debt I was putting my family in, by buying this business. 

The situation scared me to death, I was so far out of my comfort zone, I was afraid of failure, I was afraid I would let everyone down. 

My head was filled with a million negative thoughts, my heart was pumping like it was emptying a damn. I look back on that night now and the following weeks and realise I was totally exposed and I was vulnerable.  

And would you believe the situation didn’t magically resolve itself?

Things got worse before they got better.

So I want to share with you how I got to the other side of that and what has kept me going over the last 18 months of COVID.

I guess you could call it innovation. 

But what is innovation and where does innovation come from?

I looked up a few things on innovation as it’s not really something I identified with the tourism industry. I always thought of innovation as belonging to IT, tech, inventions in a digital space – all the cool rich geeky guys. 

But now I know, innovation really is just change, Transformation, variation, remodeling, coming up with something new and giving it a go. 

I now know where innovation comes from.  It comes from being stuck, freaked out, full of fear, failing and wondering what the hell can I do to improve this situation. Exactly what I was feeling in those early Aquaduck days and what many of us are feeling today.

I saw these great quotes which for me sum up innovation: SLIDE

 Vulnerability is the absolute heartbeat of innovation and creativity. There can be zero innovation without vulnerability
– Brene Brown

Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.
– Theodore Levitt

I believe we are all innovators when we need to be. Within our businesses we have control over what we can change, what we can improve and what we deliver to our customers.

There are a number of factors that help me innovate at  Aquaduck

Innovate at Aquaduck

  • Mindset – I pigeon holed Aquaduck into being something basic, a one dimensional, a cringy experience. I knew if I was going to turn this business around I needed to change my mindset. 
    This means positive daily affirmations, pulling myself up when I have a bad attitude or are blaming others. Staying away when I know I need a break and most of all believing everything will work out eventually. Staying as positive as I can.
  • Have a plan – You have heard it a billion times in business. Have a plan – Outline what you are going to do, why you are doing it and how you are going to do it.  Then follow it and check back in with it on a monthly basis.  The plan these days is much more fluid to reflect our changing environment.  But its still a guide to success.

  • Learning – I believe if you want to do new things you need to take some time to learn new skills

    You don’t know what you don’t know. When we got stuck and didn’t know how to do something – we went out and found people who were already doing it and asked them how to do it. 
    We made a list of people who were doing well in business and I actively went out and met with them. Asked them about their businesses. People love talking about themselves and their business and I love listening and learning.
    We still take time to learn and keep up to date with the changing trends in tourism.
  • Figure out the What & Why – Everyone needs a clear picture of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Aquaduck’s what and why are pretty basic but it helps keep us on track. 

    Our What – Is to provide the most remarkable, fun and informative tour on the Gold Coast

    Our Why – To create a positive experience that families and friends can share. Showcasing the history, culture and beauty of our home to the world.


If you don’t know your what and your why – now is the time to figure it out.. 

  • Communicate, tell your story and engage – Tell your staff, team, customers and anyone who will listen what you are doing and why. People want to know there is more to you and your business than making money. Work with your local tourism organization. Tell them what you are doing – get them on side. They will support you by providing opportunities and promoting you wherever they can. 

  • Be ok with Success and failure – Business is challenging and hard, nobody has it right or has all the answers. But you can’t innovate without trying. You need to test things out and see what works. Sometimes it will work and go your way, other times it will fail miserably. Accept both and be ok with them.  Learn from that and look at ways to continue to do what you do just better. 

    Just keep going, don’t give up and success will come. 
  • Continual improvement – Every business is evolving. There is constant change in target markets, the expectations of your customer, what your staff need and what your competitors are doing. 

    Therefore, your business needs to continually improve and change. Start by accepting the fact that change and improvement are a part of business every single day. I consciously look at what can be improved, I write lists and have my staff do the same. We don’t get to everything but we do have a culture of improvement and we are open to change. 

So this is what we achieved through innovation?

  1. We morphed a touristy one-dimensional product into a meaningful, must do experience. No longer is it a ride on the duck, it’s now a city tour and river cruise. By combining these features, we created a product that had more value and a wider appeal.
  2. We created a professional, informative commentary that gives people interesting information, fun facts and we deliver stories that resonate with our guests. 
  3. We created a team of passionate staff members who enjoy sharing the history and culture of their home with visitors from all over. They want to give visitors a memorable experience that showcases the Gold Coast in a fun way. 
  4. We created a digital online business. When we took over the business, all bookings were done on paper, there was one computer and everything took a massive amount of time to do.  We moved every aspect of the business online. We made it easier for the staff to work, we made it easier for management to support the staff and we made everything significantly more efficient.
  5. In the 18 months we owned the business before the COVID shutdown in March 2020.
  • We went from 4 international markets to 16 international markets.
  • We took Aquaduck on 12 overseas trade missions.
  • We were contracted with more than 300 agents across the globe and got business from more than 200 agents a month.
  • We grew a 25-year-old business by 32% in just 18 Months.
  • We purchased a second business Duckabout Tours with 2 vessels that were operating in Cairns and Airlie Beach. We now have a fleet of 5 vessels and operate two locations: Gold Coast & Sunshine Coast.
  • We created a brand that reflects quality, a family friendly experience that is locally owned and widely respected.
  • We have recently purchased Southern Cross Tours with a plan to re-invigorate touring for the locals market. Not an easy task but we are up to it. 

And so far using all of the points mentioned, in addition to the consumption of copious amounts of wine, netflix, seeing a councillor on a regular basis and daily affirmations we are surviving the greatest disaster to hit the tourism industry. 

Finally, I am a firm believer in supporting the industry that supports us. During the COVID shutdown and in the months after I struggled with where our businesses was going, what the future held and how we were going to survive with the constant uncertainty. I looked around our industry and many of the other tourism operators were struggling too. 

We felt no one was standing up for us or speaking up for us. There were no leaders to look to. I realised the big end of town was getting some attention but the smaller operators were suffering in silence. So I booked meetings with everyone I could think of QTIC, TEQ, Economic Development at all levels of government and Destination Gold Coast. I told them what we needed and asked them to step up and start helping us. 

I soon realized nobody knew how to help us, it wasn’t that they didn’t want to they just didn’t know what help we needed. 

From that experience, it was obvious that micro, small and medium size tourism businesses were not represented across these organisations. So that had to change. In November last year I stood for election to the Destination Gold Coast board. I now hold a seat at the table to represent micro, small and medium business with the hope of influencing the conversation and giving those members a voice.  

The DGC board are a passionate bunch of really great people, however the majority are employees of massive corporations. I  feel owner operators are significantly under represented on a board where we are the majority of the members. However I also know that over time that will change, more people will step up and speak up. 

Thank you for your time today and I encourage you to be an innovator in your business, look after yourself first and foremost and speak up for our industry whenever you can.

Innovation with Women In Tourism

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