Tourists take to the road less travelled
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A niche offering and strong social media engagement have paid off for Sean Blocksidge’s Margaret River tour business.
Sean Blocksidge is not your typical tour operator. For a start, it’s the first time this Business News correspondent has done an interview in a canoe.
But doing things differently to develop a niche market is precisely what has driven the growth of his tour business, The Margaret River Discovery Company.
A 40under40 winner in 2012, Mr Blocksidge has had his fair share of challenges in shaping the direction of the operation he founded a decade ago.
Behind the larrikin disposition lies a business director who has applied research, self-education, flexibility and careful strategy to what was a bumpy start in the world of entrepreneurism. It’s a case study in the power of social media and online marketing done right.
Mr Blocksidge acknowledges that his decision to start the business in 2008, after several years in the wine and hotel sectors, was both the best and worst possible time to branch out on his own.
“I started at the beginning of the GFC,” Mr Blocksidge told Business News.
“It was so bad that by September that first year I was done. However, it was also a genius time to launch, thanks to the social media revolution. That saved me completely. I had spent over $100,000 since launching, tens of thousands alone on marketing. I had nothing left.”
Almost overnight the business was transformed, thanks to the power of social media and the web. The TripAdvisor algorithm shifted to push his business up to number one in Margaret River.
“Finally, my phone went nuts. I knew TripAdvisor but I didn’t understand the power of it. I got this lead and then it became self-perpetuating,” he said.
Determined to overcome the sluggish start to his new business, Mr Blocksidge has spent many hours studying online strategies, and the rapidly evolving capabilities of social media.
“I had discovered my market but I had to find another way to get my message to them,” he said.
“There was a gaping hole in that gourmet eco-touring market. My tour is about connecting with people who want to do something a little bit differently – the discerning traveller.
“Market research told me I was on track, but it was so niche I just couldn’t find that tourist through conventional tourism marketing at the time.”
Mr Blocksidge decided to shift his online strategy to focus on refining his search engine optimisation alongside his social media presence.
“The internet allowed people to start making those specific subject terms I could target and find that type of consumer,” he said.
“It’s the norm now, but back then it was the breakthrough for business.”
He attributes the 40under40 award, a strong social media presence and media articles for solidifying sales.
“You can make your website look good, but tourists are looking at other sources to validate their decision,” Mr Blocksidge told Business News.
“They have one valuable day and are going to spend good money. You can’t take your foot off the pedal for a minute. When it comes to online marketing … by doing nothing, someone else is getting better.”
Mr Blocksidge said operating with integrity and authenticity, and growing with the social media evolution were core elements of his business’s longevity.
Back on shore, he jumps up mid-interview to show a rare spider orchid to passing tourists.
“The concept of the discovery tours is looking at that French concept of terroir. Looking at geology, ecology and climate and we relate that back to wine; explaining why Margaret River wine is so good, the whole day is about the revelation,” Mr Blocksidge said.
Canoeing, hiking, four-wheel driving and wine tasting clearly strengthen the bond the discerning traveller has with the wine.
“My guests typically walk away with a case of wine. On the average wine tour, each couple takes home a single bottle.”
Challenges evolve constantly. Copycat startups, hefty booking fees from international companies, and navigating changing government tourism policies are all hurdles that need to be dealt with.
The business is still popular, with bookings full and 20-30 enquires turned away daily.
Word-of-mouth advertising is a strong driver of business, and Mr Blocksidge’s Instagram account is hitting the 22,500 followers mark.
After several very busy years, Mr Blocksidge said he was content with the business for now.
“The trick to this is not being greedy. And I think that is a big mistake that a lot of businesses make. Trying to chase big numbers and larger operations. That’s not for me.”