The bushfires: brand new trucks with nowhere to go

After moving from Gippsland to Pambula in southern NSW 30 years ago, Paul and Liz Pincini started out running bus tours for domestic tourists. Their current business, Platinum Tours, evolved as a result of their attention to detail, combined with their commitment to providing high-quality, small-group tours.

Finding customers a cruise

Always looking to innovate and grow, Paul and Liz saw an opportunity to provide local tours to passengers on the ever-increasing number of cruise ships docking at Eden.

“A key feature of the Port of Eden upgrade is that larger cruise ships are now able to dock at the wharf,” Paul explains, with the P&O Pacific Explorer being the first 2000-plus passenger vessel to dock at the port, on 15 September 2019.

“In 2018-19, Eden welcomed 16 cruise ships, whereas that was due to rise to 23 in 2019-20,” Paul says. “Most of them were due in our peak season, between January and March 2020.

In anticipation of the increased number of cruise, Paul and Liz made some major financial and business decisions. “This involved purchasing new purpose-built all-terrain touring vehicles, at a cost of $800,000, that cater for specialised small-group adventures into our region’s National Parks,” Paul explains. “It took many months of planning and negotiating, and a number of setbacks, but we created tours that top the wishlist of the cruise companies visiting Eden, such as the Green Cape Discovery Tour through Ben Boyd National Park and the Davidson’s Whaling Station Tour.

The pre-sale bookings were outstanding, and Platinum Journeys’ morning and afternoon tours were booked out, a scenario that would have injected an estimated $8000 per cruise into the business.

“We were very proud and excited about this new line of business,” Paul enthuses.

Smoke in the horizon

Then the bushfires hit. Unprecedented in their extent and intensity, the fires burnt around 2.7 million hectares of NSW’s national parks – over a third of the state’s national park estate. The National Parks – and with that all the visitor attractions, access roads, walking trails, lookout points, picnic areas and camp grounds – were closed and Paul had to cancel all Platinum Journeys’ cruise-ship tours.

“The National Parks are not expected to open until the end of March, which is just too late,” Paul says. “Our brand

new all-terrain vehicles are just sitting on our property, yet to ‘turn the wheel’.”

And the cruise-ship tours aren’t the only aspect of the business to be hit.

“Another kick to our cashflow is the reduced number of tour bookings through our business’s normal Travel Club tours,” Paul said, citing the anxiety and uncertainty of the past few months as the reason the majority of their Travel Club tours through to May have had to be cancelled.

“People are just not booking holidays right now,” Paul says. “No-one wants to go anywhere. They’re too worked up over the bushfires to take a holiday and prefer to stay home,” Paul said.

Thankfully Paul’s business banker has been understanding and supportive, deferring repayments on the all-terrain vehicles. Paul initially asked for a six-month deferment but the bank manager offered him longer. “That’s not something I wanted to do, I didn’t want to appear to fail, but this is a unique situation,” he says.

Despite the challenges, Paul and Liz have not been sitting idle.

The future is brighter

“I’ve been out and about looking at other markets, talking to travel agents and other tourism operators, in an effort to build up the numbers of our regular Australia-wide tours,” Paul says. However, new markets mean additional investment and the lack of cashflow presents significant challenges.

“At the end of the day I need cash,” Paul explains. “Not just to prop up our bank account, but to pay my staff and employ people with the right skillset to help grow our new business channels.”

Paul came across Business Connect, a NSW Government initiative, in a caravan at Tumbarrumba, and they followed up offering loan assistance. “This was a very positive experience,” Paul says. “They followed up promptly with a phone call detailing the assistance they’re able to offer. While I need to evaluate whether or not I need it, it’s good to know there’s that potential cashflow injection in the form of an easy-to-apply-for loan available.”

This story first appeared in issue 28 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine

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