By LIZ MARTIN
CEO of the National Transport Hall of Fame.
The local champion of lateral thinking has parlayed the Hall into the town’s top private and volunteer initiative, and the nation’s leading museum of its kind. The global recession called for a change of tack – and the Hall had one of its best years ever. How can this kind of “never say die” attitude be applied to the town’s woes?
It has been a mammoth year for the National Road Transport Hall of Fame but, despite the downward trends of the economy and tourism generally, we have had an increase in both revenue and profit for 2011.
This can be attributed to many things collectively however, the primary reason, I believe, is our ability to be flexible on a day to day to basis and how we manage our challenges.
As a self funded community based organisation we have always had to be opportunistic and take advantage of consumer demand to create new markets for ourselves.
We have always been aware of our precarious position as a community based museum and planned ahead, not only for future development but survival in the bad times and succession planning for our future.
I have always been lateral in my approach to how we should run this business and, while many experts, economists and bureaucrats will tell you we have done it “the wrong way”, we have been singularly successful in our goal to build the biggest and best road transport museum in the country.
It’s not just about working hard; it’s about working smart, especially when times are tough.
My two greatest assets have been the dedication and enthusiasm of our Board of Management who, on a national level, have an incredible wealth of business acumen and corporate knowledge I have been able to tap into, and our national family of volunteers who turn up every year providing us with a wide variety of trades skills the likes of which we could never source from the local community.
As the CEO of this organisation, I face many challenges on a daily basis as do business owners or managers of any business in this town, and I probably do look at them from a different perspective than most. There is no doubt this has got me into deep water a few times over the years (and will continue to do so) but it has also provided unprecedented dividends for the National Road Transport Hall of Fame and the proof is in the pudding. While many other community based and transport museums go into receivership or are closing down around the country, ours enters 2012 in a better financial position than it has ever been in the past, with nearly $2 million worth of new infrastructure planned and funded for next year. This includes two new buildings at the Hall of Fame and a new miniature railway development and camel rides at the Old Ghan Train Museum.
It truly amazes me that there is the “odd” person out there who still tells us we are not doing it right. One of the thoughts I have always maintained and called upon over the past 20 years since we started this organisation are the wise words of advice legendary road train pioneer Kurt Johannsen gave me back in 1992.
He told me: “There will be plenty of knockers but don’t waste time on them. While you are worrying about them you are letting down the people and businesses that support you – keep striving towards your goals.”
How that correlates to the woes of Alice Springs I am not sure but I believe a positive attitude and commitment to projected outcomes works in any situation or circumstance. If you get knocked down, get up and have another go. There are countless successful business people in this town who have done just that, enduring all sorts of adversity to continue to build and consolidate their businesses against all odds. But there are also those that sit on the sidelines, whinge about their circumstance and wait for someone else to sort out all their problems.
That, simply doesn’t happen in the real world and never will. While various organisations and governmental agencies can play significant roles in addressing specific issues (and some could do a better job of it) the bottom line is the most compelling change has to come from within and occur in the mindset of our management teams.
Yes, I guess that does mean being a control freak (guilty) and changing your mind when circumstances change (guilty) and re-prioritising projects, adjusting budgets and redirecting resources from one project to another (guilty) and putting “other stuff” on the back burner while you singlemindedly pursue a new goal (guilty).
But at least this sets you up with a chance to improve your business and at worse, you’ll own your own mistakes.
While I don’t believe in giving advice (allowing yourself to dream, thinking outside the square and following your own intuition will always be the best policy as far as I am concerned) I am happy to share my personal guidelines and some of the policies and procedures that have made the National Road Transport Hall of Fame a success.
• Don’t over-think your problems. I see many people in “damage control” and spending too much time solving their day to day problems. This takes their focus off growing their business, creative thinking and opening doors to new opportunities. This extends to Alice Springs as a community. I hate to think about the countless times in the past thirty years I have been in town that we have gone back to square one dealing with and changing the methodology in how we deal with anti-social behaviour and criminal activity. I believe blanket solutions that apply to all of the community will continue to fail irrespective of what issue they relate to. We need different solutions for different sectors of the community and this is particularly true in a place such as Alice Springs where we have the tyranny of distance, geographical diversity and such cultural differences to contend with.
• Keep your mission and vision firmly in sight and ensure that everybody in your business knows what it is and understands it. Everybody has to have the same compelling vision and work towards the same remarkable future. Negativity will always be there and it is disheartening when this is played out on national scale. Alice Springs has so much so offer. While the rest of Australia is looking at new ways of marketing old product we have incredible untapped resources here. It’s a matter of finding our points of difference and marrying them to consumer demand and new opportunity and target marketing them appropriately. We “married” our truck museum to the road transport industry on a national level. It wasn’t as easy as many think. Scores of transport museums already existed around the country and the industry wasn’t particularly involved in any of them. We worked very hard to give the industry a sense of ownership of our concept. Our points of difference were location, location, location to use a popular real estate phrase, the fact that Alice Springs was the birthplace of the road train and finally that our climatic conditions are ideal for the preservation of old vehicles. I see the same principles being applied to an Indigenous Art and Cultural Centre of international significance. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are in Australia, this is our collective heritage. Perhaps more importantly, it will also do much for employment, training, careers and the sense of purpose and belonging for our young indigenous people. Too many of them are still falling through the gap between culture, education and real employment.
• Regularly monitor and measure revenue and profitability. Are your human resource and assets performing to the best of their ability? Are you actions congruent with your objectives? While there is one part of your business down is there another area you can expand into utilising existing assets and infrastructure? With the projected downfall in visitor numbers our organisation made a conscious decision to look more at functions and events in 2011. This has always been an important part of our fundraising activities but not something we have done on a commercial level previously. We doubled the number of functions we had this year and this really put the pressure on us because our visitor numbers did not reduce but actually increased. We did however have a small reduction in retail sales as grey nomads and free independent travellers (our main markets) do not have the disposable income they once had – the result of the superannuation crash and fuel prices among other things. I think Alice Springs in is an ideal position to take better advantage of this group. They need to prop somewhere for longer while they build up their funds and by clustering and jointly marketing our key events we can keep them in town for longer. This not only supports business while they eat, tour, fuel and service their vehicles, visit attractions and doctors, chemists and other business houses but provides a ready, willing and able group of volunteers. This is essential for the many events and services in Alice Springs that face increasing shortfalls with human resources year after year. We have to develop an environment that is conducive to them staying and that’s not a hard job for to facilitate for the right person or agency. It’s been done successfully all along the Matilda Way in Queensland which, by no accident, is now Australia’s biggest recipient of tourism based revenue from this market.
• Give credit where credit is due. Interact with your human resource. A sense of achievement and appreciation for a job well done is essential at all levels if you expect people to perform at their peak. Success is all about all about inclusion, accountability and performance. You have to have boundaries, policies and procedures in place and we have a very structured volunteer program. People in like-volunteer organisations often say to me that “you can’t do that with volunteers” because they don’t want to upset them or lose them. This is because their need is so desperate. We find the opposite. Our volunteers are inducted and get a specific job description to suit their skills. Compliance with the various Acts and Legislation we are governed by and our own policies and procedures is a given and diversion will not be tolerated. From the onset our volunteers know what is expected of them and what they can expect from us. Generally speaking we try to give our volunteers half their time doing the projects or duties we need to have done (toilets, paths, cleaning, gardening etc) and half on whatever their particular area of interest is. This gets our jobs done and gives them some self satisfaction too. There are of course times of the year, like the summer months, when our volunteer base is down but we have an average of 200 volunteers go through our organisation annually. Most of these come from interstate on either six or 12 week time slots and have returned for in excess of 10 years. In the “tourist season” we actually turn away volunteers because we have a full house. It would be great to be able to refer these people onto another local event or facility. Too many of us view each other as competition but we should work together in developing and promoting our town and its attractions collectively and positively wherever we can.
• Another important aspect is to have the tools and resources available so that staff and volunteers can achieve superior results with their projects. Our volunteers are encouraged to take an active role in our development and, of course, every-one has a good idea and wants the money to implement it. Our formula for any proposed project means a P-BRAT (Plan, Budget, Risk Assessment and Timeline) has to be submitted to me for assessment on its financial viability, logistical workability and whether its fits within the aims and objectives of our Strategic Plan. Only then is it presented to our Management Committee. This works to ensure that whatever we do fits our vision and, to give our volunteers and the opportunity to play an active part to play in our development complete with a sense of achievement when their project is completed. Many initiatives at the Hall of Fame have been developed through this process.
Finally, it is also important to be a part of your wider community. At the Hall of Fame we support tourism diversity and development south of the Gap and are excited about the development of Kilgariff. We also have a policy in supporting the community that supports us. We do not charge an entry fee to local and community school groups that visit us nor to the services that look after the disadvantaged, elderly or disabled in our community.
One of the developments that we are really proud of this year is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between ourselves and Tangentyere Council where our the Road Transport Historical Society has undertaken a corporate responsibility to assist with the development – in the Aboriginal town camp near the Hall – of the Karnte Camp Community Centre and the wonderful team of indigenous women there who are making it a success.
It is all about good neighbours and inclusion and the rewards have been many. This is where I see our future.
While we all sit back and wait for governments to fund the big ticket initiatives and programs there are little things we can be doing.