OCCASIONALLY James Archibald sometimes looks back nostalgically to the 38-hour weeks he worked in tourism marketing.
Since he and his partner Ella Godbold took over a McBride Avenue cafe in May last year and re-opened it as The Coffee Collective, there’s been no such thing as a 38-hour week, let alone a five-day week or annual holidays.
But he couldn’t be happier with the way things are going. “Small business is tough but it can be really rewarding to develop something and see it work.”
He says the business has already exceeded expectations. “We hope the community sees this as a gathering place. I think cafes are the new hotels.”
Archibald grew up in Inverloch. He studied at William Angliss Institute, worked in Melbourne and overseas then returned to Inverloch to run the Kiosk cafe on the Esplanade.
Then he did a complete U-turn, studying photography at RMIT. That led to a marketing job at Phillip Island Nature Parks, and then a job in Gippsland tourism marketing for four years.
And then another U-turn: he wanted to have another go at the coal face of tourism, running a cafe in a regional town.
“We like a challenge and we could see an opportunity and a way to position a cafe in Wonthaggi. We’ve got a definite strategy. We’ve identified our brand and who we want to target.
“Regional tastes are as sophisticated as Melbourne’s and people should be able to expect the same level of food and service. One of the opportunities I see working in Gippsland is that there is so much fantastic produce but very few places where visitors can purchase it. We wanted to focus on using local produce.”
The first step was to reimagine the cafe. They stripped back the plaster walls to reveal the bricks, raised the ceiling and gave the place an industrial feel. Then they focused on the coffee, service and food.
Mid-afternoon on a Friday, the place is still buzzing, and the staff are busy preparing for dinner that night, with 40 bookings. The Thursday and Friday night sittings were introduced after requests from customers. There are also winemaker nights and other special events.
These days with sites such as Trip Advisor and Urban Spoon, it’s easy enough to reach out-of-towners, a different take on the old “word of mouth”. Tourists are drawn to the cafe by good reports but also because they want to try local produce and wines.
Archibald’s marketing experience has been vital. “We work with Destination Gippsland, and the local information centre is fantastic. It’s up to business to establish those networks and use them. The business operator has to be pro-active.”
Take the campaign they’ve been running on Facebook. The challenge was to spark up Tuesdays, a traditional dead day for businesses everywhere.
“We used doughnuts as a catalyst. We make our own and use gourmet fillings like ganache, passionfruit curd, salted caramel. They’re ready at 10am. We run a competition through Facebook, asking readers to guess the flavour for the day with the winner getting a voucher for six doughnuts. The first week we made 40. We’re now up to 120. It’s been fantastic for us!"
It seems fantastic to me that anyone could even think of doing this stuff, but Archibald adds modestly: "It’s Marketing 101”.
He says one of Wonthaggi’s great assets is that it’s still a really authentic regional town and it’s becoming more difficult for travellers to find those, especially along the coast. “There is a genuine interest and welcoming attitude from people here, whether it’s in the shops or cafes or pubs.”
There are also more and more local specialist producers, such as Jjaras Farm Gate in Inverloch. “I hope that continues to grow. But there are challenges. We’d love to find a good local artisan baker.”
Finding skilled local staff is another challenge. “We employ 17 full-time and casual staff. Our approach is that if the right attitude is there, we will put the effort into training them. We’ll send our baristas down to Melbourne. We work with our coffee supplier. He comes down here and we have lessons in the cafe. You have to really look after your staff and develop them.”
And pay them properly, he adds, somewhat reluctantly. He is aware that not all local businesses pay their staff the award rate, which makes it hard not only for the employees but for other businesses trying to compete.
Another obstacle is unrealistic rents. He struggles to understand landlords who leave their shops empty for months, if not years, rather than drop the rent and get a good tenant. The empty shops can dent business confidence.
“I think there will be four shops being vacated in this street in the next six months and that’s a worry. It’s really tough for small business. If the rents decreased, it would allow small business owners to have a bit of a go and that would make the town a lot more vibrant.”
He would also like to see a lot more government support for regional tourism. Given that tourism is the second-biggest employer in Bass Coast, with more than 1200 direct jobs and many more indirect ones, there’s been remarkably little talk about it in the lead-up to the election, he says.
“The challenge is to get visitors to stay overnight, and for that there needs to be the accommodation and the infrastructure. We need high-quality resorts, walking tracks, visitor information services, wildlife tours and experiences, authentic local food and wine experiences.
“If we’re going to get serious about tourism, the state government needs to support it. There is limited investment in marketing campaigns. It’s really a pittance. It’s a real lost opportunity.”
He would particularly like to hear the local candidates’ stance on developing an eco-resort or other accommodation in Wilsons Prom. Yes, he acknowledges, it’s a contentious subject, but he feels it can be done sensitively, as in the Freycinet National Park in Tasmania, with flow-on effects for tourism in Bass Coast and South Gippsland.
If we get tourism right, he says, the resulting jobs and opportunities will more than repay the investment.
September 28, 2014
Let us hope that James' and Ella's belief and determination is contagious as well as long lasting. Thanks to you both for showing what is possible.
Tim Shannon, Ventnor