Kangaroo Island tour operator Craig Wickham reflects on his post-bushfire, pre-COVID trip to North America

SELLING KI: Kangaroo Island tour operator Craig Wickham being interviewed by NBC meterologist Dagmar Midcap in San Diego during his North American trip back in early 2020.
SELLING KI: Kangaroo Island tour operator Craig Wickham being interviewed by NBC meterologist Dagmar Midcap in San Diego during his North American trip back in early 2020.

Kangaroo Island residents who lived through the 2019/2020 summer bushfires may recall the regular social media posts by tour operator Craig Wickham.

Mr Wickham gave comprehensive daily updates on the fire's movement, its impact on the Island's infrastructure and businesses.

Immediately after the fires but before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, he took off to the United States and Canada to spread the message that Kangaroo Island needed international visitors more than ever.

Next month, he's been selected as a local tourism leader to speak at the hybrid SA Tourism Industry Restart Conference.

Mr Wickham is managing director of Exceptional Kangaroo Island and back in January, he calculates they lost about $420,000 in cancellations due to the bushfires, largely North Americans.

With this in mind, he made an unscheduled trip to the USA and Canada from January 23 to February 26 to spread the message that Kangaroo Island was still open for business.

"I went into the market to really try and address the perception that the entire country was ablaze and spent my time doing trade and media updates across the US and Canada," he said.

Cities he visited included LA, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Vancouver, Toronto, Dallas, Denver, Boston, Boulder and Washington DC.

From a media perspective, he ended up doing a series of radio, television, and face-to-face interviews including KTLA News, NBC San Diego, Fox News Oakland, KGO in San Diego and WGN in Chicago.

He met with journalists from Forbes, New York Times, LA Times, AFAR, Travel Age West and a series of other trade publications.

IN LA: Kangaroo Island tour operator Craig Wickham in Los Angeles on January 28, 2020 being interviewed by Susan Coghill, chief marketing officer for Tourism Australia, with an audience of about 100 media and trade representatives at Marriott at Marina Del Ray.

IN LA: Kangaroo Island tour operator Craig Wickham in Los Angeles on January 28, 2020 being interviewed by Susan Coghill, chief marketing officer for Tourism Australia, with an audience of about 100 media and trade representatives at Marriott at Marina Del Ray.

Typical briefings for the visits provided to the media were along the lines of: Wildlife Expert, Craig Wickham who can speak to the status of the fires, recovery efforts and the best ways North American residents can contribute to Australia's recovery.

Some key points discussed were:

  • Impact on wildlife and how tourism can support wildlife recovery efforts
  • Wildlife recovery trips - how travellers can contribute while enjoying a trip
  • Unaffected areas and tourism businesses that are still open
  • The best nonprofits and organisations working to rebuild and facilitate recovery--where to donate to versus where not to
  • The importance of the tourism sector in Australia

More than 660,000 people in Australia depend on tourism for their livelihoods - that's over 5.2 per cent of the nation's workforce.

Travelling to Australia after the fires was one of the most significant ways Americans can help long-term recovery.

Ways to stay informed on the changing conditions of the fire and affected regions and how keeping your plans to visit unaffected areas helps Australia rebuild, were also discussed.

So was it effective? Yes, Mr Wickham believes the trip was worth it in terms of getting the message across.

"I finally settled on an analogy which seemed to resonate - The fires were widespread, ferocious, fast-moving and larger than any in recorded history.

"However the scale needs to be viewed in the context of Australia which is an enormous landmass. If you combined all of the area burned into one area and compared it to a US state, it would be the same size as Indiana - your 13th smallest state."

Then came COVID-19, even more devastating to international tourism on Kangaroo Island.

"We decided pretty much straight away we would not 'go dark' during the whole COVID shutdown," he said.

"We have shot and produced a host of videos, 28 and counting, including live crosses 'Live from Kangaroo Island' and a 20-minute virtual tour with Tourism Australia following the 'Live from Aus' launch on Channel 10's The Project."

"We are launching e-bikes soon and have developed a host of new tours and tailor-made expedition-style trips."

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