I had a lot of fun recently chatting with Margaret River tour guide Sean Blocksidge, who I interviewed for the inaugural issue of Your Margaret River Magazine. Being a tour guide myself it was fascinating to get his perspective on the scene, and the story of his business, as well as some insider tips for that even a locals will appreciate.
Published December 2015, read the whole issue for free at Issuu.com.
In 2010 he won Western Australian Guide of the Year, he’s been rated the #1 Thing To Do in Australia on Trip Advisor, and he once took Jeremy Clarkson on an adventure tour and lived to tell the tale, yet the journey for Perth born Sean Blocksidge, owner of Margaret River Discovery Tours hasn’t always been a smooth one.
After years of living and travelling all over the world, Sean saw what he thought was a huge opportunity in Margaret River to create a tourism business along the gourmet, ecological lines. So in 2008, he chucked in his job, and invested everything in his new business. So how did it go?
“Shocking. A disaster”.
“It was the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis, and it was so bad, by September of that first year and I was done, I’d lost everything” Thankfully, Sean clung on for a while longer, and his fortunes changed practically overnight. “I went to number one on Trip Advisor and that was it; the next morning off it went and I’ve never looked back. We’ve held that number one position ever since”.
Sean’s Trip Advisor account is chock full of glowing 5-star reviews, yet Sean says word of mouth has also been an extremely important part of growing his business, as has social media, something that he came to mostly by accident.
After exhausting his marketing budget on so-called traditional marketing, he began investigating other ways to promote his business. Despite his lack of training or experience in the field, he has grown his community to currently 10,000+ followers on Instagram, 5,000+ Facebook and 1,500+ Twitter. He has made such a good job of it that he was recently invited to present on the topic at Inaugural News Corp Australia Tourism Innovation Conference in Cairns this November.
It’s clear that what customers appreciate about Sean and his tours is his no nonsense and fun personality, which is a breath of fresh air in an industry that is dominated by shiny, off-the-peg tours aimed at large groups of people. Indeed Sean’s motto is “tours for people who don’t do tours”, which he laughingly explains came from an unlikely “Charles and Camilla” couple he took on tour a few years ago.
“We about to go canoeing and hiking and 4wding. He was in a tweed jacket and cravat, she was in a summer dress and heels and a flower brooch and thought to myself ‘Oh my God, they are slightly overdressed for what we’re about to do’. On top of that, she’d only told him about the tour an hour before, and you could see the steam coming out of his ears. He was furious! Then at the end of the day he turned to me and said ‘Oh Sean! what a marvellous day it has been! This really is the tour for someone who didn’t want to do a tour!’ “.
The cheeky phrase caught Sean’s ear, and now graces all of his marketing material.
“That really describes the kind of people who do my tour. They wouldn’t dream of doing a big bus tour. There’s nothing wrong with a big bus tour, most people love that stuff, but that’s just not what my clients are choosing to do”.
While he initially imagined that most of his visitors would be international, these days Sean estimates that well over 80% of his visitors are Australian, with Queenslanders making up the bulk of that group. Sean can’t quite explain this phenomenon, but theorises that “they guzzle so much Margaret River wine over there… they’ve gotta come and discover the source!”.
The Perth region also attracts a lot of customers, especially the expat Oil, Gas and Mining population, but he says it is difficult to get Perth-born people on tour, as they tend to assume they already know everything about the region. However, “When you get one or two, they are amazed, and they tell their friends, who tell their friends”.
While the recently dropping Australian dollar has seen an increase in the international market, Sean is still convinced that there is plenty for even locals to discover, remarking that the most overlooked attraction in the Margaret River Region is the Margaret River itself. “I always say to my guests when we go canoeing ‘We’ve just done something that I think about half the population here haven’t done’...I do it every day and I never see anybody. I find that astounding”
Another forgotten gem is The Cape To Cape walking track.
“We’ve got one of the worlds best walking trails right on our doorstep, and how often do people actually get out on that and overnight camp on it? Most people just thinking ‘wine-wine-wine’ and that is the number one attraction for sure but there is just so much more to do than just the wine”.
Sean was always driven to recreate a country town atmosphere that he’d enjoyed so much in this time abroad, and upon arrival in Margaret River approximately 13 years ago, joined the local Volunteer Fire & Rescue Brigade.
“One of the amazing things is being out in a fire for 8-10 hours with some of these old timers, and the more you go, the more they trust you, the more they share their stories. That’s been invaluable for me” he says, adding “I’ve been told some really special locations”.
While this is helpful for his job as a tour guide, it’s clear that he isn’t in it for the rewards, stating that an essential part of living in a small country town is contributing back into that community. “We have very high volunteer rates down here”. And being a volunteer firefighter is definitely not all fun and games.
The 2011 Margaret River bushfires, initially a controlled burn that jumped containment lines in which dozens of houses were lost and tens of thousands of hectares of forest and bushland were blackened, he describes as being one of the scariest experiences of his life. “Even the most hardened of fire-fighters got a fright out of that one. It was devastating. The upside was that it did bring the community together, but there was no fun and joy in that experience.”
Thankfully, the region was able to bounce back, and tourism in the Margaret River Region is a strong as ever.
Sean Blocksidge and Margaret River Discovery Tours are helping to make sure of that.
Check out Sean's tours at http://www.margaretriverdiscovery.com.au