How Covid has impacted the Tourism Industry in Victoria – An interview with Puffing Billy’s Ashley Woodrow

We were all there to witness the world shut down when the pandemic hit, and we know too well how the closing borders, radius restrictions, and overall widespread panic brought the tourism industry to a halt. Ashley Woodrow, the Marketing & Tourism Coordinator at Puffing Billy Railway, sat down with us to discuss the changes that took place due to Covid, and how the tourism industry is taking action to come out stronger and more inclusive than ever before. 

Tell us about your experience working in tourism before, during, and after the pandemic. 

Pre-Covid, we saw that our percentage split between domestic and international travel was about 70% to 30%, with the predominant percentage of visitation coming from inbound (international). With our key source markets including China, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, India, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. Post-covid, we saw a complete flip as a result of international markets being closed. 

What that meant for us at Puffing Billy was that we had to be really adaptable and pivot. You know, as Ross says on Friends. We’re all learning together post-Covid, but we’re finding those gaps in the market and filling them with purpose, authenticity, and a really considered approach.

Being a heritage railway and offering the same train journey since the 1900s to now, you might think what new things can you possibly do? To attract the domestic market to the railway, the team used the lockdowns as an opportunity to be innovative and create new products, including The Dog Express and a calendar of events such as the ever-popular Train of Lights and The Polar Express Train Ride. We were really fortunate that during the Covid lockdowns, we were in the middle of constructing this incredible multi-million dollar building called our Lakeside Visitor Centre, and having this space open up towards the end of lockdowns enabled us to elevate our commercial offering in the food and beverage and retail space, and deliver new off-track experiences including an education program and packages for functions and events.

The team continues to analyse trends and identify opportunities for attracting new and repeat customers. We continue to leverage our core brand identity and unique selling proposition of dangling legs out of the train and deliver products and experiences that are a brand extension such as the Paint & Sip experience.

We always ensure that what we’re offering is authentic, has longevity, and provides people with something to take home with them, and share with other people.

What are the current challenges for international tourism, post-pandemic?

The biggest challenge is being able to welcome those huge numbers, or that thirst for experiences, travel, and all those bucket list items that when people come to Australia, they must do. 

Being a capacity product means we have a limit to how many people we can fit on a carriage, let alone on a service. So, it’s understanding how we find that balance so that we’re able to offer an experience for people to come and enjoy. 

Post-COVID-19, we experienced a natural decline in employee and volunteer numbers. We have spent the past few years driving recruitment to fill the skills and knowledge gaps. Rebuilding our workforce is a priority to ensure we can lift the organisation’s ability to run more services and meet current and future demand.

In what ways is the tourism industry adapting to this new era of tourism? 

The industry is understanding how to personalise their offerings to international visitors. Understanding there are things like culture and customer preferences so that we can develop a range of suitable products and experiences to meet their needs, whilst maintaining the authenticity of our core experiences. Ensuring our experience is inclusive and accessible is a key priority for Puffing Billy Railway and I look forward to driving change in this space.

(During Covid), we were forced to stop and look retrospectively at our existing product offerings, external stakeholders and partners, to identify opportunities for enhancing our product offerings or creating new experiences with the main objective being to increase yield given our capacity limitations. This enabled us to create a sustainable business model with fewer visitors post COVID and create memorable experiences for all.

Sustainability is not just a nature-based consideration. It’s financial, workforce, product, and asset sustainability. It’s understanding how it is that you can not only achieve success, but how you can maintain that success and hold onto that market share as well.

At Puffing Billy Railway, one of our key strategic priorities is to  establish community and stakeholder engagement, and have open conversations about how we can work collaboratively so both parties mutually benefit from the relationship. It’s about having those open lines of communication, and leaving space for things and ideas to breathe. So as much as I say “keep working, keep growing, and try to maintain”, it’s also having those periods of reflection.

What do you envision for the future of tourism, hospitality, and event industries in Victoria and wider Australia? 

We’re fortunate that our state tourism organisation, Visit Victoria have done the work and produced the exciting ‘Every Bit Different’ marketing campaign, which I believe is reflective of what it means to be a part of the tourism landscape in Victoria.

The future of tourism is a big question mark in my mind. With the cost of living pressures and the changing landscapes internationally; It’s something I can’t turn a blind eye to. Working in that space and understanding how it is that we’re going to continue being a positive and inclusive industry means also recognising the challenges that lie ahead in terms of travel, and being able to experience products going forward that meet consumer needs. 

To hear more from Ashley about her career, come along to our Careers in Marketing 101 panel on Thursday 9 May.