Asher and Julie Telford aptly symbolised the proverbial ‘cats on a hot tin roof’ as they entered the Sunshine Coast Convention Centre on Friday night.
Having weathered the Covid apocalypse that had wrought havoc on their industry for the past two years, the Whitsunday tour operators were cautiously optimistic for a win at the Qantas Australian Tourism Awards but didn’t dare dream the trophy was in the bag.
When their seven-year-old business ‘Red Cat Adventures’ was announced Gold winner in ‘Adventure Tourism’ then Silver in the ‘Major Tour and Transport Operator’ category, the reality of their achievements slowly sank in.
For Julie Telford it was as though the cat had literally got her tongue.
“I was speechless,” she said.
“Although we’ve been privileged to win awards in the past at local, state, and national levels, this is our first Gold in the Adventure Tourism category nationally.
“Without international youth markets to draw on, Adventure Tourism has been one of the hardest hit sectors, and what we personally – and our industry as a whole – have been through during the pandemic, cements this as the toughest battle of them all and consequently the most cherished win.”
Asher Telford explained the couple, their three children, Kai (9), Brody (7), Tyde (3), and 32 staff, were still celebrating their Gold and Silver wins from the 2019 Australian Awards when news of the onset of Covid-19 began trickling through.
“It was only a few weeks between the high of winning two categories at the last national awards to tourism falling off a cliff,” he said.
“The value of our company halved almost overnight, and we were faced with the devastation of losing the majority of our staff; what ensued has been an insane, emotional, rollercoaster ride – at times elating, at others soul-destroying, but always raw and real.”
So how did a family-owned business in regional Queensland turn this tide around?
“Instead of closing our doors and taking a rest, we slaved – we worked 10 times harder, and made a new business plan every time the rules changed,” Asher Telford said.
“We sought opportunities from challenges, took calculated risks, and actually grew our company during Covid, evolving into a better, more efficient, more sustainable business as a result.”
“Being 86 per cent international prior to the pandemic forced us to chase new markets and openings,” Julie Telford continued.
“We not only clawed back our staff numbers but actually increased the size of our sales team in preparation for border re-openings, meanwhile diversifying our products and retaining optimum customer satisfaction across all our tours.”
That guests actively choose to avail themselves of a free ‘Red Cat’ tattoo, attests to that customer satisfaction and the popularity of the company, renowned for its Whitsunday day tours.
Travelling aboard purpose-built power boat ‘Thundercat’ or re-purposed sailing vessel Tongarra, patrons can enjoy Whitsunday islands highlights, or escapes to idyllic Paradise Cove Villa.
More recent additions to the Red Cat Adventures experience suite include mainland ‘Falls to Paradise’ tours combining waterfall and resort excursions, and newly launched ‘Wild Cat’ cruises to Great Barrier Reef islands off Mackay.
As well as a raft of adventure activities such as snorkelling, paddle-boarding, banana boat-riding, sailing and bush-walking, guests can engage in a variety of Eco and Edu-tourism-tailored tours, including the curriculum-based ‘Immersive Learning Project’, designed to foster ‘travel for good’ and broaden stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef.
Proud of their environmental commitment, the Telfords boast the highest level of eco-certification as Climate Action Leaders and employ the only staff member in Australia accredited as both a Master Reef Guide and globally recognised Savannah Guide.
With core family values carried across the business and a high focus on vessel maintenance and safety, the Telfords pride themselves on Red Cat Adventures’ continued ability to showcase the Whitsunday region to Australian and global audiences through 2022 and beyond.
Tourism Whitsundays Chief Executive Officer, Rick Hamilton, said their success at the Australian Tourism Awards was a testament to this and congratulated them on the win.
“Julie, Asher and the whole team at Red Cat Adventures are an incredible asset to the Whitsunday region and this win speaks volumes about the world-class offerings we have in the Heart of the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.
“Red Cat Adventures has become an iconic experience in one of the most iconic destinations in the world – well done and congratulations again to Red Cat Adventures on this exciting win.”
The next step for the Telfords is returning to the Whitsundays to celebrate with staff.
“We obviously want to say a huge ‘thank you’ to our staff, the Whitsunday community, our fellow Queenslanders, everyone who’s supported us over the past seven years and every customer who’s ever travelled on one of our tours,” Julie Telford said.
“We’d also like to say a huge ‘congratulations’ to all the other award winners and finalists because to even be in that room after such a turbulent two years is a massive achievement that everyone deserves recognition for,” she said.
“You really are up against the best of the best, and I think collectively, in the past two years particularly, we have all played a part in helping Australians discover the wonders of their own backyard.”