We sat down recently with our Geelong Business Excellence Award winning client, Christine Smith from Great Ocean Stays, to talk about what makes a small business truly successful. Chris shares her invaluable advice here, as follows:

What makes you a passionate business owner?

Just like the other 97% of small businesses in Australia, we must invest our heart and soul into our craft. To be successful, you must live and breathe it. And you can’t do that if you don’t have passion. I have combined my passion of disability advocacy and tourism to create a successful tourism business that is changing the lives of many ordinary Australians. When I hear stories from my guests about how wonderfully accessible our holiday homes are, how they haven’t been able to go on a holiday in years because the facilities didn’t meet their needs, and how they have enjoyed the many and varied accessible tourism places along The Bellarine – this is the driving force for my passion. To make our world accessible for everyone. My business is a reflection of me and what I stand for, so of course I am passionate. I guess what really sets me apart is I want to be a voice for people with a disability.

How did you get into the tourism area?

I have lived in Ocean Grove and Barwon Heads for 25 years. If you run a business here, you are in tourism, because everyone benefits in one way or another from this economy. For me personally, I saw an opportunity 21 years ago to offer luxury holiday experiences for a growing tourism market, and we purchased our first holiday rental and this grew to managing 80 other homes prior to my brain tumour diagnosis in 2013. This experience forced me to rethink my business and due to my long recovery, I had no choice but to reduce the portfolio to offer a more inclusive service with a select group of homes. I adapted to meet the needs of customers of all abilities, not just able bodied people. We invested more than $3.5 million to build custom-made wheelchair accessible homes and in doing so we have successfully disrupted the holiday market in Ocean Grove and positioned ourselves as a leading provider of homes that suit people of all abilities. After all, who wants to run a business that ostracises 4 million Australians?

You’ve been recognised recently winning another Geelong Business Excellence Award (3 years in a row!). How does this feel?

To be recognised by your peers is the greatest accolade of all. Keith Fagg also commented that I am the epitome of an astute and caring business person. This is the greatest compliment I have received in my business career.

But moreover, winning has provided me with a platform to advocate for people with disabilities. The GBE Awards have catapulted the message about inclusion and diversity. Shortly after winning my first award, I was elected to the board of Tourism Greater Geelong and The Bellarine. Advocating at a board level for people with a disability is so important. As a result, I was influential in having the tourism strategic plan amended to include accessible tourism as a focus. I have had many varied speaking roles where I highlight the need for a more physically inclusive world, and also the benefits of employing people with disabilities. It is so ostracising to live in a world that is not ‘built’ for you.

What is the best tip you have for another person wanting to start a small business enterprise?

  • Throw yourself into networking.
  • Get help with the things you don’t know and concentrate on what you are good at.
  • Make sure it’s fun. If it’s not fun, you’ll lose your passion and your customers will feel that.
  • Believe in yourself – there are so many things about you that you may not recognise as attributes – so look out for a genuine mentor who will help you see those strengths to seize opportunities.

What are your thoughts about the increasing amount of tourism in the Bellarine Peninsula?

The Bellarine has a wealth of amazing tourism businesses and destinations. We are a tourism hotspot in our own right; from food and wine, to our championship golf courses and wonderful beaches. And with Avalon Airport becoming an international carrier for Air Asia, this brings a huge opportunity for our region with thousands of visitors arriving each week.

We are committed to making our region a tourism hotspot for all people, and we are working with 80 tourism businesses to become more inclusive. I recently won a State Disability Award for “Excellence in Building Inclusive Communities” and this is as a result of my advocacy in the region to think about ways of becoming more welcoming to everyone – not just able bodied people.

Over 4 million Aussies have a disability. If you don’t have a disability, you’re likely to know someone who does. We must all collectively embrace accessible tourism, and recognise that you may be inadvertently ostracising many customers simply because your space isn’t welcoming. My vision is to make Geelong and The Bellarine an accessible tourism hotspot.