Over its 30 years of operation, and well before such strategy was in vogue, South Australia’s SeaLink Travel Group has followed a model start-up trajectory – using innovative thinking and strong digital development to go from bootstrapping to booming.
SeaLink: Far more than ship to shore
In the public consciousness, SeaLink is synonymous with the ferry service that ships passengers from Cape Jervis to Kangaroo Island and back again.
The corporate reality of the yellow and blue-branded SeaLink Travel Group is far more complex. While its HQ is in Adelaide and the Kangaroo Island ferry – which transports goods like fuel and foodstuffs as well as commuters and tourists – might be a flagship business, it’s far from the company’s only service.
SeaLink’s list of subsidiaries is long and diverse. A non-exhaustive summary includes day tour operations in the Barossa Valley, cruises on Sydney Harbour, coach services across Australia, accommodation facilities that account for more than 400 beds on Fraser Island, a water ambulance service in the Southern Moreton Bay Islands, and various boats under lease arrangements as far afield as Tonga and New Zealand.
CEO and Managing Director Jeff Ellison is not fazed by the variety of operations he oversees. To his mind, they all fit neatly into one business niche.
“Our expertise is running marine transport or transport with the coaches, and combining tourism with the transport,” he says. “So, putting a freight truck full of smelly sheep next to a tourist, and making that a good experience.
“We have the growth strategy around tourism, and then we have the solid, stable part of the business, which is the freight and commuter transport. It doesn’t matter what else is happening around the world with bird flu or other things that might stop the tourism business, that freight business will always be here.”
This business mix, which underpins SeaLink’s success even as it continues to evolve in novel new directions, ties the entity back to its roots.
The Kangaroo Island ferry service is where the business began in 1989 and it’s where the blending of freight and tourism services first demonstrated its profit potential. In that year, the SeaLink name was coined when a majority Malaysian-owned company bought and re-named the Philanderer ferry service that ran between KI and mainland SA.
Accordingly, the company will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019 – but it wasn’t until 1996 that it started out on its current trajectory.
In the early 90s, Jeff was a partner in an accounting firm and one of his clients was SeaLink. The ferry business was struggling – it had “accumulated losses of $3 million”, says Jeff – but still, a consortium of South Australians, including Jeff himself, decided to chip in and buy it.
In 1993, SeaLink had taken over from the Government and began freighting essential goods like fuel to Kangaroo Island. Once the South Australian consortium’s buyout bid was successful in 1996, Jeff became CEO of the business and immediately began to also build tourism into the business plan.
“When we started, less that ten percent of our passengers were tourists and now it’s over eighty percent,” says Jeff. “But even back then we realised there was an opportunity and that by promoting the destination we’d get more people on the ferry.”
The business, though, was a true start-up. Before Jeff and his colleagues could start waving the flag for Kangaroo Island, there were a few more basic matters that needed attention.
“We started out on Greenhill Road, and the day we started we went to this big building and there was nothing in there,” says Jeff.
“The first thing we had to do was buy a telephone and plug it in, and then we had to get desks delivered, and paper delivered. I shared a desk and a phone with our finance manager.”
Jeff and his small team then set about doing what all start-ups should – using innovative ideas to grow their market.
Instead of simply promoting the ferry service they owned, SeaLink started giving people more reasons to use it. While there was investment in simple marketing strategies that promoted Kangaroo Island as a destination, there was also more lateral thinking that led to the creation of things like day tours, which had never been offered on the island before.
Julie Anne Briscoe is now SeaLink’s marketing manager, but was originally employed 26 years ago as the company’s first salesperson – a role that turned out to be very hands-on.
“I used to go to KI lots in those days,” says Julie Anne.
“And I would go to maybe the eucalyptus distillery [Emu Ridge] back when they had just started – they’d just diversified from being sheep farmers. I came back to Adelaide and said we should include it on our tours.
“A lot of those people still remember me. I’ve seen a lot of those little cottage businesses become full-on tourism businesses.”
In 1998, SeaLink launched the SeaLion – a $9 million bigger, more luxurious ferry that could both haul more freight and offer a more comfortable ride to tourists and commuters.
The tourism side of the business swelled, and it seemed only sensible to also take on responsibility for what those visitors were doing around their time on Kangaroo Island.
“We went further and we bought travel agencies and Adelaide Sightseeing – which does Barossa day tours,” says Jeff.
It was in 2004, when SeaLink acquired Subritzky Ferries in New Zealand, that the business first successfully replicated the model of tourism experiences mixed with freight services elsewhere. Ever since, that success has been repeated time and time again – notably with high profile subsidiaries like Captain Cook Cruises on Sydney Harbour, where the existing tourism business was acquired and then augmented with innovative ideas, including a new small ferry fleet to travel additional commuter routes.
As a result of this strategy, SeaLink’s growth has always been solid. In 2013 it went from being privately owned to publicly listed when it launched on the Australian Stock Exchange – a move that has facilitated capital raising to fund more ambitious acquisitions to the point where the company now employs 1600 people.
As well as being strong, SeaLink’s growth has also always been modern. From early on Jeff recognised the importance of an adaptable digital presence and employed a significant digital team.
“Our IT business is something I’m proud of,” he says. “We made a decision to develop and own our own reservation software, which is a pretty big decision because you hear the stories of ‘Oh, we wrote our own software, it took four times as long and cost six times as much and it doesn’t work.’
“We started off with one programmer in the late ’90s. We now have 25 programmers in our company here. It gives us a competitive advantage in that we can write software that services our business really well.”
The digital investment also helps SeaLink connect and communicate with the all-important Chinese tourism market. As well as offering sales services and products like day tours in different languages, including Chinese, SeaLink Travel Group has made a multimillion dollar investment in Hong Kong-based tourism technology company UWAI.
UWAI mediates communication between English-speaking businesses and Chinese tourists. As well as allowing information about services and products to be uploaded in English and then shown via the app or on social media in Chinese, it also facilitates bookings and allows people to share their experiences with friends and family in Chinese, and helps overcome language barriers in venues.
“UWAI converts Australian restaurant menus, for example, into Chinese. So – you have an app, you scan the QR code in the venue, and it will give you the menu in the language you pick,” says Jeff.
While Jeff was negotiating the UWAI deal in offices across Hong Kong and Adelaide, other SeaLink employees were negotiating the waters of the Backstairs Package – ensuring that goods and passengers were safely ferried from mainland South Australia to the shores of Kangaroo Island that hover, barely visible, on the horizon.
The two scenarios seem like they could hardly be more different. But SeaLink’s team can see the connection between the office and the ocean, between the digital and the physical, between tourism and freight, and between ideas and success.