How one cohort built resilience for economic recovery

“I don’t think you realise the isolation we all [used to] work in. [TDi’s] workshop was the first time that everyone sat alongside each other, had an open discussion and worked together.”

– Rhona Conn, Milne Bay Organics

What was the opportunity?

In 2019, TDi took the YuMi Tourism Partners Pilot Program to Alotau, PNG. The program aimed to address the exclusion from formal markets that is often experienced by Indigenous people and communities in the Pacific and provide more meaningful cultural exchanges between Carnival guests and their destination hosts. It gave emerging local tourism entrepreneurs direct access to one of the biggest markets – cruise ship tourists – through an accelerator program which focussed on core business skills, product development, and testing with customers.

A beautiful and picturesque coastal town with offers of nature, adventure, culture, good food and entertainment, cruise tourism is a key industry for Alotau and the Milne Bay province. We worked with 20 entrepreneurs across eight businesses in the YuMi program, to help them build sustainable tourism businesses with the aim of getting procured by Carnival Australia.

Of course, when COVID-19 hit earlier this year, it had a significant impact on the cruise industry and in turn places like Alotau, that rely on the international tourism market.

“When COVID hit, I was working with my partner in his tourism business – coordinating and admin. When cruise ships and tourists stopped coming, we were hit financially.”

– Nemika Brunton, Alpha Blue Tours

For the businesses that had gone through the YuMi program, things ended hard and fast. Survival became the focus. They had to pivot and diversify – and quickly.

In September this year, TDi were engaged by the Australian Government through PNG-Australia Partnership to provide coaching and support to these businesses to help them address how COVID-19 had impacted their business and support their survival. For example: pivoting their model, exploring new business opportunities, rescoping their financial models, or addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on their mindset.

Tell us the ‘nitty gritty’ details…

When we took initial calls with the four businesses that signed up, we were pleasantly surprised by what we were hearing from the other end of the zoom calls. The story was a positive one. They all seemed confident in their ability to pivot and respond to COVID-19.

When we delved into why, the reason was resoundingly clear: because they were working together.

“Before the coaching, I was very discouraged and exhausted. Now I feel like a whole new world has opened up for me. I am bubbling with excitement at the possibilities that lie ahead.”

- Program participant

Key committees have formed – a tourism association and a small business association – and business owners are talking to each other and working together. Interestingly, the committees that have formed and the businesses that are working together are all led by and include many of the YuMi participants. Further, they are extending invitations to other businesses in Alotau, bringing them in.

As we began to understand their response, we saw that three stages of collaborative response emerge:

Stage 1: support each other
Back in April, Alotau was closed off to the rest of PNG, and the world. Sioni Sioni who runs the Milne Bay Tourism Bureau (and was also involved by association in YuMi) started holding weekly stakeholder meetings. With no cruise ships and no flights into Alotau – what were they going to do?

During one of the early meetings, one stakeholder raised that there was an opportunity to support each other. At least that way the money would go to each other, rather than outside Alotau. They could work together to stimulate the local economy. They decided they could do a series of events and tours for locals to support each other – local art and food tours, live music events shared around venues, local markets.

Stage 2: share the meal
This created the momentum for the businesses to work as a collective to serve the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events) industry guests as domestic flights opened back up. First, Air Niugini brought their board meeting to Alotau. While not insignificant, the opportunity was limited. To use a metaphor, it was a meal, rather than a banquet. Rather than one or two businesses benefiting from the ‘meal’ and only showcasing a small part of Alotau, the Bureau collective coordinated an impressive and extensive stay for the conference group, ensuring as many businesses as possible got a piece of the meal:
• Guests were COVID-safely spread across three of Alotau’s hotels
• East Coast Group and Nemika live-cast the conference across the three venues
• Some of the YuMi businesses (eg: VilLink) provided local day tours of local attractions for the guests
• Fusion coordinated a local handicraft market for artisans and product-based businesses to sell souvenirs to the guests (eg: Yanua Kitchen, Milne Bay Organics)
• Live entertainment and music provided by Kula Groove Project and other local artists

Stage 3: Take Alotau to PoM
Again, off the high of a successful collective effort to serve the corporate conference, the group discussed what was next. In the past, the domestic market had been overlooked in favour of the international cruise market. But with no other option, and their initial success with the MICE industry, they have seen the opportunity to generate more business like this.

“But if you want domestic tourism, you’ve gotta have the product. We want to show them what we have to offer and we want to get it in front of them.

That’s when we came up with the idea of the Alotau roadshow. We will take Alotau to PoM. We’ve partnered with Sylvia Pascoe to get a spot at the PoM city markets and Tai’ta to promote the event to the right people. It will be like a tradeshow where we’re offering local businesses a ‘spot’ for K500 and we will take their collateral and products to PoM, package it up and show them what we can do and what we have to offer.”

– Roz Koisen, East Coast Group

But it wasn’t always like this. Like many towns or industries in PNG, competitiveness amongst small businesses crept into Alotau. TDi helped the YuMi Tourism participants to realise that they all had unique strengths.   

“Where we are now, it goes back to [nearly] two years ago in the YuMi program. Before that, there was a real competitiveness. When I started the program, I was thinking ‘do I really want to talk about my business with competitors?!’

But TDi’s message was ‘we’re here to help you in your own areas and in your own ways – you’re all on a similar journey, but you all have unique things about your business’.

This really made me look internally – focus on the strengths of my business and internalise them. Then the group stuff was great too because I worked with people I wouldn’t have. By the end of the program, we were willing to talk in groups, there was no holding back and it was really refreshing. We put our competitiveness aside to work together…

…and this has continued! It’s why where our response to COVID started. We asked ‘why don’t we do an event together?’.”

– Roz Koisen, East Coast Group

Beyond their response to COVID, the same committees and key players have been able to build a strong voice for small, local, Indigenous businesses and lobby for change with the Provincial Government.

“The TDi program got us to look inward at our own businesses, and outward to who we could connect with. The collaborative spirit and solidarity that we have now came out of that first workshop. We realised we’re actually kindred spirits. We had similar problems, but we were all fighting them individually and it wasn’t making an impact. Like individual mosquito bites, rather than an army of mosquitoes. We are all against business being monopolised and believe everyone deserves an opportunity to be an active participant, whether big or small business. We are lobbying together to make this a reality in our province.”

– Rhona Conn, Milne Bay Organics

The Outcome

What this case study demonstrates for us, is what we know to be the power of cohort-based experiences:

  • Provide strength, support, security and learning through a network of like-minded entrepreneurs
  • Break down barriers of competitiveness
  • Create new opportunities and innovation through collaboration
  • Empower and enable a louder voice to lobby for what is needed

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