Binna Burra Lodge: Reimagining Sustainable Hospitality with Community Values

 

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July 10, 2021

Binna Burra Lodge, Lamington National Park, Australia

As the world continues to grapple with the changes and challenges presented by the pandemic, “recovery” is a major theme impacting almost all aspects of current tourism discussions, and there is a lot of talk around the need for “building back better”. But instead of just talking about it, how can the tourism industry ensure a truly sustainable, inclusive and resilient recovery?

We’ve talked to Steve Noakes, Chairperson of Binna Burra Lodge (Lamington National Park, Australia), who has been leading the efforts of rebuilding the iconic lodge that was destroyed by wildfires in 2019, while facing the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. The company has successfully returned to welcoming (local and domestic) visitors, with new business opportunities, enhanced visitor experiences, and even stronger commitment to sustainability.

Binna Burra is a great example of true commitment to sustainability values, and offers inspirations for tourism businesses around the world, as well as lessons on preparing for, responding to and recovering from crises, and becoming more resilient.  

Steve Noakes

Binna Burra, in its long history, has always had a strong focus on sustainability, but in recent years, especially in the context of bushfire recovery and the COVID crisis, what does sustainability mean to you and the lodge now? What has changed, and what has not?

At the beginning of the six-month Black Summer bushfires in Australia (2019/2020) our core ecolodge business was destroyed and it took us one year to resume partial operations. Six months before we re-opened, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and like everybody else around the world, we now have to live in and operate within the context of COVID.

Fortunately, our primary market is within about a two-hour drive of the destination, so when state or international borders are closed, we still attract our core domestic market.

Binna Burra has practiced what we now term as “sustainable tourism” since it was founded back in the early 1930s. More than 20 years ago, it was the first commercial accommodation in Australia to achieve certification with a recognised ecolabel. So sustainability is within the DNA of the organisation which is an unlisted public company under Australian corporate law.  

For us, sustainability means a process of continuous improvement which includes making all operations staff (new and experienced) constantly aware of the "what" and "how" of being true to our commitment to sustainable tourism.

The changes that COVID has brought to us include higher compliance with various health and hygiene practices throughout the business, extra costs for deep-cleaning and more regular cleaning of rooms and all points of people contact. I think COVID has also seen an expansion of our core market who are seeking clean and green nature-based experiences. That's what we deliver inside the world heritage-listed Lamington National Park here in Queensland, Australia.

 

Have you faced any challenges balancing recovery priorities and sustainability goals? If so, how have you addressed those challenges and what have been some of the key lessons for you?

There's plenty of challenges to address after a wildfire destroys your property!

The key thing is to stay positive and focus on the opportunities to reset, reimagine and recreate that which was lost. Our bushfire response and recovery has involved a strategic approach to identify and engage Binna Burra ‘PALs’ – Partnerships, Alliances, Linkages.

Those PALs have been vital as within a week of the disaster, the Binna Burra Recovery Framework had been developed and implementation commenced.

Binna Burra Lodge 2019 bushfire before after

A research project undertaken by Griffith University identified the following key lessons learn following our response and recovery process after the devastation in 2019:

  • Have multiple trained fire wardens, particularly given varying shift patterns and high-risk and/or remote locations. Define precise roles prior to the emergency and during the event.
  • Have multi-skilled, cross-trained staff that are able to deal with complex and variable situations, and transferable skills. This is particularly relevant during the recovery process when staff may have to undertake roles outside of their normal duties. Conduct regular crisis scenario training.
  • Have a go-kit that is easily accessible and contains information required to keep business trading and/or be able to respond to insurers and banks etc., as well as spare building and vehicle keys. Store important archive documents off-site, and store cash and valuable items in a way that is easy to move. Station staff to avoid more visitors to the disaster zone.
  • Do not let business get in the way of early evacuation.
  • Pre-determine the most senior person in the organisation as a single spokesperson to communicate and liaise with stakeholders and media.
  • Prepare to operate remotely and set-up temporary headquarters. Portable technology infrastructure and telecommunications and cloud-based computing is important.
  • Pivot your communications and website in response to the event.
  • Consider forward bookings and distribution channel partners to help manage cash flow in the event of a disaster.
  • Build relationships with key stakeholders and partners prior to the event such as destination marketing organisations, the media, emergency services and government.
  • Understand your staffing responsibilities and have a staff management plan in the event of a disaster with particular consideration to the post-disaster staff management strategy e.g. business disruption insurance. Review insurance policies with an experienced insurance broker (at least once a year).

 

What are some of the changes you are implementing or expecting for the “new” Binna Burra?

Over the next few years we will continue to rebuild a business that has suffered heavily from lost infrastructure and scarce financial resources. Strengthening our approach to sustainable operations is very important to us and I'd like to see Binna Burra break into new ground as a leader in sustainable tourism approaches linked to the bigger picture of climate change, the SDGs and the UN Global Compact.

But, one step at a time! While we have already - or are about to - launched some innovative new products (e.g. Bushwalker's Bar, Bushwalker's Bunkhouse, Bushfire Gallery, Koala Korner, new food & beverage capacity of our Tea House), in early 2022 we will open an Australian-first new adventure option known as Via Ferrata @ Binna Burra. This will be a high profile product from which we can leverage a revival of our previous adventure activities.

The 'new Binna Burra' will capture the 'spirit of Binna Burra' that so many generations have experienced, but without our heritage listed old ecolodge and pioneer timber cabins, it will be a different experience that meets the needs of current and future generations.

Binna Burra Lodge operated for 86 years before the 2019 bushfires. Looking forward, we're always thinking long term - for the next 86 years of human activity and experiences within this world heritage listed Lamington National Park.

 

Are you hopeful that the tourism industry - locally and globally - will be “building back better” and becoming more sustainable? If so, what gives you hope?

Since the early 1930s, Binna Burra has always been a story of resilience. Previous generations of custodianship of the Binna Burra Cultural Landscape have remarkable stories of resilience and that now continues after the 2019 bushfires.

The founders of Binna Burra dealt with the First World War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, WW2, the threat of nuclear conflict during the Cold War, plus a bunch of other external pressures that current generations (thankfully) have not had to experience.

Our recovery from the destruction of the bushfires illustrates the power and value of goodwill, an intangible asset that we describe as ‘solidarity tourism’, evolving out of the ashes of the disaster.  

For the first time since 1934, currently we are undertaking an active share issue to raise the working capital necessary to ensure the survival of a business that can be described as a social enterprise with an environmental focus. Under the company's constitution, no one shareholder can own more than 2.5% of the shares, so we now have over 1,000 shareholders with relatively small amounts invested but they all feel part of the 'spirit of Binna Burra.

Our hope for the future of Binna Burra is sustained by our current generation's respect for the commitment and history of those who have gone before us. And now we are working to ensure a sustainable nature-based tourism business is rebuilt for future generations.

 

GSTC SUSTAINABLE HOTEL COURSE

Steve is one of the guest expert presenters for the upcoming GSTC Sustainable Hotels Course (SHC-2107: July 22 - Aug 6) and will be sharing his insights into sustainability management and resilience, based on Binna Burra Lodge's experience.

The GSTC Hotel Course is designed for hospitality and accommodation professionals, and provides practical insights into sustainability practices for hotels through expert presentations, useful resources, and real-life industry examples and lessons on applying sustainability best practices. Learn more & join.

Steve Noakes has been involved in the travel and tourism industry for 40 years, and is a long term advocate for sustainable tourism practices across the Asia Pacific region.