Twenty-one years ago this week, a crazy cat with a dream arrived home in Wollongong from a trip to Mexico and realised his future did not lie in a nine-to-five office job.
He talked four of his mates (and the love of his life Tamahra) into jumping out of a plane onto the beach at North Wollongong - and the rest is history. That afternoon they toasted the success of their stunt and Sky Dive the Beach was born. It was one thing to convince a couple of mates to jump for a laugh, but everyone knew that didn't translate into a successful business model. There was little chance it was ever going to work over the long term.
This week, Anthony Boucaut and Tamahra cut a cake with their staff, some of whom have been with them since day one, to celebrate 21 years in business. It is now the largest adventure travel business in the southern hemisphere. Over 650,000 jumps have been completed in Wollongong, more than 1000 staff are employed across the country and the company is now publicly listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. Now that's a Wollongong success story! Dreams do come true, when you make bold decisions and work hard.
On Friday morning, 150 business leaders, politicians and tourism operators celebrated the launch of the Wollongong Press Play brand and the success of Tourism Week for 2019. John O'Sullivan, the CEO of Experience Co (formerly Skydive the Beach) and previously the Managing Director of Tourism Australia, arguably the most important tourism executive in the country, was on hand to give his thoughts on the new brand and what opportunities he sees for the visitor economy of Wollongong. Thankfully, he didn't like the new brand, he loved it!
Even more pertinently, he pointed to infrastructure as the key to growing the visitor economy, and leadership as being the key to getting infrastructure out of the ground. So where do we go from here?
It's well documented that Wollongong has a real challenge with hotel occupancy moving forward. Visitor nights in the region grew by over 15% in the year ending March 2019 but, unfortunately, without new investment there is no chance of this growth continuing.
There is no shortage of investment available to build new hotel stock, but the big wigs aren't eyeing off West Dapto; they need access to our foreshore and in the CBD, and the cost of the limited land in these locations is prohibitive to hotel development.
All of the right discussions are happening in all of the right offices of local, state and federal government, but it's now time for some of those tough decisions to be made. Tourism infrastructure projects are not easy. They are never the "highest and best use for highly competitive land" and they never will be.
But as a city, if we're going to fulfil our potential, diversify our economic drivers, and value the investment and cultural input of major events and the visitor economy, they are crucial. They are necessary, because they underpin jobs in the retail, tourism, events and food and beverage sectors.
It has taken a long while for Wollongong to understand the power of visitors. When we first welcomed the Crossfit Games seven years ago, we got slammed for not being prepared. Some cafes weren't open and we ran out of food - it did nothing for the reputation of Wollongong.
It's time to take that to another level and make some bold decisions about the future of the CBD.
To the credit of the city's operators, we learnt quickly. There were signs welcoming the event to town, sweet potato and chicken breast sales sky rocketed, and the competitors had an amazing experience.
Unfortunately, the event became too successful and too large and moved to Sydney last year after five great years. The day after the Sydney event, Crossfit's operator was on the phone, wanting to return to Wollongong because we had valued the event and met their needs.
We don't boast a single, defining entity, like Disneyland, but we do have a world class range of experiences for everyone. We have passionate locals and businesses who love welcoming visitors to our city. It's time to take that to another level and make some bold decisions about the future of the CBD.
Seven years ago I was told by our then chairman, Matt Davidson, that we'd be in a position in the near future that when Hilton Hotels came knocking on our door, we wouldn't know what to tell them. Sadly, he was right. We had just lost the Dwyers' site on Crown Street to a residential development and we were never going to get it back. We can't afford to lose any more of these premium sites; they need to be protected immediately.
We've matured markedly as a city in the last seven years - there are cranes in the air, the visitor economy supersedes state averages, the University is kicking goals and we have a thriving major events program. To take advantage of these advances, we must now make the hard calls to take the visitor economy forward. The clock is ticking. Its time to press play!
Mark Sleigh is general manager of Destination Wollongong