A visitor meets some seals on a Moonraker tour in Port Phillip Bay. Photo: Supplied
Torie Mackinnon began working on boats in her family's business, Moonraker Dolphin Swims, at the age of 15.
In 2006 she became managing director, and under her guidance, the Mornington Peninsula business has become Victoria's largest dolphin swim operators, with 14,000 dolphin and seal spotters each season.
In September, the 28-year-old was named Telstra's Victorian Young Business Woman of the Year.
Torie Mackinnon accepting her Young Business Woman of the Year award.
1. You were Australia's youngest commercial boat captain at 17. That must have been exciting?
The ocean is something I have always loved. Growing up on the beaches of Sorrento, my 'backyard' was Port Phillip Bay, so naturally I followed my interests and at 17 I became a commercial captain, taking people out to swim with the resident seals and dolphins in the bay.
2. What does your average work day involve?
Depending on the season, it usually consists of waking up and checking the weather, meeting the crew and guides and preparing the tour vessels before heading out to swim with the seals and dolphins. Each day is different, be it the weather, locating the animals or the people we meet. However I also return to a pile of paperwork and emails, on which I spend a few reluctant hours.
3. You're now managing director. What sort of changes have you brought into the business?
Over the past 10 years many things have changed and developed. We now operate two tour vessels, our departure times have changed and we have a coach service from Melbourne to Sorrento. Our tours visit one of the most iconic marine parks in Port Phillip Bay, where our guests have the opportunity to snorkel through the kelp gardens, as well as view the sea bird colony.
We are more active in social media and our advertising is mostly electronic whether it be it TV, internet or blogs. We have employed more guides and boat crew as our passenger numbers have increased.
Our business has changed over the 10 years, however it maintains the original philosophies and eco-tourism values first brought about from its establishment in 1990.
4. What's it like working with family and what have you learnt from each other?
Working with family is both rewarding and testing. My mother and I are like best friends so we work extremely well together. I think we have learnt about each others' strengths and weaknesses and by recognising these we are an exceptional team.
5. What are some of the challenges of running a business like this?
Our main challenge is the weather. Operating on the water, the weather affects all different environmental elements. However the expectations from guests on what to expect from wild animals is very diverse. Essentially we take people out into the natural environment of the seals and dolphins, so we need to adapt to their world. Because these remarkable creatures are naturally inquisitive, people get an experience that is unique to Australia and Port Phillip Bay. Tourists are blown away by the fact that although these animals are wild, the come to us of their own choice.
6. How do you keep customers coming in if tourist numbers fall or the weather turns bad?
We operate on a seasonal basis from October to May, so essentially we miss the coldest and windiest part of the year. However we do experience days where we can not operate our tours. We offer seasonal specials in our off-peak season, and expand into the school, education and group markets in the off-peak season to ensure our passenger numbers are stable.
7. What do you do in the off-season?
During the winter months my mother operates a cattle farm in Northern Victoria, on which we specialise in Red Angus Cattle. This gives me a four-month tree change! We both have the time of our lives, and lucky I don't have to worry about the weather. My mum (Sandy) bought the farm five years ago and in that time it has grown substantially. We have both meat and breeding bloodlines and specialise in grass-fed beef. The cattle we breed are amazingly friendly as we farm with the philosophy of 'give them the best life possible for the time you have them' so our 'girls' are hand fed and very friendly.
8. How do you deal with unhappy customers or bad reviews?
I enjoy receiving positive criticism I see it as a helpful tool to review our business. We put so much work into operating our business to the best of our ability and on the odd occasion that we do receive negative feedback, we rectify the source of the customer's concern and repair it from there. As a result of past feedback we have introduced a 50 per cent off voucher if people do not see dolphins during their tour, we now supply thermal vests in the cooler months and the quality of verbal and visual interpretation has increased. These changes have enabled us to eliminate 99 per cent of negative feedback. I look at it as 'feedback'; it helps us improve our service. Sometimes people like to hear that from their feedback changes have been made. Therefore we are truly delighted when they come back for another tour and tell us that they returned because we had listened to them and implemented their suggestions.
9. How important is marketing for you and what's been most effective?
We have developed our marketing strategies over many years and continually refine them to meet the changing economic and demographic circumstances that affect our target markets.
Our promotional activities cover a wide range of areas including print, electronic and internet based marketing, covering both the international and domestic markets.
The most effective marketing is large scale public awareness for our domestic market. It's costly, however our brand is recognisable which has reflected in our consistent growth in tourist numbers throughout the past 10 years.
10. Got any grand plans for the business from here?
We will continue to explore ways to expand and grow by delivering a range of tour options, from small group tours to a large capacity first-class tour. Our search for new and innovative concepts throughout the tourism industry is ongoing. We love what we do and wouldn't change it for anything in the world!