Three weeks. Six million dollars. And one really big party. That's the model behind the business of Jot Lynas, co-founder of Unleashed Travel, which specialises in overseas destinations aimed at 'schoolies'. The three weeks when 'schoolies' generally travel, which this year falls between November 24 and December 17, can make or break Lynas's business. And it's these three weeks that 30-year-old Lynas and his team work towards all year.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll know that the term 'schoolies' refers to the tens of thousands of school leavers who let loose and party hard after studying for and sitting their final year exams. While they typically converge on the Gold Coast and other beachside areas of Australia, Lynas's business offers supervised resort programs in Fiji, Vanuatu and Bali.
The birth of an idea
It's a business idea that he (and fellow co-founders Steve Pirie, 29, and Bryan Scott, 40, both based in New Zealand) conceived in 2008. At the time, Lynas was working as national sales and marketing manager at Topdeck, a travel company that focuses on "18 to 30 somethings".
"Working at Topdeck, I had a lot of relationships with travel agents," says Lynas, who is based in Sydney. "They were crying out for a product."
Lynas says that, at the time, many domestic 'schoolies' offerings weren't offering commissions to travel agents. So he decided to research the possibility of taking teenagers overseas for schoolies week, selling the product through travel agents. He ensured that the agents could earn a commission, thus incentivising them to promote the product.
In 2008, Lynas chartered an entire resort in Fiji and managed to book in 400 school leavers during the 'schoolies' period.
"Back then, we weren't even sure it would work," says Lynas. "It might have stayed as a hobby that we'd do every year. But then we saw the response from the kids as they left the island each week. They loved it so much and that's when we knew we had a business. We didn't anticipate that it would become so big."
In the first year, the three business partners roped in family members to supervise the kids. By 2009, Lynas left his full-time job to focus on the business, operating out of his spare bedroom.
Fast forward four years and Lynas and his crew of 35 staff will be supervising about 3000 school leavers this year. The biggest resort holds 550 people, the smallest hosts 60. The average group size is 250. This financial year, the business expects to turn over $6 million. The company was named by BRW as one of Australia's 100 fastest growing startup businesses in 2011 and 2012.
In March this year, it released packages for 2013 and Lynas says that 1200 sold in the first 12 minutes.
A bunch of partying teenagers letting their hair down after studying for so many years can be a scary thought, especially if you're a parent. In fact, the idea of your child (who may not yet have reached drinking age) partying hard with other kids at a resort far away from home could be a nightmare waiting to happen. However, Lynas says that security and supervision is paramount.
"Our crew meets them at the airport and transfers them to their resort," says Lynas. "The crew are on call 24 hours a day. They also make their presence known and spend time talking to the kids. No duty free alcohol is allowed; we do bag searches and any alcohol is confiscated.
"We have 24-hour security along the waterline, there is security around the swimming pools and if anyone gets in after the pools are closed they are told to get out. Any threatening behaviour, bullying or fighting is not tolerated. If anyone raises a fist, they go home. We sent seven people home last year for fighting. We don't hesitate to send people home if they misbehave."
Lynas is aware that schoolies' celebrations have resulted in tragic incidents in the past, although he says that none have occurred on Unleashed Travel trips. Last year, NSW teenager Jake Flannery, who was in Bali for schoolies week, died when he touched an electricity box on a wall.
"He wasn’t one of our trips," says Lynas. "It’s hard to prepare for anything like that. We do warn our kids and our crew give them briefings when they arrive. This covers dos and don'ts, as well as making them generally aware of any risks.
"We do give examples of how people have gotten in trouble in the past, so that the kids are aware. We also make sure everyone has our mobile phones and that they know we are accessible at all times."
Lynas emphasises that each of his team members also sign an employment contract where they agree that they will not fraternise with any of the school leavers.
Diversifying the offering
Week-long parties aren't the only product offered by Lynas. "In 2013 we're offering an alcohol-free week in Vanuatu," he says. "It's completely dry because there are some kids who just aren't interested in that sort of thing. We're already taking bookings for volunteering trips to Thailand where kids can spend two weeks working with elephants or helping to build a local village. There's a new breed of kid out there who is looking to do things like that."
Lynas, who grew up in Adelaide then completed a business degree at university, says he always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. "For as long as I can remember, that's all I wanted to do," he says. "That's my idea of being successful."
His success may rely on three crucial weeks every year, where Lynas is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, Lynas adds that the rest of the year is taken up with marketing and taking bookings and says that he "works fairly reasonable hours", typically 8.30am to 5.15pm.
Lynas says that a surprising outcome from his entrepreneurial journey so far has been from parents who want a similar experience. "A lot of mums and dads ask us if we can offer a trip for them at the same time!" he says.
"For as long as I can remember, that's all I wanted to do [be an entrepreneur]," he says. "That's my idea of being successful."
However, while Lynas hasn't ruled this out as a possible future offering, he still plans on focusing on 'schoolies'. After all, it's a business that runs like clockwork. Every year, there is a constant supply of school leavers looking for new ways to celebrate the end of high school. So Lynas plans on expanding to other resorts and countries.
After all, the equation currently stands at: three weeks; $6 million; and one really big party. Just watch what happens when the party gets even bigger.