Purchasing the Great Ocean Road Tourist Park was a new start for Sarah and Dean Hellessey.
WORDS by Claudia Bouma
What started as a five-year plan turned into 12 years of managing a caravan park that was voted ‘Victoria’s Best Caravan Park’ in 2015 and ‘Australia’s Favourite Holiday Park’ in 2013 and 2014. Meet Sarah and Dean Hellessey, owner-managers of the Great Ocean Road Tourist Park in Peterborough, Vic, a stone’s throw from the spectacular Bay of Islands and a short drive from Port Campbell and the Twelve Apostles.
Sarah and Dean weren’t always involved in the fast-paced tourist industry. Dean initially managed a floor covering business while Sarah was employed in the publishing industry. Both enjoyed successful careers until Dean injured his back and Sarah was made redundant, both happening within a matter of months.
Instead of complaining about the sudden turn of events, they decided to seize the opportunity to make a radical lifestyle change. Their desire was to work together and managing a caravan park seemed the perfect way to achieve this. After a search that lasted two years, they finally bit the bullet and purchased a caravan park in Mildura.
“We were so naïve,” Sarah laughed, as she thought back to the 18-month stint in north-west Victoria. “We hit the ground running and experienced a baptism by fire. We looked after 24 cabins, eight on-site caravans and over 40 powered sites with minimal help. We were busy all the time.”
As they reminisced about their time in Mildura, they wondered how on earth they did it. “It was a great way to learn the industry and we worked out what kind of park would work for us,” Dean said.
However, life was about to throw more challenges their way as Sarah’s father fell seriously ill and the distance to Melbourne became a stumbling block.
Soon, the decision was made to look for another caravan park. “It had to be within a three-hour radius of Melbourne and close to the ocean,” Dean said. The park in Peterborough came on the market and, 10 days before Christmas 2003, they made the sea change.
Sarah remembers the initial 12 months well. “It was a tense time because we had our own ideas of how to manage the park,” she said.
The couple decided not to make any major changes in the first year and Dean shared this advice: “Don’t make decisions until you know the park, as each park has a different demographic.”
Sarah recalled the things they had to work on which came as a total surprise. “Guests would complain about the lack of TV reception and we realised we had to do something if we wanted people to come back.”
Dean soon discovered the ride-on mower was rather old; it took him two days to mow the entire park. “After six months we decided to buy a brand-new one so I would have more time to do much-needed maintenance.”
During the first year, Sarah and Dean focused on listening to their guests and picking up on what they were looking for. At the same time, they realised a lot of underground works had to be carried out.
Drainage was a major issue and a number of deluxe cabins experienced sewage problems. Their plans for a jumping pillow and a communal camp kitchen had to be put on hold as other, more immediate, needs were seen to first.
After two years of hard work and continuous improvements, Sarah and Dean experienced a change of a different kind – their baby girl Lily was born. “Lily was a real caravan park baby and everybody loved her,” Sarah said. It was an easy transition and Lily fitted right in.
Four years later, Lily’s brother Toby was born. “We didn’t time that pregnancy very well,” said Sarah, jokingly. “He was due in January, the busiest time of the year and I was still working at reception when the first contractions started.”
So what do the kids think of living in a caravan park? “The jumping pillow was installed two days before Lily’s fifth birthday and she told her friends it was her birthday present!” Dean and Sarah agreed that Lily and Toby have a great lifestyle – what other kid has a jumping pillow in the backyard?
When asked about the challenges of managing a caravan park, Sarah smiled. “Some people’s expectations have changed,” she said. “There’s the expectation that our reception is 24/7 – more guests drive in after hours, not understanding that finding a place to stay, eat or shop after 8pm is difficult in small country towns.”
Language and culture are other challenges which have become more obvious with the explosion of Chinese travellers. “Communication can be difficult because a lot of tourists don’t speak a great deal of English,” Sarah said. “I realised our Chinese guests cook different food so I bought rice cookers for the cabins and added green tea.
“We also discovered the internet password was an issue because it contained the number four and this means bad luck in the Chinese culture.”
“Managing guests is a formidable challenge during the summer holidays, when we run a small community,” Dean said. “It’s usually people not staying in the park who cause problems. Thankfully, we work closely with the local police and they’re quite happy to do a drive through when we ask them to.”
Then there are the challenges of changing government policies, new fire regulations and the increasing size of camper trailers and caravans, just to name a few!
As we finish up, I asked Sarah and Dean the same question I posed to Sharon and Ray: ‘If you could say one thing to guests, what would it be?’ They looked at each other and blurted out in unison: “We don’t control the weather!
The Great Ocean Road Tourist Park was awarded ‘Victoria’s Best Caravan Park’ in 2015 after being voted ‘Australia’s Favourite Holiday Park’ in 2013 and 2014. This annual competition, run by Turu.com.au, encourages campers and travellers to vote online for their favourite caravan parks.
So what makes Dean and Sarah’s park stand out from the pack? Surprisingly, it is not a fancy swimming pool, aquatic playground or a children’s entertainment program. Dean and Sarah believe in creating a place that encourages families to come and experience a traditional family holiday.
For that reason they allow campfires as it brings people together. “There’s nothing more satisfying than to see families that hardly knew each other to be sitting together around a fire, sharing a meal,” Dean explained.
“And it’s the small things people comment on,” Sarah continued. “We place bath mats, tissues and hand sanitisers in the amenities. Fresh flowers are always appreciated.”
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