Written on the 18 June 2015 by Jenna Rathbone


IF the Gold Coast wants to boost its reputation as a place to do business and a preferred tourism destination, it needs to be investment driven, says tourism guru Craig Davidson.

The CEO of Dreamworld, WhiteWater World and SkyPoint talks to Gold Coast Business News about what the city needs to reach its full potential as a national and global hotspot.

The director of Gold Coast Tourism says: "We have the natural assets, but the man-made development has made us what we are and we need to go back to that."

Davidson's career includes successful appointments within the Australian tourism industry including general manager of Tourism Australia and CEO of nature-based experiential tourism company Anthology.

Before that he spent 10 years as an executive involved in the transformation of Hamilton Island into a thriving business and as the executive general manager operations for Voyagers Hotels and Resorts.

Since taking on the role with Dreamworld owner Ardent Leisure, Davidson says it hasn't been an easy ride with the business impacted by the fluctuating economy and domestic leisure market.

Davidson gives Gold Coast Business News an insight into the biggest highlights of his career, the challenges the city is facing and his biggest regret in business.

What are three key leadership strengths you bring to your current role and how do they assist in the successful running of the business?

  1. Make decisions and be decisive. Procrastination is a killer in business and in life really, so get on with it and don't be afraid to make mistakes. The inability to set clear direction spreads rapidly through the business and has everyone second guessing their decisions which slows things down.
  2. Trust the team to do their job, back them and let them make decisions. I think this is one of the keys to a good culture. I have seen instances where a business puts a lot of effort into finding good people and then sets about micro-managing them rather than trusting them to deliver results. I mark my team on the overall scoreboard, not day-to-day detail.
  3. Be visible and give the team your time. We are a single site operation (apart from SkyPoint) and I have the benefit of being able to walk the talk with my team. I realise this is harder with multi-site businesses but it's an advantage for us and I leverage that where I can. The old adage of "catch people doing something right" still works and you can only do this if you are out with staff and customers.

What has been the biggest highlight of your career?

Many really - I think winning awards is always a highlight and there have been a few of those personally and at the business level.

Turning around Hamilton Island in the mid-90s was a highlight for sure. When the new executive team arrived we were faced with a basket case of a business which was about to go back into receivership. The challenge was to reinvent the brand, get the revenue tap turned on, and improve the experience all at the same time. To achieve that, have it trading profitably and sustainably, and then be in a position to sell at a good valuation to its current owners was very rewarding. It also taught me that you have to invest in your product continually and you have to sell the sizzle sometimes before the BBQ is hot! We always promised a lot and worked hard to deliver it.

What have been some of the biggest challenges since taking on the CEO role at Dreamworld, WhiteWater World and SkyPoint, and how did you overcome these?

First, for me, is learning the business and the industry. It takes time to really understand the market we are in and the levers that need to be pulled to benefit the business. I would argue that island resorts are harder operationally given the 24-hour nature of those businesses and the fact that your guests or staff don't go home at night they stay with you. 

The economy and domestic leisure market are still tough and that's a big challenge given the discretionary nature of our businesses. Our challenge is to differentiate ourselves through our service, people and attractions and we work hard in these areas.

Getting involved in the Gold Coast business community has helped to keep abreast of trends and make connections that benefit our business.

Describe your biggest regret in business and what you learnt

Not taking more risks - this is sometimes not a learning thing and if you're not born with the gambling gene your sensitivity to risk can be greater. There are times I look back on missed opportunities as just not being in a position or mindset to take a risk at the time. The challenge is to keep taking risks even when the business is established, keep questioning the status quo and disrupt yourself if need be.

During your career you have worked for some of Australia's most renowned tourist attractions what does the Gold Coast need to do reach its full potential as a national and global hotspot?

I'm asked this question a bit given my background and also as a director of Gold Coast Tourism.

I like the Singapore model - they get the need for man-made infrastructure as they don't have a lot else. They have streamlined approval processes across all levels of government and prioritise tourism-related developments. We have the natural assets but the man-made development has made us what we are and we need to go back to that.

Also the importance of major and business events - we have the space, the accommodation, the things to do and the air access. Again, this needs to be led by investment in infrastructure with governments assisting where possible.  The casino redevelopment is good to see and is complemented well by Pacific Fair's redevelopment. When you connect all this to Broadbeach you have a "super precinct" and I like seeing that.

From a brand perspective, the Gold Coast resonates well here and overseas. Our beaches are still a fantastic drawcard, but there is still a perception in the market that the Gold Coast is dated which isn't true. We need to work hard on talking up the "new news", new developments and the quality of the experience. Food is a big part of this and I think we have to deliver more in this sense. There are some great food options now but we need more to make the most of the food tourist. Noosa has done this well and we could learn some lessons from them. I think we had some great winners in the past such as Fisherman's Wharf which just highlighted our strengths like the Broadwater, sunshine, food and entertainment all in one place and available to everyone. The atmosphere was great and reflected our lifestyle, something tourists want to experience.

What are some of the challenges the Gold Coast faces and how do you think the city can overcome these?

We need to be investment-led as we have been in the past. This is starting to happen and I've mentioned some of the great initiatives currently in play. We are still challenged by the perception of safety that has been created in the media even though things have improved in recent times. We need to keep working hard on changing that.

There are a number of developments proposed and in the pipeline. What infrastructure projects are you currently advocating for and why are they important to the overall Gold Coast economy and reputation?

Again we need to be development-led - that is our DNA . The Broadwater development, cruise ship terminal, hinterland Skyrail, high rise development, precinct activations like Burleigh, Broadbeach and Surfers Paradise, the Spit redevelopment and Southport as a major hub and north of Surfers Paradise, Main Beach as the Toorak or Double Bay of the Gold Coast.

Don't forget the flow-on benefits from the Commonwealth Games infrastructure as well. We will have some of the best sporting stadiums and venues in the country after the Games.

Author: Jenna Rathbone
About: Jenna Rathbone is a Queensland-based journalist who writes on a range of issues including business and property affairs and social issues.
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