Wednesday 29 August 2012

Profile On... Daintree Discovery Centre

Profile On... Daintree Discovery Centre

Participating in an IMP3rove innovation benchmark was not so much an eye opener as a reinforcement that the business was on the right track for the Daintree Discovery Centre.

The centre is an award-winning, worldclass interpretive facility that allows visitors easy access to rainforest wilderness via boardwalk tours, a 23m-high canopy tower, and an aerial walkway.

It was the brainchild of Adelaide-based husband-and-wife team Ron and Pam Birkett, who visited the Daintree River region in 1987, fell in love with the place and bought about 3ha of virgin rainforest. They invested all their superannuation and savings into building the centre so they could share the rainforest experience. The centre opened in June 1989 and six weeks later Australia�s tourism industry was crippled by a pilots� dispute that grounded aircraft across the nation. The impact was felt for the next 18 months, as Australia�s reputation as an international destination plummeted and domestic holidaymakers were unwilling to travel.

But the Birketts are fighters. They kept investing in their centre. It took four years to get council approval for the canopy tower, which finally opened in 1998. In 2004, they opened a new building with a coffee shop, added the aerial walkway and rebranded to Daintree Discovery Centre.

Ron abd Pam Birkett

Then came the global financial crisis, and its impact is still being felt. In peak years, the centre had 85,000 visitors a year. It�s now about 68,000-70,000. Initially, the Birketts continued living in Adelaide, then spent a decade in Sydney. They hired managers to run the centre and didn�t move onsite until 2000, when they �retired�.

But Ron Birkett says that was a blessing, in many ways. They could work on the business, rather than in the business, with managers managing day-to-day operational issues. In 2011, a Queensland Government Department of State Development representative suggested Daintree Discovery Centre participate in an IMP3rove innovation benchmarking exercise and Birkett was keen to assess the centre against world�s best practice.

�We�re seen as being innovative � for example, we use a lot of technology; we�ve had audio guides in six languages for nine years � we were doing a lot of things right, but it was intuitive, not necessarily documented and formalised,� he said. Since completing the benchmarking tool, the centre has implemented many innovative initiatives, using the report generated by the IMP3rove facilitator as a template.

Benchmarked against 198 companies globally, Daintree Discovery Centre achieved a 46% overall performance, compared with 51% for growth champions (the top 10% of companies in the sector). The sector average was 45%.

The centre�s sustainable competitive advantage was identified as being its unique World Heritage location; industry recognition and a well-established reputation; and its ability to provide safe, easy access to all levels of the rainforest.

Specific initiatives generated after completing the IMP3rove include:

  • Double checking orders before they leave Cairns, to avoid getting the wrong supplies delivered. �We use the carpenter�s adage,� Birkett said. �Measure twice; cut once.�
  • Improved budgeting and project management.
  • Introducing computerised multiple choice exit surveys.
  • Bi-monthly staff meetings to share open, frank discussions about the business.
  • Bi-monthly staff training nights, which range from information sessions on flora and fauna to tips from a barista on how to make the best coffee.
  • Funding a 10-year university study that monitors weather impacts and carbon fluxing (the net difference between carbon removal and addition in the rainforest).

The centre is involved in a raft of projects to ensure the rainforest is maintained, like tree planting, including a scheme with the Department of Environment and Resource Management to clear weeds from degraded land and plant rainforest species; and monitoring and auditing specific 1ha �supersites� over a decade to add to the knowledge base on how to preserve them.

Marketing has been intensified following the benchmarking exercise. Birkett bought full signage through the incoming passengers� corridor at Cairns� new airport. It was expensive, but means tourists are hit in the face by the centre�s offer as they enter the city gateway. He advertises in magazines and on websites; 35%-40% of tourists see the centre�s road signs; and there are brochures in hotels and visitor centres in Cairns and Port Douglas.

Staff generate some of the best innovations. For example, the centre will buy its own distiller to ensure it has sufficient distilled water for the batteries that power the centre at night. It will pay for itself within six months and the centre will bottle extra supplies to sell to Daintree region neighbours.

Birkett is conscious of the centre�s importance to the regional economy as an employer and the fact that its employees are �ecologically minded�.

The centre�s ecological initiatives are not money spinners, but enhance its reputation in the broader community.
He admits many improvements to the centre �add to the experience, but not the business�. �We�re selling information and access [to the rainforest]; our product is our knowledge and understanding. It�s intangible, and that can be difficult to sell.�

But completing the IMP3rove innovation benchmarking exercise helped the Birketts and their team to focus on what�s important, and Birkett is keen to repeat it to identify more initiatives to grow the centre.

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