A yellow-tinged Mollymook beach, image taken by the author on December 30.
*Note that some words in this story have been translated into American English, indicated by brackets, where appropriate.
The recent bushfires [wildfires] in Australia are unprecedented in their severity, burning over 12 million acres of land, an area the size of the state of Maryland. Over 1 billion wildlife are predicted to have perished. The fires have been burning for months, with fires still burning at the time of writing.
The height of the fires occurred over the Christmas-New Year week. For Australia, being in the Southern Hemisphere, this week kicks off the start of summer vacation and is a time when much of the country is off of work. It’s no surprise then, that this is also a peak period for many small businesses that rely on tourists for a significant percentage of their income. Instead of business as usual, Australians faced a state of emergency, with tens of thousands evacuated.
I have the good fortune to be married to an Australian and to spend the last week of December in the family beach house on the South Coast of NSW, a few hours south of Sydney. It’s a lovely tradition that’s allowed me to get to know many of the local businesses in the southeast part of the state.
In the last week of December, we saw fires raging around the area. We had friends who had intended to visit the South Coast, but canceled their plans. I spoke with a newsagent [news stand owner] who said that his business was down by 60% due to the warning that tourists avoid the region. The area (where every business is a small business) was already feeling the pinch from the lack of visitors. And then on December 31, when the fires were predicted to get worse, we evacuated, leaving on the one road out less than an hour before it was shut down. The fires did indeed get worse, with the fires on New Year’s Day devastating numerous towns.
I’ve interviewed some of the creative small businesses in the fire-affected areas to get their perspective on the immediate and long-term effects. While towns like Cobargo (which completely burned to the ground) bore the brunt of the fire damage, small businesses all across the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria are suffering, even if their physical buildings remain standing.
The impact on small creative businesses
Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to disasters. In general, small businesses operate on leaner budgets and have less in reserves to recover from a tough period than a large corporation. Creative businesses are even more vulnerable, as their products and services are usually considered discretionary in nature.
The Mulberry Tree at Milton is a yarn and fabric store in the small township of Milton on the NSW South Coast. Milton is located on The Princes Highway, a road running from Sydney in the north to Adelaide in the south along the coast of Australia. For many small towns along the South Coast, the Princes Highway is the one and only road in and out of the town.
In late December, many parts of the highway were shut down, to the north of Milton and also to the south, as well as the Kings Highway which goes to Canberra (the Australian capital). The town was effectively cut off from everyone, with no one able to get in or out. Owner Maree Samulski explains, “As is often the case in bushfires, the power went out and so did the water. No one could purchase any items with their credit or debit cards as the ATMs were also not operating. We made the decision to close our store for six days as there was still a fire risk, no power or water, no customers and also we needed to make sure that we were safe too.”
The Mulberry Tree at Milton is a yarn and fabric store situated in the center of the South Coast fires.
Samulski notes that there has been a huge drop in the number of tourists visiting the town. “Usually it’s a bustling, noisy time of year. We would normally have lollipop men [crossing guards] on duty to assist with pedestrian and traffic flow on the main street. There is never any parking available and all the cafes and shops are full of holidaymakers [vacationers]. It is now mid-January and the fires seem to be gone, but the tourists are only just coming back to the town. They are still very nervous and rightly so.” For the average working Australian who takes leave from work to go on vacation, their window of time to take a vacation has already passed. The loss of tourism dollars to the area is not likely to be made up this summer.
Samulski estimates that approximately 30% of her business sales during December and January come from tourists. The shop’s sales are down about 25% compared to the same time last year, which is a significant amount of money for any small business.
For some businesses, the impact has been even more devastating. Kim Minchin runs Inner Cupcake, artistically designed cupcakes that she sells at local markets around the South Coast, Canberra and Southern Highlands.
The fires closed many of the markets and events where she vends. And in the ones that were held, Minchin estimates the attendance dropped below 50% of the previous years due to road closures.
To add insult to injury, the nature of a perishable product means that inventory can’t be saved to the next market. Minchin says, “It’s hard work selling through markets, some days just plain soul-destroying, when all my hard work and creativity doesn’t sell and ends up in the bin [trash].”
Inner Cupcakes at a recent event in Sydney. Proprietor Kim Minchin has needed to travel hours away from her home to find a market with traffic, and the lack of a following in the new venues has been devastating.
Nervous decisions and tough alternatives
In the midst of a bushfire, many citizens are torn about whether to stay or leave. Footage abounds of Australians staying behind fire lines to protect their livelihoods, which in this part of the country can mean anything from a home to thousands of heads of cattle and acres of farmland. For creative business owners, the decision about whether to stay or go is heart-wrenching.
Sam Walklate is a wedding photographer and videographer based on the South Coast of New South Wales. He considers himself lucky that he’s only needed to cancel one job because of the fires. But he says that canceling the event was a tough decision to make. “The wedding I was supposed to shoot was taking place two hours south from where I live. When the fire first kicked up, the roads south were closed and the alternate route was 10 hours each way. There was a threat that if I was to drive this alternate route I may be caught by other fires on my detour.”
In the end, Sam decided that it would be best to turn down the business and not take the risk. “Being a father, I made the decision to call the bride and organize another photographer for her and her husband to be.”
Businesses may take years to recover, or not at all
In his work as a wedding photographer, Sam Walklate visits a number of venues in the area and has seen first-hand the damage that has been caused. He says, “I know of one venue that has been hit and it’s really sad to see. A venue like this would have to cancel all their bookings for the second half of this wedding season and [probably] the next season also.” The trickle-down effect to other business owners such as photographers, caterers, and other small businesses may be substantial and long-lasting if there aren’t other venues that can host events locally.
During a typical summer, Minchin at Inner Cupcakes lines up four events a week, sometimes only getting three hours of sleep a night. But now that income is gone.
“The reality is it will be next summer before the tourism trade really starts its steady flow again. I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall head-on.”
It’s a brick wall that Kim Minchin may not be able to breakthrough. She laments, “I’m in the process of reevaluating my business. It’s not surviving at the moment. It will be a shame to have to move from this beautiful place I call home, but I’m strongly contemplating it.”
An image of Walklate’s showing the aftermath of the fires. The stream is melted metal from the car.
A shift in focus
For those who have been negatively impacted, it’s time to look at creative options to get through this tough season.
While the majority of Walklate’s photography business focuses on events, he also sells prints of his work. A feature in SpendWithThem (an Instagram account focused on encouraging consumers to make purchases from fire-affected small businesses) gave his print sales a boost just when he needed it most.
Australia is no stranger to natural disasters, and while small businesses are particularly vulnerable to the impacts, their agility also makes them well-positioned to pivot. This ability to shift business models and change operations is crucial to a small business’s ability to weather a storm.
Nan Bray, owner of White Gum Wool, a Tasmanian-based small-batch yarn company producing yarn only from its own flock, shares how she dramatically changed her business in the wake of the devastating 2009 drought. Of the 2006-2009 drought, she says, “That one brought to the brink of giving up farming after only a decade. Instead, I began making radical changes to my farming practices to try to weather the next dry cycle more gracefully. “
She now runs 550 sheep (down from 1800 pre-drought) on 330 hectares [1000 acres]). “This provides better nutrition in all weather patterns, protects the biodiversity in the production environment, and maximizes animal health.”
She credits her small-batch focus and direct connection with consumers to allowing her to run her business in a sustainable and flexible way. Now that she sells yarn wholesale and retail (instead of selling the raw wool), she says, “I have a margin that has allowed me to reduce grazing pressure and protect the environment in ways I couldn’t when I was selling greasy wool as a commodity. I think the main thing that will have to change is that endpoint customers who want wool that is grown ethically and sustainably, will need to be willing to pay the cost of doing that.” It’s a shift in focus that while not disaster-proof, is at least disaster-resistant.
Social media and customer connections have played a key role in the company’s shift from farm to niche product producer. “[My customers], who I communicate directly via social media as well as the Farm Journals, are incredibly supportive of what I do, and willing to pay me a premium price for my yarn- and not just because of its softness and loft!”
Artists and crafters supporting charitable donations
Illustrator Alexandra Graham of Alexandra Nea garnered her audience’s support to raise funds for the bushfire cause. Her Firefighter and Koala illustration raised thousands of dollars for charity.
She recounts how the charity effort grew organically through her followers. “Originally the Firefighter and Koala illustration was created in November when the fires really kicked off across our state (NSW). As we were gearing up for catastrophic weather conditions in the next few days, I wanted to give a shout out to the amazing men and women who were putting their lives on the line in order to keep us, our homes and livelihoods safe from the flames. The following day after I created and shared it to my social media I was evacuated out of my own home in suburban Sydney as fire flared up in the bush that hugs the homes around our neighborhood. It was a very frightening time and just the start of things to come. My illustration was very well received, it was shared hundreds of times, I believe the sentiments it conveys resonated strongly with my fellow Australians at the time.”
After seeing the image gain thousands of likes on Instagram, she decided to auction off the drawing to the highest bidder as a way to raise funds for charity. In just four days, the auction reached AU$12,000 [$8,222 US]. She donated 100% of the funds raised directly, split evenly between the NSW Rural Fire Service and Country Fire Authority (Victoria).
Shortly after listing her illustration for auction, Alexandra learned that her grandmother and aunt’s home had been burned down in the fires at Towong in the Upper Murray.
“We are gutted, the loss of history and memorabilia of over four generations of living is devastating. My heart is broken for them and with them.”
She adds that she is “very lucky to have a wonderfully supportive online social community that follows my art.”
In the wake of the fires, this grassroots approach to fundraising has been prevalent. A number of GoFundMe projects and donations have materialized to help those affected. A search for “Australia bushfire” on GoFundMe yields nearly 4,000 results at the time of writing.
While there has been a worldwide effort for charitable donations, the efforts aren’t without bumps. There has been recent confusion surrounding how the 51 million dollars Celeste Barber raised for the bushfire effort could be distributed. Central to the discussion is whether the money must be given directly to the fire brigades [departments], or whether it can be used to help people and businesses affected by the fires.
Crafters were quick to knit mittens for koalas after a call was issued for donations. However, just days later, calls for knitted koala mittens were recalled after it was announced they would not be able to be used because the wool used would not be able to easily be properly sterilized. Rescue teams who are caring for injured animals lack the resources to manage an onslaught of donated goods. Dr. Rachael Tarlinton, a veterinary professor, recommends that crafters create items for sale, and to send the money to their organization of choice.
Illustrator Alexandra Nea’s artwork fetched $12k for charity.
There’s no question that social media plays an integral part of our daily lives. During the fires (and blackout) on January 1, I turned to Instagram to gather information about my husband’s family who had stayed behind. Given a power and phone blackout, I used the location tags to see what others who had battery power and momentary cell service were uploading.
Social media is an important component of any small business’s marketing efforts, with special attention required following a local disaster. Much widely-distributed social media fails to involve a company’s response (or lack thereof) during a disaster event.
Media Mortar is a social media company that manages 15 different tourism businesses’ social media accounts in Australia. Some were directly affected, some were not. The director, Hannah
Statham, spoke to us about the unique issues surrounding managing social media during a disaster.
Statham says, “The first thing we did when we realized Australia was in a disaster was to review all of the scheduled posts. This was only challenging as it was over the Christmas break so we were on skeleton staff. We were lucky, only two clients were affected so our first priority was to pause all posts, speak to the clients directly and understand what was happening on the ground. We then put a crisis communication strategy in place for them on social as soon as we’d spoken to them and got a clear understanding of what they were facing and what it might mean for operations. For our other clients, we needed to review the content to ensure nothing was inflammatory. For example, we had to remove wording like ‘red hot deal’, ‘do you have a burning question’ and all use of the flame emoji which would have been fine any other day of the year. While Australia is in crisis, every post needs to be reviewed that little bit closer.”
For those affected, implementing a crisis plan is crucial. The Mulberry Tree at Milton used Facebook to notify their customers of closures due to the fires. Social media is an efficient way to notify potential customers of your business’s status as well as to express support to other businesses and communities. In the case of customer service issues (such as a delay in a shipment), it is recommended that a business connect directly with the customer via email, as not every follower sees every social media post.
The coverage of the fires has been widespread and warranted. However, it’s a double-edged sword. The coverage has led some to believe that the entire country is unsafe to visit, reducing much-needed tourism dollars, which impacts small businesses. Upon my return home, someone commented, “I can’t believe you still went with what’s going on”, even though the majority of my visit was in Sydney, an urban environment that was impacted by the same level of smoke that LA has had multiple times this year.
Maree Samulski is optimistic about the level of support she’s seeing from those in and beyond her community. She says, “The highways have reopened and even though most of the tourists have had their holidays, they are still making an effort to come and support the towns that have been hit hard by this fire.”
Hannah Statham says that while the media coverage about the fires has been welcome, and has many positives in terms of raising awareness and donations, “We now face the aftermath of the world thinking Australia is nothing more than a continent of cinders [ash]. I hope social media, in particular, influencers, are as quick to spread the ‘Australia is open for business’ message as they were to tell everyone ‘Australia is burning’.”
How to help
- The Instagram account SpendWithThem began as a way to highlight artisans from fire-affected areas. The account now has 194k followers.
- The hashtag #BuyFromTheBush began in October to encourage Australians to make purchases from the drought-affected Outback. It has grown to encompass those affected by fires.
- Sam Walklate and his good friend Chris Zion from @bignatureadventures have been going to remote locations to set up water and food stations for native wildlife. To donate: https://www.gofundme.com/f/source-summit-sea
- Red Cross Australia, New South Wales Rural Fire Service and Victoria’s Country Fire Authority have been battling the fires and assisting residents on the ground since day 1.
Stacey Trock helps small businesses in the craft industry put their best foot forward in the digital world. She specializes in developing a company’s branding, marketing + social media to build customer-loyalty, community-building and engagement. She writes, teaches and consults on a variety of small business marketing topics.