Entrepreneur in tropical paradise

Sandy Oatley

Since purchasing it in 2003, the Oatley family have gone on to transform Hamilton Island into a world-class holiday destination on Australia’s east coast. This has added yet another success story to the Oatley family’s already large portfolio in tourism, hospitality, wine and agribusiness.

Inspired by his father, Sandy Oatley is known as a hands-on leader who has grown and expanded the family business.

We spoke to Oatley about being adaptable in decision-making and the importance of setting goals and sticking to them.

When you and your family purchased Hamilton Island ten years ago, where did you hope the island would be ten years from then?

When we purchased Hamilton Island our main ambition was to broaden the Island’s offering.  Our vision from the onset was to turn the Island into a destination absolutely everyone could enjoy and experience a piece of paradise. We can confidently say we have succeeded in doing this with the range of accommodation we now offer including qualia, Beach Club, Yacht Club Villas, Reef View Hotel and the Palm Beach Bungalows.

What inspired your vision for the island back in 2003?

Ten years ago, Dad saw the huge potential in Hamilton Island and the opportunity to turn it into a world-class resort. Dad spent a lot of time overseas thanks to his other great passion sailing, and particularly in Porto Cervo in Sardinia where he’s owned a  holiday home for 30 years so he knew Hamilton Island and the surrounding waterways of the Whitsundays provided an equal, if not better experience, than what he’d seen overseas. To put it simply, as Dad says, Hamilton Island is “Heaven on Earth” and you can see why, the sheer beauty of this idyllic location is hard to resist.

When setting goals and planning for the future, how far ahead were you expecting to see significant results?

We had a vision but we didn’t set a timeline as no two days are the same. We wanted to transform the Island as quickly as we could, however we knew that it would take time and we needed to have a strategy with the long-term future in mind, not just short-term gains.

On Hamilton Island, there is none of the glitzy theme-park artifice that can sabotage so many resort experiences, just the understated sophistication of a thoughtful concept the family had ten years ago when we acquired the Island. Since then we have invested more than $350 million in new developments and upgrades, overlaid with unmistakable yet sensitive references to local lifestyle and landscape. The family very much want the guest experience to clearly be focused on a connection with the environment.

We first set about updating the infrastructure, and giving the Island an extensive spring clean, so guests would immediately see the improvements and change to the Island. This included the gardens, roads, paint; an overall freshen up.

Then we set about implementing major new works, such as building the world-class qualia resort, nestled on the most northern tip of Hamilton Island, developing the Yacht Club and Luxury Villas, and building a world-class golf course on Dent Island.

Have you met all the goals you set out to achieve?

We’re very happy with the Island’s successes over the past decade, and in particular, over the last few years. Of special note are the accolades and awards the Island has attracted from both local and internationally acclaimed programs. Last year, qualia was named Best in the World in the Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards with a perfect score off 100 in all assessable categories including Rooms, Service, Food, Location, Design and Activities. This recognition by such sophisticated and well-travelled readers is truly gratifying and testament that we are doing our job well. However, we will always strive to continue to enhance the Island and its offering for all our guests, and, in that sense, I don’t think our goals can ever be fully satisfied. And why would we want them to be; complacency is not what we’re about.

Obviously over a ten-year period, circumstances can change greatly. How have you dealt with change and how has your plan for the island evolved over time?

There’s no doubt the GFC impacted upon our plans for the Island. While it slowed down our property development, we continued to market the Island both domestically and internationally, and kept our focus and vision of quality on track. Because we’re a family business we can respond nimbly to change, unlike larger organisations that may get caught up in politics or bureaucracy.

What has been the biggest hurdle that the business has had to overcome?

One of the biggest hurdles is staff and their training and retention. Having one of the greatest resorts in the world is nothing without a skilled, enthusiastic and dedicated team. Up until early 2012, we had been designing and delivering accredited staff training through a partnership with Sunshine Coast TAFE, which issued the qualifications. However, we made a decision to make our people a priority by offering careers and not just jobs. So we invested further and opened our own independent college, a registered training organization, formally approved by the Department of Education and Training.

The Robert Oatley College officially opened in July 2012, and it can enroll students and issue qualifications just like any other TAFE or Hospitality School in the country. Combined with sharper recruitment and selection processes, we have seen a subsequent shift in turnover of staff allowing us to provide a better standard of service, more educated staff and a more appealing experience for the guest.

Where do you hope the business and the island will be in ten years time?

My focus is to ensure Hamilton Island continues on its growth trajectory, attracting even more domestic and international visitors. I also hope we continue to be a leader in the travel industry, from our product offering to our marketing initiatives.

Who has been an entrepreneur you’ve looked up to and drawn inspiration from?

That’s an easy one. My Father, Bob Oatley.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Have a strong vision and strategy that will enable you to achieve your vision. Know your audience, make sure you have a product that really speaks to them, but also make sure you listen to your customers. Perseverance, having a mentor and surrounding yourself with great people is also invaluable.

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