A $7 million loan and a giant leap of faith

Sophie Bone - Big4 Bellarine Holiday Park owner

Not many people would be brave enough to borrow $7 million to open a family holiday park while pregnant with their first child, but with business booming six years on, Sophie Bone has no regrets.

After several years wrangling with red tape, Bone and her husband Tim opened the BIG4 Bellarine Holiday Park in September 2009, just eight months after construction began.

“If you surround yourself with people who are experts in their field and have the right kind of advice and framework you can work from, you’ve just got to hold hands and take a leap of faith,” she told Dynamic Business.

The BIG4 Bellarine Park, located south-west of Melbourne, is a 30-acre property made up of 40 units, an indoor pool complex, a walking track, cinema room, adventure playground and indoor dining areas.

“The whole idea of a 30-acre expanse is for kids to play make believe, to hop and skip and jump and interact with their parents, away from computers, away from Facebook,” Bone said.

“This literally is to be able to get generations of people together, to re-engage themselves with each other.”

A family affair

From the buying of the paddock to building to its operation now, the Bellarine park has been a labour of love for the whole Bone family.

“Every step of the way, all our children and the unborn children were part of it,” she said.

With her own background in copywriting and her husband’s experience operating the Anglesea BIG4 park on the Great Ocean Road, Bone felt the pair had all the skills necessary to make the jump.

“I never had any doubt that we had unbelievable expertise between the two of us. I do not have a calculator inbuilt in my head, my husband does,” she said.

“My skill set is different in so far that it is very much coordinating people, looking at the big picture, and almost an obsessive compulsive disorder associated with the level of detail, craftsmanship, and a sense of aesthetic, a sense of purpose and place.”

However, as with any large development, the couple spent three years fielding complaints from neighbours and engaging with local authorities to look at rural zoning and planning laws before building.

“One [complaint] was the potential risk of the decline in the quality of the wool on the neighbouring alpacas,” Bone said.

While some complaints now seem funny looking back, others showed the local community didn’t understand the couple’s vision for the park.

“We had a complaint about the foreseeable rise in wood theft,” Bone said.

“I think when we first articulated what we were trying to do, people had it in the back of their mind that we were going to build a caravan park that was going to be full of homeless people with no teeth and stubby shorts who wouldn’t have enough money to pay for heating, and they would scour the local area and steal to keep themselves warm.”

An award winner

From its difficult beginnings, the BIG4 Bellarine holiday park was named Top Holiday Park in Victoria last year, just a year and a half after opening.

“That particular award resonates more with me than a more formal award because people vote for it, and I think there’s a difference between judges voting and people voting, because the people are the end consumer,” Bone said.

“They are the people who are staying there, who feel the atmosphere, who engage in the property, and walk away and actively engage in the process of voting.”

With her background in PR, Bone has also been engaging with the park’s clientele on social media, even organising an overnight event for 40 ‘mummy bloggers’ at the park in the coming weeks.

“It has just been an amazing insight into the world of Twitter, because these mum bloggers are clearly tweeting the most amazing amount of information,” she said.

When BIG4 CEO Ray Schleibs went undercover in the company’s parks for the TV show ‘Undercover Boss’ in 2010, he awarded Bone a marketing and communications channel to gather information and feedback from the 164 parks across Australia.

“We are obsessive about collecting feedback, because people come up with amazing feedback that you would never have thought of yourself, and it’s free. To not listen to your clientele is just absurd,” she said.

Though only half of the park’s 30 acres have been developed, Bone says she and her husband have no grand plans for the rest of the space.

“At the moment, we’re about to put in the 40th unit, and we have a permit for 148. It’s literally a project that will expand based on guest feedback.”

While one of her favourite parts of working on the park has been learning to run a business after coming from an academic background, Bone’s also glad it gave her a chance to work with her husband.

“I built it with my best friend,” she said.