BY KERRY ANDERSON
A passion to live and work in the outback took Tom Curtain to the Northern Territory in 2001. Since then he has experienced an industry collapse, reinvented his business, battled a council, and ignored all his mates who said he couldn’t do it. It was a simple matter of being agile and utilising his talents to create Katherine Outback Experience that now travels the east and west coasts of Australia.
Ever since watching Landline on the ABC whilst at primary school in Kingaroy Queensland, Tom Curtain has dreamed of living and working in the Australian outback. After finishing boarding school, he completed a three year degree in cattle genetics.
‘Mum and dad wouldn’t let me go any sooner,’ he admits. But as soon as he finished university he was off to the Territory, living out of a swag and mustering cattle. Yep, he was living the dream!
With a passion and talent for training horses, Tom spent a number of years contract horse-breaking throughout the NT and QLD which saw him travel from station to station every two to three weeks. Recognising this lifestyle was not sustainable for him and his young family, in 2008 Tom seized the opportunity to purchase a property on the outskirts of Katherine where he setup his own horse-training facility for the cattle stations to send him horses to train. However, in the blink of an eyelid, the 2011 live export ban not only impacted on the cattle stations, it also dried up Tom’s business. ‘All the budgets were cut on the stations and there were no horses to break-in.’
Fortunately, Tom had one other skill to draw on. ‘When I first started mustering in the Territory the head stockman gave me a guitar and showed me how to play three chords.’ Ironically this happened whilst sitting around a campfire, an inspirational place to practice singing and writing songs as Tom discovered. He subsequently entered a singing contest and won. Now, with his horse training business dried up, Tom resorted to music.
‘I started singing at the caravan park four nights a week. Then through conversation people got really interested in what I do and wanted to come and see how I train horses and working dogs. I combined the three and moved into the tourism game.’
Tom had effectively tested and discovered a new business; however, setting up the Katherine Outback Experience on his property raised a few obstacles along the way.
‘Wearing a cowboy hat gives the impression of being a bit simple.’
‘At first there was a lot of negative feedback from my mates,’ Tom admits, ‘and Council said it wouldn’t work. Wearing a cowboy hat gives the impression of being a bit simple. I laughed it off and kept on going.’
Apart from talent, Tom had three positive things going for him.
‘I knew a little bit about tourism because my parents operated a Farm Stay for 25 years, so I had grown-up in the industry, offering horse rides to visitors.’ The benefits of a university degree also taught him structure, prioritisation of workloads, and to work in a regimental way. And thirdly, he knew from experience that audiences like to see something different.
‘I won a horse breaking competition in Queensland a few years ago and, knowing I was also into country music, the commentator asked me to sing. I sang a song while standing on the young horse’s back. Thank God I didn’t get bucked off!’
The next challenge was to find an audience for Katherine Outback Experience.
‘I had to raise awareness that I was here,’ says Tom. ‘There wasn’t much of a budget so I painted some signs on old tin and put them up on the town outskirts. Council said they were too close to the township so I moved them 70 kilometres out of town.’
Tom commandeered the help of mates and backpackers to place brochures on car windshields around shopping centres and caravan parks. ‘Facebook came on the scene which was good, but we had very poor internet so technology wasn’t much use. I had to do a lot of face to face ground work.’
Then there was the weather challenge; something that no amount of marketing could overcome. ‘Over the Wet Season, from November to March, Katherine gets too hot and wet to train animals and tourism dries up,’ Tom explains.
Using his time productively, Tom initially moved back to his parent’s property in Kingaroy during the Wet Season where he could still train horses. Then he decided that he may as well take his fully trained horses and dogs with him. Katherine Outback Experience is now in its second year of being on the road over the summer months, travelling the west and east coasts of Australia, and the business has reached a new level.
‘Over the last fifteen years I’ve needed to make X amount of dollars to cover my expenses,’ Tom explains. ‘This is the first year that I haven’t had to train horses on the side to make up the difference.’
As you would expect, the logistics are quite complicated when you take six horses and 12 working dogs on the road together with a horse truck, caravan, car and trailer to carry all the additional gear, horse yard panels, and stockfeed needed for four to five months on the road. Locations, permits and publicity need to be negotiated individually with each town he visits.
Thankfully Tom has some welcome support thanks to a chance encounter three years ago when he met his now fiancé, Annabel, whilst hitch-hiking in Western Australia.
‘Annabel threw in her career as an Urban Planner in Perth to come and live in a tin shed with me,’ Tom says with a slight hint of disbelief and immense relief. ‘She’s thrown her heart and soul into the business and has taken over the bookings and marketing which frees me up to train the dogs and horses.’
In the first year Tom tested the roadshow concept by booking a five-acre location for a couple of months in Dunsborough, Western Australia. ‘It worked pretty well but we were still missing a lot of tourists and performing six days a week which is unsustainable.’
That’s when the show started travelling further afield. ‘We thought that by taking the show to regional towns, we could market the event to an existing population four to six weeks in advance rather than having to work tirelessly marketing to the very transient tourist market who stay only two to three days,’ Annabel explains. ‘We also saw an opportunity to partner with local sporting and community groups so they would also profit from the event, and help spread the word within their community.’
When I caught up recently with Tom and Annabel during their whirl wind visit to Collie in Western Australia, it was evident that their business model was working well for them. St Bridget's Primary School was doing great business selling food and drinks to the local community out in force for a great evening of family fun entertainment.
The pair work well as a team with Annabel keeping the crowd entertained as Tom gets ready to handle a local unbroken horse, explaining his methodology in the process. The dogs are a great hit with the kids and Tom leaves no doubt about his horsemanship skills as he effortlessly canters in a tight circle on a bridle-less horse whilst singing and playing his guitar. And that's all before he takes to the stage to sing with his west coast side kick, Big Bob!
‘We’ve done over 30 shows so far this season,’ says Tom. ‘All at very different venues, everything from cricket ovals to parks and schools. We even did a show at a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere.’
With Annabel administering the website and social media pages, it has become a whole lot easier for people to find Katherine Outback Experience but Tom is adamant that the local relationships are still important in getting the word out to audiences.
‘It doesn’t matter how good you are, you have to have a good marketing strategy,’ says Tom who openly admits to being terrible at promoting himself. ‘It’s taken me four years to make it and I’m still learning all the time, modifying the show here and there, seeing what works, and the best way to spread the word.’
Oh. And did I mention that Tom has made three music albums? His latest is ‘Territory Time’, which won two Golden Guitars at the Tamworth Country Music Festival up against Lee Kernaghan and all the big guns! His Territory mates even helped piece together an impressive video clip for Never Never Land which won CMC Video Clip of the Year and Heritage Song of the Year.
Not bad for a bloke constantly on the road!
TOM & ANNABEL’S TOP BUSINESS TIPS:
- Have short and long-term goals so you know where you want to be and can work out how you are going to get there.
- Be flexible and prepared to take risks. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work, it’s all a learning curve and just one step closer to the next win.
- Surround yourself with positive like-minded people
- Maintain strong records so you can measure performance and gauge opportunities and constraints
- Maintain an open mind to allow yourself to keep learning – particularly in a climate where marketing and business trends are changing so rapidly.
KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE