A walk on the wild side

1245 933 In Good Company | Northern Rivers

Vision Walks Eco Tours

80 Jonson St, Byron Bay

Visit Byron Bay Northern Rivers-01
A walk on the wild side 

Wendy Bithell has built her multi-award-winning eco-tourism business, Vision Walks – Eco Tours, by combining her two areas of expertise: ecology and technology. Her Byron hinterland adventures are as diverse as nature walks with night vision goggles, Indigenous bush tucker tours, and three-day women’s indulgence escapes. And with her innovative thinking, ability to pivot, and flair for creating just what people want, she’s managed to bounce back from every set back.

This week she’s in isolation as a Covid ‘close contact’, but that hasn’t stopped her from running four virtual koala-spotting tours from her backyard (where there are no koalas) for a corporate group of 200 in Canada, a school group in the US, a full living-room at a NSW retirement home, and a global tech company’s team meeting with participants tuning in from across five continents.

“The land owner where I usually do the koala tours was there holding her camera up to the koalas, while I was talking from my screen at home,” says Wendy.

Wendy experimented with virtual tours when COVID decimated global tourism and 70% of her business. International visitors had particularly loved her ‘Wildlife Safari’ – a day of spotting koalas and kangaroos in the wild.

“During the first lockdown, I thought, ‘What am I going to do to get myself through this?’. I couldn’t see our international market returning until 2022, maybe even 2023.”

She wondered if there might be a way to encourage locals to take a tour, and knowing there was a rising interest in Aboriginal tourism, she teamed up with Bundjalung leader, Delta Kay, to offer bush tucker tours.

These have been hugely successful, with 80% of tours made up of people from around Byron. Wendy is also proud that this launched Delta into running her own touring business while still working for Vision Walks.

Virtual tours have been the other experiment that took off. “Some months they account for my highest sales. It’s not just an add-on. It’s holding me up,” Wendy says.

“I thought they’d taper off as Australia and the rest of the world reopens to travel, but it’s actually increasing.”

New clients across the globe often find Vision Walks with a simple Google search (she invests in SEO marketing and people also arrive without paid links). US platform Beeyonder, which offers virtual experiences for people with disabilities, added Vision Walks to its platform, which propelled growth in North America.

This gave Wendy the idea to approach Australian platform, Life is an Adventure, which offers multi-day luxury hiking experiences to its massive database but didn’t yet have a Byron hinterland hike. Wendy approached them with a curated three-day experience and founded another successful collaboration.

This might make it all sound easy, but the experiences Wendy creates are embedded with a huge depth of knowledge. She’s studied ecology and all the tours in Vision Walks offer a deep connection to nature and incidental education. Her business is one of only four in NSW with all three of Australia’s top eco-tourism accreditations.

She also studied interactive learning while working in London for UK public broadcaster, the BBC. This experience lay the foundations for Vision Walks’ first tour in 2008 – exploring Nightcap National Park in the dark with night vision goggles.

“I was awarded an innovative patent for the idea and, as far as I know, no one else is doing it in the whole world,” she says, adding that her latest innovation is a carbon footprint calculator.

And resilience is built into her business DNA. Within the first year of Vision Walks, the global financial crisis hit the tourism industry, and bushfires closed Nightcap NP for three months. With all this pivoting and evolving from the start, even COVID has come nowhere near slowing her down.

“I was awarded an innovative patent for [exploring with night vision goggles], as far as I know, no one else is doing it in the whole world”

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