Great Ocean Stays

Christine Smith • Barwon Heads

Four years ago, Christine Smith was diagnosed with a stage three brain tumour. The diagnosis turned her life upside down and seriously threatened the viability of her flourishing business.

Christine survived an operation to remove the brain tumour, but surgical complications left her with permanent facial paralysis, which in turn caused her to fall into “the deep hole of depression.” 

Then Christine found a silver lining.

When she recovered, she used her experience with illness and disability to shape her business and, four years on, it’s thriving.

Where did the idea for Great Ocean Stays come from and how did you get started?

I live in Barwon Heads and, about 20 years ago, saw a need for a boutique holiday home service in the area. I saw a need to offer a genuine hospitality service through property rentals. I wanted to offer a high standard but with a relaxed coastal vibe. And it worked!

In the beginning I made a promise to my 30 or so property owners that I would not become the biggest accommodation provider in town – that wasn’t my goal. I do not need to be the biggest in town to be the most successful.

I wanted to keep across my whole business – to know my clients, to have a fabulous working relationship with my employees, to recognise niche markets and to seize on those opportunities.

Feedback from guests in the early days suggested a huge gap in the market for truly accessible, disability-friendly homes. I needed to figure out a way to provide a service inclusive of all people. Retro-fitting homes is expensive, but when you consider that one in four Aussies have some form of disability, it makes very good business sense to be more welcoming.

How much capital did you have?

Not a lot. What I had was a great story for my bank manager and a proven track record of what can be achieved financially with holiday rentals in the area. I had a vision, a passion and a country girl work ethic and that got me over the line with the bank.

I started building accessible homes and worked hard to gain the respect and loyalty of a large customer base. This has provided me the sound financial reports to continue to build more accessible homes.

How has your business evolved over the years?

I have adapted to meet the needs of customers, investing more than $2 million in the past two years alone to build custom-made wheelchair accessible homes. I’ve also successfully disrupted the holiday market in Ocean Grove and positioned myself as a leading provider of homes that suit people of all abilities. After all, who wants to run a business that ostracizes 4 million Australians?

What sets you apart?

I love my business. It is a reflection of me and what I stand for, so I’m passionate. What really sets me apart is that I want to be a voice for people with a disability. I want to see a more welcoming world.

I have a speaking role with the National Disability Coordinator’s Office talking to other small business owners about how they can create a more welcoming business. It’s all about understanding, educating and inspiring.

Through your illness and surgery, how did you keep the business going?

It was a challenge, but I had good policy, marketing and business plans in place, which helped a lot. A joke around the household, I’ve also had an ‘If I die” folder in my office for many years. But those useful day-to-day instructions on the business were invaluable. Good staff and a loyal customer base were also what got me through.

You recently won the 3AW Momentum Energy Small Business Success Award. Why did you nominate? Is it part of your marketing strategy?

My marketing vision is to create a region that is inclusive of all people and to inspire leaders to think about the accessibility of their own businesses.  I want to be able to sell The Bellarine as all welcoming. 

I actively promote employment of people with disability and encourage other businesses to tap into this huge skillset of talented employees by seeing past the disability. But I need a platform to reach a larger audience. I cannot do it from my kitchen table. Where better to encourage and inspire than on radio. I was honoured and grateful for the opportunity.

My goal is to disrupt the tourism industry on a large scale – not just on the Bellarine. A small business owner cannot accomplish such a task by reaching out to one person at a time. The steps to my success rest in fast-tracking my message to the widest possible audiences in the land.