O’Sullivan’s lasting legacy

THE past five years has seen Tourism Australia change tack, pushing forward with bolder concepts to "cut through" repetitious destination marketing and punch through ambitious growth targets.

THE past five years has seen Tourism Australia change tack, pushing forward with bolder concepts to “cut through” repetitious destination marketing and punch through ambitious growth targets.

Jaws dropped when the man that has led the charge since March 2014, Managing Director John O’Sullivan, announced that he would be leaving the organisation in June to take up a role as CEO of ASX-listed Experience Co.

Before handing over the reins, O’Sullivan sat down with travelBulletin to talk through the evolution.

In 2015, Tourism Australia began its first part of its journey by redefining its purpose, vision and values.

O’Sullivan said the organisation looked at what it needed to do to continually evolve “to ensure that we not only hit the bottom of the 2020 targets, but we also punch through that, towards the upper goals”.

From there, it was ensuring the new mantra was supported from the bottom up.

“Everyone across our networks, from reception to members of the executive team, needed to feel like they had ownership over the purpose and the vision of the business, which I think is really important,” he said.

During his time with Tourism Australia, O’Sullivan said the organisation realised many national and state tourism organisations take a similar approach to their marketing.

“I think the challenge is to have marketing that really does cut through what I call this ‘sea of sameness’,” he explained.

The second element, he said, was looking at platforms that stand out, calling out the organisation’s recent Super Bowl campaign as a key example of a success story.

Tourism Australia has also moved towards programmatic media buying and increased its data exchange with its partners.

“Everything has become a lot more scientific,” he said

This targeted emphasis has led Tourism Australia to shift from a demographic-based targeting to psychographic and behavioural activities.

“We know that you can have exactly the same demographics but your propensity to travel can be completely different,” he explained.

“We’re targeting these travellers who spend more, stay longer and disperse more widely and also like the experiences that we have to offer.

“We’ve built up our Signature Experiences program which appeals to the high-value traveller, we’ve re-entered the luxury market with Virtuoso and the way that we’re positioning Australia is really around that high-value traveller and that yield-based visitor, as opposed to chasing profitless volume.”

O’Sullivan pinpointed the Dundee campaign as the campaign he is most proud of, describing it as the most complex project to date.

“It was the first time we backed ourselves to do something really bold as an organisation,” he said.

“For me, it was like changing the wheel of a car while the car was still driving.”

O’Sullivan said he would leave the organisation at a time when “opportunity has never been greater”.

Tourism Australia achieved the bottom range of the whole-of-government and industry long-term Tourism 2020 strategy targets, two years ahead of schedule.


The strategy, which launched in 2011, aimed at achieving between $115-140 billion in overnight expenditure by 2020.

O’Sullivan said Tourism Australia was expecting to land at about $131 billion by the end of 2020 and urged the organisation to work to hit the upper-end of the target of $140 billion.

The opportunity for tourism is backed by a great reputation internationally, unprecedented investment in product around Australia, a market increase in aviation capacity both domestically and internationally and the sector becoming a focal point of the economy, he said.

O’Sullivan said China remained “absolutely critical” for the Australian market, noting that despite being a maturing market and therefore expected to produce less-aggressive growth, the market still presented “still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.

He urged the industry to continue to reinvigorate its offering to maintain Australia’s fashionability.

“These markets we’re dealing in now…their attention span is very limited because of the amount of choice that they have and because of that you need to have something in front of them that grabs their attention straight away,” he said

“We can’t just say ‘we’ve got all these great new hotels coming online, we can have a bit of a break and catch our breath’ we’ve got to continually charge towards the top of the hill.”

O’Sullivan handed over to Tourism Australia’s Executive General Manager International, Phillipa Harrison in June, who will act as interim Managing Director until a permanent replacement is found.

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