'It feels really purposeful': Phillipa Harrison on leading the tourism industry through crisis

‘I am certain we will make a full recovery’: Phillipa Harrison on leading the tourism industry through crisis

Phillipa Harrison features on AGSM’s new ‘Business Of… Leadership’ podcast, where guests from business, government, for-purpose and academia share their stories about leadership in today’s accelerated world. Each episode examines leadership in times of complexity and how we can see the world differently, rather than be transfixed by change. (Partner Content)

Right now, leaders across all industries have no choice but to be adaptive. It’s a critical skill when leading through times of crisis, and for those in the tourism industry it has never been more essential.

Travel restrictions, international and state border closures and the cancellation of major events have brought almost all of the 300,000 small to medium enterprises that make up the industry to their knees.

While all areas of the economy are doing it tough, there’s almost no industry in Australia that has been hit harder, especially off the back of the worst bushfire season Australia has ever endured.

In the latest episode of AGSM’s The Business Of… podcast series, Phillipa Harrison, Managing Director at Tourism Australia, shares how leading others through the current crisis has given her renewed drive and purpose.

While Harrison acknowledges that the past few months have been monumentally challenging, she’s quickly learnt to sharpen her ability to make big decisions quickly, even if they are imperfect.

When COVID-19 hit Australia and it began to sink in just how much of a disruption the virus would be to the industry, the dynamic leader immediately set up a crisis team.

“We met once or twice a day and we made lots of decisions based on what was happening right now, and I think that that was important. The cadence of my leadership changed completely,” Harrison reveals on the podcast.

“Very early on, I saw a webinar with Tom Peters who I was introduced to from my time at AGSM. He’s very straightforward and he said, ‘You’re going to be judged by the way you treat people through this period. It’s going to define you and it’s going to define your career’.”

Harrison later told Women’s Agenda that her ability to be collaborative and seek fast opinions has been crucial in her decision-making in recent months.

“It’s understanding what’s going on in the external environment, having a strategy for dealing with that and being able to review that strategy on a very, very regular basis,” she said.

She’s also looked to world leaders like Jacinda Ardern for inspiration on effective crisis response and pivoting quickly.

“I think that she is just absolutely nailing it,” says Harrison. “It’s all around being decisive, making hard decisions, but just being warm, and authentic, and imperfect with that as well.”

Harrison says it would have been impossible to prepare the entire tourism industry for the complete global shutdown we’ve experienced. Instead, it’s all about dealing with the circumstances as they arise. For many in tourism, that’s meant hibernating and conserving cash, or for some, pivoting to a domestic market.

“Nothing is the same as it was this time last year and I think if you don’t have an adaptive mindset, the business you’re working in is probably not going to do particularly well over this period.”

“It’s kind of a do or die scenario from my point of view.”

Part of Tourism Australia’s role during the pandemic has been to remain future focused and provide hope and vision for what a post-COVID world could look like for the industry.

“If we can provide a little bit of continuity and a bit of certainty, we will be doing our job for the industry, something they can anchor on to,” says Harrison.

While she concedes that a full recovery for the industry is still a few years away (predicting somewhere between 2023 and 2025), she is optimistic that Australia will see numbers return to pre-COVID levels when people feel secure again.

“I am certain we will make a full recovery. The one thing that hasn’t gone away, and we do a lot consumer research, is the demand for travel.”

“People have realised how important travel is as a mechanism for reconnecting with themselves, their family and their friends. Coming out of this, people will prioritise that more than they ever have before, and over material things.”

You can listen to AGSM’s The Business Of…Adaptive Leadership podcast, featuring Phillipa Harrison, here.

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