Karen Ticehurst

Karen Ticehurst, Owner, Cunnamulla Cabins

Karen Ticehurst, Owner of Cunnamulla Cabins built her business literally from the ground up. With a vision to provide affordable, self contained and comfortable accommodation for travellers to the west, Cunnamulla Cabins was developed over a number of stages. An active community member, Karen has served on Cunnamulla Council, and is currently Chair of the Paroo Progress Association, which is an enterprising group of local business women who have redeveloped the old Cunnamulla Railway Station infrastructure into a theatre, featuring a light and sound show, to provide an entertainment destination for tourists and locals.

Why did you decide to become a developer in Cunnamulla and why do you love it?

I was doing a lot of travel for work throughout the region, and from my own experience, I felt there was a opportunity for upmarket self contained cabins in Cunnamulla, particularly catering to the self drive and workers market. I wanted the cabins to have all the amenities that people had a home, so I designed them to have full kitchens, washing machines, and separate areas to relax in.   

At first, I thought that the accommodation would be a side-line for me, and something to do when I retired, so I only purchased a 1 acre town block to start this enterprise and put four cabins on it. It didn’t take long to realise that Cunnamulla Cabins was taking over my day to day job, so I quit my full-time work as an employee, and committed to developing a larger 10 hectare block on the entry to Cunnamulla.

This was approximately ten years ago. It was a bare block with no infrastructure at all on it, no sewerage, no fencing, no trees, so starting from scratch.

What were some of your initial challenges?

I could see the potential but I didn’t realise how much work would be involved in turning my plans into reality. Everything took so long. The initial Development Applications and Building applications took over a year to be approved, business loans over six months and a lot of negotiations. The Main Roads Department initially denied me the right to access the site from the main road (which was the key reason I purchased the block). Also, finding tradespeople in the West is fraught with many a frustration, and the list goes on.

I knew that the initially outlay would be spent on a large amount of infrastructure underground. Sewerage, power, water and roads took a huge chunk of my set up money, leaving me with little funds to put a limited amount of infrastructure on top. I was very glad that I had my other cabins to build up my cash flow to allow me to continue to grow the business. 

There were disappointments, some people didn’t like staying here as they felt isolated. I loved the isolation, but I knew I had to put all cash flow into further development as quickly as I could to ensure that people felt comfortable. I have managed over the past eight years to grow Cunnamulla Cabins using just my cash flow with another four cabins, to another four budget rooms, ten ensuited caravan park sites, twelve metre pool, camp kitchen, outdoor theatre, shop and takeaway business.

Coming soon are another four budget rooms, eight carports and, hopefully before the end of the year, two more self contained cabins. The entire area has been landscaped by me with trees that struggle to grow in this harsh climate and grassed areas, but they make the park so much more inviting. 

What lessons can you share with others?

Not all of my ventures have been successful, and the skill is to recognise this, assess it and where possible change direction, using the same infrastructure for something else that will be successful.

An example is my caravan park ensuited sites. I thought that $38.00 for a ensuited powered site was extraordinary cheap, but it seemed like I misread the market, and unfortunately didn’t realise that more and more caravans have ensuites on them and do not need power much of the time.  

Therefore rather than keep this part of the park for caravans, which only have a limited travel period in our winter, I have decided to put in cabins with no ensuites at a cheaper price, but which use the ensuites already there. I feel that these will suit tag-a-long groups; road-gang groups; and other workers who have limited budgets, but who stay for longer periods.  

The shop and café, again proved too much work for me. I had dreams that I could build it up enough so that it would not need my presence at the helm, but this was unrealistic and costly. Therefore, I was spending more time in the shop, and paying three people to do my job outside the shop. It was just not feasible. However, the asset is here to sell on, and a fully fitted kitchen is always a good selling point for future buyers.

I think recognising mistakes, drawing a line in the sand, and changing directions is an important part in becoming a successful business person.

Why should people become local Councillors in their communities?

Most people join local Councils to try to make a positive change, but often find the reality far different from their expectations. I was a local Councillor for four years before I was Deputy Mayor. If you have the right CEO, Mayor and a proactive Council you can get so much done, which we were lucky enough to have whilst I was there.  

However, I do believe that it is vital to have someone to always offer the opposing argument, as “Groupthink” can happen. Groupthink is defined as “a process of flawed decision making that occurs as a result of strong pressures among group members to reach an agreement. Often, when there is a council that has a history of conflict and inertia, a new council may find that they are so pleased to have a progressive council that “groupthink” can happen without anyone even being aware of it, until it is too late.

You are Chair of the Progress Association to develop a tourism hub around Cunnamulla Railway Station, why is this important to the community?

I feel that the communities rely too much on Council to do everything. Their main role is roads, sewerage, gardens and water, and although they do venture into community work as well, they mostly do it under duress.  They all have ageing infrastructure that costs millions to upkeep, much of which cannot be rated out, therefore funding must be constantly found to keep these assets from falling down. 

Community groups need to lighten to load of councils, and take on some of those ageing infrastructure issues that councils cannot. This is what the Paroo Progress Association Inc has done with the Cunnamulla Railway Station. It was so neglected that it looked like it could never return to its former glory days. The volunteer hours needed would be insurmountable. But a group of like-minded local ladies, all with their own businesses, have managed to pull it off.

The Progress Association thought of ways to use the station that would attract overnight stays, and bring a revenue stream in for the Progress Association. Cunnamulla All Aboard was born. A forty minute light and sound show in a brand new theatre that joins the railway station. This will bring nightly entertainment to visiting tourists, and in the off-season, allow movie nights for the locals. The theatre is nearly complete, and the attraction will open in the coming month, just in time for the tourist season.

Why do you love living in rural Queensland, and why should people consider moving there?

The main reason is the opportunities that can be found out here. The land for my development was cheap, so that allowed me to do a lot more infrastructure on top. The promotion in a small town is easier, because everyone recommends everyone. Cunnamulla people are great, they are friendly and welcoming. 

In a business, some things are a lot harder in small towns, but these are weighted to the positive for the benefits. It is incredibly easy to get around town, although distance to the next town is a long way. It’s harder to find staff (everyone is desperate), but easier to find helpers in an emergency. We have great internet coverage and access to lots of water, which is a blessing during the hot summers.

I like that you can be part of Local Council, a business person and a volunteer. When I retire I am going to put more time into volunteering and doing things I love. There is so much to be done in a small town, so you will always find something to do that you love.

What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?

I didn’t start Cunnamulla Cabins until I was in my 40’s, so never give up on your dream. Always make sure there is a market for your product. Don’t think “If I build it, they will come”. This isn’t true. You have to do your research and know there is a market. I had done jobs that I liked before, but not that I ever really loved.

I had no assets nor credit rating when I started Cunnamulla Cabins, so it was an uphill battle to get a business loan. But I decided then I wanted to be comfortable when I retired, and I knew my wage at the time was never going to let me be comfortable, I would be working forever. But if you have an idea and you are committed, have done your research properly, there will be a lot of work, no holidays, sleepless nights, arguing with bank managers and people, and it will be exhausting, but the outcome in the end will be worth it. You will have something you own.

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Posted by Jade Collins - Femeconomy Founder

Mother, wife, daughter, determined dreamer. Lover of books. Background in Human Resources leadership in global organisations.