Falling for the breathtaking scenery and sensing an opportunity in tourism, Andrea Brown and David Visser left their corporate positions in Melbourne to launch Lakes Entrance Helicopters (LEH) in 2018 and their luxury accommodation, La Riva, in 2019. A focus on collaborating with other like-minded local businesses has been a key to their ventures really taking off.
In 2009, Andrea and David purchased their 370-acre property in Wuk Wuk and quickly realised that East Gippsland was ripe with potential to grow into the luxury ecotourism market and “embrace an opportunity to create our own businesses that make a difference”.
The diversity of the Gippsland Lakes region was appealing: the landscape (rivers, lakes, ocean and alpine areas) and the industry (agriculture, horticulture, forestry and fisheries). And, they’re only three hours from Melbourne and have the hub of Bairnsdale and surrounds nearby.
"We always recognised that tourism is not an isolated business and that destinations need a community collaborative spirit to succeed..."
In speaking about LEH, David says, “Many passengers comment on how well they know the lake system, but seeing it from above provided a new and unexpected appreciation of what we have… [it’s] a totally different and memorable experience.”
David shares that one of the most impressive and important natural land formations in Gippsland Lakes is the Mitchell River Silt Jetties: “It is hard to describe a river in a lake. However, it’s fully comprehensible when viewed from a helicopter.
“The vastness of the Ninety Mile Beach, the uniqueness of Bunga Arm and, of course, the man-made Entrance are stunning features… It’s ecotourism up high!”
LEH operate two 4-seater Robinson R44 helicopters – very popular in the tourism industry – and their scenic flights cruise at 1,500 feet above sea level, yet fly lower along the coast to enable passengers to connect more with the Ninety Mile Beach and surrounds.
They have five scenic flights currently available, ranging from 10 to 42 minutes long, with an average speed of 105 knots. The longest flights cover a distance of approximately 140 kms over Lakes Entrance, Loch Sport and Lake Tyers.
Longer charters east towards Mallacoota and west towards Melbourne are possible with appropriate fuel stops. David adds, “Our quick rule of thumb is whatever it takes to drive, we fly [it] in half the time or better.”
David is the base manager and a pilot, while Andrea supports as ground staff. They’ve also got a gun pilot in Josh Davey, who started his career flying fixed wing aircraft in the Army before transitioning to helicopters. LEH is currently onboarding another pilot to increase utilisation of their two helicopters.
The focus for LEH is ensuring that, from start to finish, the passenger receives the best possible experience, making their time “enjoyable, memorable and totally amazing”. Andrea says that LEH has been involved in many “bucket list moments” and that, “We have been fortunate to fly several passengers who have been very ill. It is a heartfelt moment to be involved in their final wishes.”
For La Riva, retreats and small business and personal events have been the focus, as they bring a wide platform of people to enjoy the stunning property, and they, in turn, share their experience with others. Offering exclusive use of the Homestead and seven acres of manicured gardens, booking La Riva can accommodate up to 10 guests.
Andrea says that entering the luxury market required an approach centred on quality, authenticity, flexibility, personalisation, inclusive packaged pricing and offering a full experience – not just accommodation.
“We are still navigating the luxury market and marketing channels and are currently evaluating the newly re-emerging international markets.
“Marketing has been an interesting challenge and we’ve been careful about what channels we approach. Everyone (platforms) wants to take a slice, so we are trying more of a direct model: word of mouth and increased social media.”
“For both LEH and La Riva, partnerships are really important, as we know that together we succeed and grow. We always recognised that tourism is not an isolated business and that destinations need a community collaborative spirit to succeed. We approach most areas of our businesses with a view for collaboration that enhances what we’re offering.”
Andrea says she’s proud to be part of Gippsland’s emerging luxury market and suggests that more rapid air travel to the region (daily flights from Melbourne and Sydney) would enhance the industry, and there’s anticipation that the new grant secured by Bairnsdale Airport could contribute to this.
Additional ideas for expanding the region’s tourism offering include more high-quality food and beverage experiences, opening additional locations suitable for ecotourism and the luxury market, as well as allowing operators to partake in tourism on government-controlled areas, especially as East Gippsland is largely government owned and managed.
For the year ahead, La Riva will continue to create new offerings, with the East Gippsland Winter Festival plans being a highlight. LEH will continue their infrastructure improvements and introduce more Heli-Experiences – making for two ventures that are a heli-good-time!