“Be Yourself!”

Derek Curtis of Amazon World Zoo Park, Newchurch

I've always worked with my hands, said Derek Curtis.

Derek Curtis,  Amazon World Zoo Park

Derek Curtis, Amazon World Zoo Park

I started as an apprentice electrician and built up to owning my own building company. My last contract and final building job was at Stansted airport. When I retired from the building industry the year was 1989.

Whilst enjoying my semi-retirement a colleague invited me to join him in his conservatory and gardens building company. One of the sites was on the Isle of Wight, which had a huge greenhouse.

The natural world has always fascinated me since I was a young boy playing on the bomb sites in London. Collecting frogs, newts, butterfly’s and all bomb site dwelling creatures installed my passion for ever.

I suppose because of my building background and my love of animals and birds, Amazon World was a natural progression. It has grown from strength to strength over the past twenty-four years. 

My best decision was to work daily with my staff as an equal – as does my wife – as part of one big family who live and work for the good of our Amazon.

Tourism is obviously very important to our Island. All our staff appreciate how important it is for our customers to have great experiences when visiting us, and take away great memories of their holiday.

as published by IW County Press, Column by Dave Simon

Very few products sell themselves.

Commentary from Dave Simon

Sales skills are essential – in some industries even more than others.

Our Island tourism trade has been in the news recently. Initiatives aim to increase visitor numbers.

But a big problem for seasonal industries is that most customer-facing staff are just as temporary as the customers. 

While this might save money after the season, it can mean low investment in staff training.

Imagine every visitor spending £5 more as well – bringing £10 million more into the Island economy every year.

That could be achievable if the Island's tourism sector invested in pre-season joint training events. And it might only cost £10 thousand or less.

The goal would be to increase small impulse buys. Say two items at £2.50 over a week. That's a very modest target. The more ambitious staff might double that.

It only needs small changes in daily approach. And, done well, customers will thank those staff.

Remember the story:
The disappointed salesman shrugged and said to his manager “I guess you can take a horse to water, but you can't make him drink”.
The boss said “Forget the water. Your job is to make him realise he's thirsty.”
For more on selling click here.


Continuing Derek Curtis' experience

I Used To Be 'Trouble'

I started work as an electrician's mate. I wasn't popular with the bosses because I asked to many questions. I got a reputation as 'trouble'. But one qualified electrician took me on, tried me out and then became my team-mate and mentor.

One thing lead to another and I began to take on work by myself. Slowly I built up a builders business in and around London. I got a lot of the work just by talking to people, making friends and listening to the gossip.

Gradually I employed more and I found myself driving all day, from one site to another all around London. I began to get tired of it and I found I wanted out.

Birds Were My Hobby

In the meantime, my interest in birds was what kept me going. I used to work from early morning till early afternoon. Then I'd take my birds of prey to the hills and fly them.

And strangely, I made another good friend doing that. One day he was on the hill doing the same, and we chatted – and eventually that lead to more work.

My last big job was working on the Stansted Airport build. That let me retire at the age of 45. 

I thought that was what I wanted – nice house, money in the bank, peace and quiet... But I was going round the bend, bored. I needed a challenge. 

And then I got a phonecall inviting me to join a business in conservatories and garden centres.

One site was on the Isle of Wight, and that's where I landed. At the time, the Island site was supposed to be the first of many, but my partner got wiped out and I had to stay put. I missed the mainland to begin with, but I love being here now. 

I Never Planned Amazon World

It was a sort of accidental business. It started with me using a large greenhouse on my site for my birds. And suddenly I was given more birds to rescue, and then zoo animals... and it kept growing.

School visits followed and then I opened Amazon World in 1991, just for three months a year. And it is still very seasonal – we are effectively closed from November on. 

I have to cut staff hours a bit to survive, but I don't put them off and then hope I can beg them to come back at the start of the next season. But we can't just stop. We need to care for the animals, so I need to keep the staff on. And that means that I need to make a year's money in the summer months. 

So any profit I make gives me the ability to look after the animals. It pays for the staff and their training, the repairs and improvements and it gets us through the winter.

Business Is All About People

I think that to create a sustainable business from scratch, you have to be very strong-willed. I would say that my personality is very determined, while honest and polite. I'm so passionate about Amazon World that I forge ahead, but I'm not always right. I have to apologise if I'm wrong. 

When I started, there were only a few attractions here. Now there are many more, even though a few have closed down. So, in competition, I need to keep improving the place. We are constantly working to make it more attractive.

I feel that loyalty is a backbone in all business. That's what trust is built on and it works both ways between a business owner and the staff. It's important to me to work as one of the staff every day, for part of the day at least.

We train our staff as much as possible. They can all answer questions on all the animals. That helps my business and it keeps them involved. My philosophy is that we all need to keep learning every day. And long-term, it helps staff in finding their next job.

We Need To Face The Future

There are things a business owner has to do that other employees don't. So I work at home sometimes, on the paperwork. After all this time, I'm just about to get my own office onsite – that's something to celebrate!

What scares me most is the possibility of losing control. Any business-builder wants to control things to make it successful. Manyana just doesn't work. We have to take a few risks. And maybe I've missed a few opportunities – I'm only human!

On the Island we need tourists. I feel that locals need to be more welcoming to them to keep the income flowing. We need to be more supportive of the industry – we all benefit from it. 
This local government shake-up – introducing a Mayor – might push the Council into a more forward-looking approach.

We need to re-invent ourselves. We need to attract custom more energetically, and that means everyone here has to be more committed. It's almost as though we need to start the tourist business from scratch again...!

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