Plenty of Australian travel agencies are family affairs, but few – if any – would come close to rivalling Queensland’s Stonestreets Travel.
Operated by siblings Phil Stonestreet and Bev Mules, the agency, located in Toowoomba in south Queensland’s Darling Downs, this year celebrated its 26th anniversary. But in reality its roots reach back almost 50 years, to the mid-1970s when the pair’s father Keith purchased three second-hand buses and launched a coach line in Newcastle, New South Wales.
A few years later he sold the business and moved the family to Dubbo to take on a bigger bus service. And by the mid-1980s, when Keith sold out once again, his two eldest sons, Allen and Wayne, along with son-in-law Gary were all involved in the operation.
Next came a bus route in Murwillumbah, where Bev briefly joined as a driver. Then in 1992 they took on another bus service in Toowoomba and Phil, a qualified mechanic, looked after maintenance while mum, Phyllis, managed the books.
By the time Bev re-joined the business in 1994, it included a fledgling travel division, which utilised Stonestreets’ fleet of vehicles to offer a selection of domestic coach tours.
Phil says the decision to launch Stonestreets Travel’s domestic coach tours was a logical progression for the company, whose fleet had grown exponentially thanks largely to engineering company Bechtel awarding it a series of contracts to transport thousands of workers to its Queensland construction projects.
"I guess it was a natural move, but while it was successful it certainly didn't explode,” he says. “We started with day-tours and shorter trips, then a few years later we employed Rob Brown, an ex-McCafferty’s employee, who was dedicated to getting the touring program going, with its own travel club and regular newsletter. Rob also drove on most of the tours.”
The travel operation went international in 2004 after Phil and his wife took a small group to Canada for Christmas. Nevertheless, he says it wasn't until around 2010 the international tours really began to develop.
Five years ago, Sue McPherson, a travel agent with almost 40 years’ experience, joined the company in order to expand its international FIT and coach tour business.
One of the keys to the international operation is the company's Made Easy Battlefield Tours, which sees Sue work directly with local guides and operators all over the world to craft bespoke escorted group departures to military theatres of significant to Australians. Over the years the tours have taken clients to Turkey, France, Belgium, Libya, Egypt, Israel and Vietnam.
The vast majority of Stonestreets Travel’s customers live in Toowoomba, which boasts a population of around 140,000, making it the second most populous inland city in Australia after Canberra. The city – revered for its beautiful gardens and parks, and surrounded by a fertile farming region – is also growing quickly, thanks to relatively abundant employment opportunities.
Phil says the company’s website has also helped expand its reach and its group tours have attracted customers from all along Australia’s west coast and from across the Tasman in New Zealand.
Just last month Stonestreets sold its transport business – a move that saw Bev’s daughter Michelle leave the family business to become general manager of the new operation. Stonesteets Travel retained a 4WD coach for its domestic touring program (which runs from April to November) and if additional coaches are required it now charters them.
With the focus now solely on its travel operation, Phil sees significant potential to further grow the FIT business and expand its range of small group tours.
“People want a more intimate and hands-on experience these days. And from a logistics perspective, small groups are much easier to manage. For example we recently took a small group over and joined with a Battlefields Tour, but the weather was not good and we had to do something different. When you're working with a minivan, rather than a 50-seater coach, it’s not difficult because you can be flexible.
“Also on the smaller group tours, everyone tends to be in the same state of mind and you can give them the kind of experiences they are looking for. You can change every day; you don't have to stick to the guidelines.