“Listen and chart a path forward”: Intrepid’s Leigh Barnes on navigating the Australia Day debate

The Australian flag and Australian Aboriginal flag fly side-by-side at Bondi Beach, Sydney in early summer.  This image was taken on a windy day in the late afternoon.
Edited by Travel Weekly


    Intrepid Travel has been developing its reconciliation plan since 2018 to recognise and honour First Nations people in all that the company does.

    In the wake of much contention surrounding the Australia Day public holiday, Intrepid’s chief customer officer, Leigh Barnes, sat down to discuss how brands can successfully navigate the topic. 

    For Intrepid, its reconciliation plan centres around simply celebrating, engaging and reconciling with our First Nations people and highlighting First Nations products and experiences in its trips. There is also a strong focus on engaging with First Nations partners and making informed decisions surrounding how the company works with First Nations partners.

    “We believe it’s really important to give our people a choice, and we want to support our First Nations partners as best we can,” Barnes said. “It’s really about making sure that, as a company, we stand for something supporting those who are out there without the same level of voices in mainstream media. It is about being able to make a positive change.

    “One of the big changes has been around the feedback from our First Nations people and partners was that January 26th wasn’t the date [to] celebrate, and we’ve given our staff now for the last four years the option to work or not work”.

    Intrepid’s chief customer officer Leigh Barnes

    According to Barnes, the decision to take a political stand on these kinds of social debates really comes down to the type of brand you are and what you stand for. Certain businesses have a real stake in the game and are obligated to have an opinion; others just do it to score points within the public opinion. 

    “I think realistically, if it’s something that is impacting your people and your business, you should be speaking. But also, if you’ve done the work around it, with that comes an obligation that you do need to speak out,” said Barnes.

    “If it’s in their wheelhouse, then 100 per cent, they have an obligation to have an opinion; if you haven’t done the work, and you are just doing it to get on the agenda or score some points, you probably don’t have a place”.

    If a company is going to pick a side, the most important thing you can do is build a plan that ensures you are meeting the political stance in all aspects of your business, not just jumping on board a side when it is newsworthy.

    “My advice to brands is to build a Reconciliation Action Plan. Start with the consultation process, where you get to have yarns with First Nations people. Listening and learning is the most powerful part. The same applies to any cause. You want to engage with your stakeholders, your partners, and your people – listen and chart a path forward,” Barnes said.

    When asked if it is worth the risk for companies to pick a side on political issues, Barnes pointed out that businesses pick sides daily in colours, messaging, and what they write; it’s unavoidable. Unfortunately, the issue is that brands tend to bandwagon hop, jumping on either side and not doing the work to ensure it is done in the best way possible.

    “Where I think brands and businesses get caught up in damage is where it doesn’t play a role for their business, where they’re doing it just to get used to a new stake, and it doesn’t have an impact on its people, it doesn’t have an impact on its product doesn’t have an impact on its brand. It is really just making some noise”.

    The holiday has been a date of much contention for many years now, with the public holiday recognised as a day of mourning among Indigenous communities, marking the day the British colonised Australia and invaded Indigenous land.

    This article first appeared on B&T.

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