In under a decade Leanne and Ian Neeland turned 40 acres of barren land into the region’s most popular tourist attraction – Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery. They outline the hard work behind their success, the challenges that come with expansion and how new experiences keep up visitor numbers all year round.

Eight years ago, Leanne and Ian Neeland noticed that regionally-based chocolate businesses in their home state of Western Australia were proving popular with tourists. As seasoned business owners – and passionate foodies – they believed they could take sweet treats to another level.

They were right. In its first four years of operation, the business they opened in Victoria attracted more than 3 million visitors.

Today, the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery has been dubbed the most visited attraction in the region, which makes it one of the top destinations in regional Victoria. It comprises an extensive showroom, chocolate production area and all-day cafe. In 2016, the Neelands opened a second outlet on the Great Ocean Road and they’re currently testing a smaller, boutique-style business model on the Mornington Peninsula. But, as Leanne points out, their journey hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

“If we hadn’t been so determined, resilient and prepared to keep on working hard, we’d have given up before Yarra Valley got off the ground,” she says.

Finding the right location

The couple’s search for their first Chocolaterie took them from the Barossa in South Australia and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales to as far away as Japan and California’s Napa Valley.

“It made sense to focus on wine regions,” Ian says. “We wanted somewhere with an established food and beverage tourism brand that was also close enough to a capital city to attract day trippers.”

In 2011, they settled on a 40-acre property in the Yarra Valley, just 50 minutes from central Melbourne.

“It had a run-down old fibro house with no sewerage or water supply, but it did have good road access and a breathtaking view,” Ian says. “We could see the potential.”

The land’s classification as a green wedge zone put their determination to the test. “It took a long and costly time for the approvals to go through,” Leanne says.

As part of the proposal they committed to planting a 500-tree fruit and nut orchard, a kitchen garden and more than 10,000 trees and shrubs on what was initially a barren piece of land.

“We now have an incredible variety of flora and fauna compared with when we came,” Ian says.

They’ve also had a positive impact on the Yarra Valley economy.

“We’re bringing in millions of tourist dollars, employing 100 local people and commissioning local artists to create artworks we can adapt for our packaging,” Ian says. “The local community is our first priority.”

Continuing the hard work

The Neelands are continually investing in their property, and in reasons for people to visit.

“We have a calendar of events to attract new visitors and then keep them coming back,” Leanne says. “We hold an Ice Cream Festival at the end of summer followed by a Rocky Road Festival, a Brownie Festival and a Hot Chocolate Festival in winter.

We cater for different tours and groups and also offer educational classes and talks, including hands-on chocolate making.”

As a result, they’ve succeeded in keeping business consistent throughout the year.

“August is the second-busiest month,” Leanne says. “Right from the start we were determined to provide regular, consistent work for our staff and we now have 220 people working all year round at three locations.”

A new set of challenges

When the Neelands were looking for funding to open a second Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery on the Great Ocean Road, they considered loans from a number of banks.

“NAB impressed us most by being so practical and quick to take action,” Ian says.

Once again the location had been carefully researched – although there was one unexpected challenge. While millions of tourists drive along the Great Ocean Road every year, many are on a mission to get to the Twelve Apostles and back to Melbourne in a single day.

“That’s something like a 10-hour round trip, so they don’t have much time to explore attractions along the way,” Leanne says. “We had 550,000 visitors last year but there’s potential to attract many more. We’re currently working with local council and other businesses to make the Torquay/Anglesea region a destination in its own right and let people know that we’re only an hour out of Melbourne.”

Focus on experience

According to last year’s Tourism – Australia Market Research Report from IBISWorld, tourism is becoming increasingly important to the Australian economy. The industry’s revenue is predicted to reach $134.3 billion by the end of the 2018/19 financial year, which includes a projected 1.7 per cent revenue increase in the current year.

The Neelands’ advice to other entrepreneurs looking to take advantage of this opportunity?

Work hard, don’t give up and always focus on the customer.

“Our catchcry is ‘sell chocolate, market the experience’,” Ian says. “We depend entirely on word of mouth and social media for our advertising and we believe it’s the experience our customers are going to take away and share.”

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