BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort: Where Caravanning Meets Resort Luxury

From above, BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort looks more like SeaWorld than a traditional caravan park! JOHN POWER talks to Grounds Manager Adam Buttel about maintaining this award-winning facility, which sets new standards of comfort and luxury for travelling holidaymakers.

OPERATOR: BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort 
REPRESENTATIVE: Grounds Manager, Adam Buttel
LOCATION: Airlie Beach, Queensland
CONTACT: www.adventurewhitsunday.com.au

: Where Caravanning Meets Resort Luxury
BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort – so much more than a caravan park.

The best businesses have a knack of defying classification – and the BIG4 caravan park at Airlie Beach, in Queensland’s famous Whitsunday region, is no exception. Part caravan park, part adventure wonderland, part seaside resort, the facility redefines the concept of caravanning and invites guests to enjoy an array of on-site attractions in botanic gardens-style opulence.

With more than 40 local, state and national tourism awards under its belt, this 28-year-old, privately owned facility is arguably one of the best holiday parks in the country, and a destination of choice for tourists from all over Australia and beyond. Set close to the seaside, the park includes 155 caravan sites, 73 cabins, as well as a waterslide park, outdoor cinema, mini golf course, conference centre, extensive gardens, and an animal precinct. BIG4 Whitsunday is also a gateway to a world of leisure activities throughout the local Great Barrier Reef region, notably fishing, boating and sightseeing.

During busy school and public holiday periods the park can host up to 1,000 people.

Grounds Manager Adam Buttel is responsible for the landscaping and grounds maintenance of the entire compound, which covers almost 20 acres. (Another 10 acres is set aside for private use, including a dwelling and nursery.) 

Outdoor attractions include a nighttime cinema.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work here for five and half years,” Adam says, “and we’ve been growing steadily over that time – there were only 45 on-site cabins when I started; now there are 73. In fact, we’ve just put in another six three-bedroom cabins that are almost as big as family homes.”

As leader of outdoor management tasks, Adam oversees a small team of dedicated professionals.

“One of the owners of the park lives on site and is also the backhoe operator and structural landscaper, so he does a lot of rock work – we have a lot of bush rock up here – as well as the landscaping and earthwork around new cabins and sites. I manage the actual grounds team, which, apart from me, includes an assistant who recently finished his apprenticeship in Horticulture; he’s my second in charge. And then we have a young guy who has just entered his second year as an apprentice in Parks and Gardens. We are also on the lookout for another apprentice.”

This small full-time team maintains all grounds activities, ranging from planting and pruning duties, clearing vegetation debris from pathways and accommodation areas, and presenting gardens to an extremely high standard. Whereas many old-fashioned caravan parks are designed for simple functionality, typically featuring large expanses of either open space or unkempt vegetation, BIG4 Whitsunday is characterised by botanic garden-quality, manicured gardens that overlay the entire property with a sense of luxury normally reserved for premium resorts. 

A separate maintenance department of six personnel looks after all built infrastructure, leaving Adam and his team to concentrate on landscape-related tasks.

STRATEGIC PLANT SELECTION

Achieving such a high level of grounds presentation requires significant expertise and commitment, starting with prudent plant selection.

According to Adam, there is a “big emphasis on colour”, mostly inspired by the co-owner’s love for plants such as Desert Roses. “There are thousands of those in our nursery, which like our environment even in the wet,” Adam explains. “We also have Crown of Thorns, lots of Cordylines, and many different species of Bromeliads. We buy in Lipstick Palms as well because they are a little difficult to grow from seed – they are a bit of a feature around the park too. But the most common plant here is the Golden Cane Palm because they are so easy to grow and they are quite attractive and easy to manage. There is such a big mix: we’ve got the big Livingstonia Palms and Fan Palms,and we’ve got massive Bismarks in the camping areas.”

While preferred plant species are prioritised, there is a simultaneous effort to remove inappropriate or dangerous trees from the property. This strategy helps to minimise maintenance works over time, and also seeks to reduce the impact of extreme weather events like cyclones. Adam says Tropical Cyclone Debbie, for instance, wrought havoc on the property in 2017 and forced its closure for a month – some 400 truckloads of green waste was removed during cleanup works, leading to a decision to plant more ‘cyclone-proof’ species like Spindle Palms and Golden cane Palms.

In a bid to further minimise landscape maintenance chores, Adam says he and his team have avoided the use of finicky shrub and hedging plants, opting instead to make the most of local bush rock supplies to border driveways, campsites and paths.

DAILY PRACTICALITIES 

Grounds management team members (L-R): Nick Becker, Adam Buttel, and Brooklyn Burns.

All members of the grounds management team have the benefit of a modern, fully owned fleet of outdoor power equipment, which is housed in an on-site workshop. 

An Atom edger is an indispensable tool for providing a crisp finish to thoroughfare edges. It also avoids the hazards associated with brushcutters stirring up crushed rock dust.  

The fleet does include brushcutters, of course, for general property trimming: Adam says he favours Bushranger and Shindaiwa units (26–28cc) for their reliability and ease of use. 

“We also have a full range of STIHL battery equipment, including two chargers with five batteries, which are used to run three blowers, two brushcutters, a push mower, hedge trimmer and a pole chainsaw – all run off same battery pack.”

These electric units, Adam says, are used mainly for cosmetic touch-up works around the pool area, for example, supplemented by petrol devices for heavier-duty work. “I’d struggle to phase out petrol completely,” he adds.

General mowing is conducted with a Kubota GZD Series ride-on with hydraulic tipper and catcher, and Adam says a new unit will soon supplement the existing model.

A number of ATVs are used for carting mixed equipment and team members around the property. A petrol Club Car with tray and several electric units are used as day-to-day vehicles, and the maintenance department has its own fleet of electric models. There are also two Kubota RTV900s used as grounds buggies.

The property had just one chainsaw before Cyclone Debbie hit – the next day three more were purchased. Nowadays team members have access to petrol STIHL chainsaws, including an MS 291, Magnum and Wood Boss.

When pruning softwood or green vegetation, Adam says he tends to use a Barnel pruning saw rather than use motorised equipment.

The park can accommodate up to 1,000 guests on any given day.

A LIGHT FOOTPRINT

With up to 1,000 guests in the park at peak season, every effort is made to ensure the amenity of occupants, particularly in relation to noise minimisation.

Grounds staff will always need to make some noise, Adam concedes, but disruptions are kept to a bare minimum in three principal ways: power equipment is not used in populated areas before 9.30am, works in different areas of the park coincide with hours of low patronage (for example, the outdoor cinema is a nighttime venue, so daytime works are mostly unobtrusive), and sections of the park are left unoccupied on a rotational basis to allow for vegetation rejuvenation and site restoration.

These techniques, taken as whole, allow the grounds team to service the entire precinct with a surprisingly light footprint.

STABILITY MATTERS

Not surprisingly, another important factor in grounds management at BIG4 Whitsunday is team stability, which governs everything from equipment purchases and maintenance regimes to the delivery of long-term goals.

Equipment experimentation ‘for its own sake’, Adam says, is shunned in favour of high-quality gear that members trust and know. Similarly, maintenance is carried out in-house on some equipment, but external dealers are entrusted with the majority of regular servicing jobs so grounds staff can spend as much time as possible in the field. 

As for long-term tasks, the team has a full understanding of future projects and expectations, which allows them to plan ahead (as far as possible!) to avoid bottlenecks in workloads. For instance, Adam says he and his team are already preparing for the installation of a new pool in the next year or two, as well as the possibility of a new BMX track. In the shorter term, a new amenities block with a fully equipped laundry is earmarked for development.

A stable grounds management team is intrinsic to the above projects, as members must coordinate their activities seamlessly to ensure landscaping works are performed without compromising other routine tasks. An open and long-term line of communication with the booking manager is equally vital to optimise the timing of different works.

A GROWING REPUTATION

Something for the whole family: the mini golf course is a popular pastime for guests of all ages.

Since its inception in the mid-1990s, BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort has grown to become more of a ‘resort’ than a ‘caravan park’. By upholding the highest values of landscaping and property management, combined with high-quality on-site attractions and entertainments, the venue has actually been busier in 2020–21 than when it was pre-COVID. The grounds team must take significant credit for this remarkable result.