Hailey Brown turns work experience into entrepreneurship

11 April 2022

UQ alumnus Hailey Brown is collecting plaudits from around the world for Vacayit, an audio storytelling app she’s developing for blind and low vision tourists. Vacayit users can access real stories and sounds from destinations across Australia to help them make informed and independent decisions about where to travel.

The UQ Business School nominated Hailey, along with five other students, to present an innovative idea about a gap in the tourism industry to the World Tourism Forum Lucerne. In November 2021, Hailey’s Vacayit pitch won the Innovation category of the Forum’s Young Talent Programme in Switzerland.

Hailey's Innovation category win in November was quickly followed by domestic success at the Kickstarter Challenge in Canberra.

Hailey has earned even more acclaim here in Australia, winning the final of the Accelerator for Enterprising Women competition in Canberra on 17 February. Along with insightful feedback and advice from an illustrious judging panel, Hailey secured $30,000 in prize money to develop Vacayit’s platform.

Using the experience gained from diverse roles in the tourism industry, along with the advice of her UQ Ventures program mentors, Hailey has developed Vacayit from ambitious idea to viable product.

Making industry contacts through work experience

While studying UQ’s Bachelor of International Hotel and Tourism Management program, Hailey earned three work experience opportunities with the help of BEL Careers and Employability. Following a four-month stint with Tourism Australia, Hailey secured a role at the travel company Discova in early 2021. At Discova, she assisted with creative storytelling for Mexico and Asia and worked on the Bakung Sustainable Community Development Project. She balanced study, developing Vacayit and working at the Queensland Tourism Industry Council for the last six months of 2021 before graduating.

Hailey found the industry connections she made and the breadth of experience invaluable, working end to end on large scale campaigns. She worked on the planning and development of research strategies, branding and product marketing. Hailey also learned detail-oriented skills in event management, budget reconciliation and report writing.

“These three experiences allowed me to realise that I’ve been provided with enough skills in such a vast range of areas that I’d be capable of starting my own business,” Hailey said.

“It helped me realise exactly where I wanted to go in tourism. I wanted to work my way up to being the Managing Director of Tourism Australia, but that’s completely changed into doing my own thing.”

Ensuring tourist destinations are accessible for blind and low vision tourists.

Hailey and friend Henry walking in a park with his guide dog, Yas.
Hailey and Henry walk his guide dog, Yas.

This work experience gave Hailey the skills and confidence to strike out on her own, but it was her friend Henry who inspired her to make the world of travel more accessible to those who are blind or have low vision.

Henry and Hailey have been friends for the past five years. Hailey is in awe of his achievements: he has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, learned to speak French and is a lawyer. Despite all these life experiences, Henry, who is blind, still struggles to find the right information before travelling.

When Henry decided to visit Africa, he asked his friends, family and Google for advice on what he should do over there. Hailey said the suggestions weren’t ideal.

“The overwhelming response was that he needed to go on a safari, but when he got back, he described his experience as ‘getting a face full of dirt’ and ‘the stink of manure’,” Hailey said.

“His experience was not what he expected at all and it’s because he had to rely on a sighted person’s opinion and on platforms that are created for sighted people. These platforms primarily use images and videos to advertise travel destinations. It’s the way we market most of the world, to suit a sighted person’s perspective.”

Hearing these stories from Henry inspired Hailey to create something that would bring the joy she felt travelling to many more people.

“I love travelling,” Hailey said.

“I’ve been through something like 40 countries and it’s amazing to experience different cultures and see how people live their lives. How do you not want to share that with the whole world?”

Developing Vacayit in UQ’s entrepreneurship program

Hailey began the UQ Ventures Validate program in March 2021. The program helps students understand what the market needs and how to devise a sustainable business model. This stage was crucial in Vacayit’s development.

“I came into it thinking this [Vacayit] is what everyone wants but I had done no market research. It was pretty much based off Henry’s experience,” Hailey said.

“My mentor, Yotam Rosenbaum, asked me: ‘Who said that? We need to be validating this idea. Go out and get interviews from both sides [blind people and destination marketing organisations].’”

“I think I’ve interviewed over 250 blind people from 14 different countries. Of those people, 84 per cent of them want to travel at least once within the next six months. So, there’s a market for people who are itching to travel but don’t have all the tools to make an informed decision.'

Hailey Brown pitching her app to an audience at iLab Pitch Night.
Hailey has since progressed into UQ's iLab Accelerator program, earning an additional $10k in funding for Vacayit.

Collaborating with regional and state tourism organisations

Hailey started reaching out to tourism marketing organisations in August – the initial uptake has been promising. The first three organisations to provide content for the app were Bundaberg Tourism in Queensland and Yarra Ranges Tourism and Grampians Tourism in Victoria. The app now has hundreds of curated experiences from around Australia, covering over 35 per cent of the market.

“It’s a sensory marketing experience, so the app describes what you hear, smell, taste and touch at each travel destination,” Hailey said.

“Tourism operators send the copy to us, and we’ve got an editorial team who are blind that edit the content. Then we record audio tracks and send them back for final approval.”

A sample of the content from the Bundaberg Region tourism office paints an enticing picture, showcasing the sights and scents of the iconic Bundaberg Rum distillery:

Upon arriving at Australia’s largest craft distillery, the scent of cane country wafts in the air. Breathing in the sweet tang of molasses, the hustle and bustle of a working sugar mill and the sound of a cane train arriving with a freshly cut batch of sugar cane in tow, you know you’ve arrived at the birthplace of the iconic Bundaberg Rum Distillery.

Hailey has a current waitlist of six organisations ready to send their content once the editing team has the capacity, and another 10 who are willing to participate once the current partners are live. She aims to have over 70 per cent of the Australian tourism market on the app by the end of 2022.

Changing how tourism organisations communicate

Profile photo of Hailey BrownUsing the experience, industry contacts and mentorship she gained through UQ’s programs, Hailey has now taken the next step and is working full time on Vacayit.

“It’s a risk, but I think it’s a cool risk,” Hailey said.

“Honestly, at the end of the day, if it doesn’t work out I’ve already brought so much awareness around inclusive tourism experiences to so many organisations. I’m gaining everything by taking this risk; the people I’m talking to are all people I’d love to work for one day. I’m really excited.”

And to the UQ students seeking work experience, Hailey has this advice:

“Always remember that those people you’re meeting, you may not realise it, but they could be opening lots of doors for you in the future.”

If you'd like to discuss work experience opportunities, get in touch with BEL Careers and Employability and follow them on Facebook.