Wotif we go negative carbon

Did the Wotif website played a part in Tasmania's path to net carbon negative?

Dotcom boom time. Graeme Wood was an IT consultant in Queensland, and was chatting to an hotelier to discover how flexible they were in their prices for booking late vacancies.

What a consultant would call a yield management tool, wasn't really used by the hotel industry back in 2000. Wood came up with the idea for a platform that offered travellers discounted rates for last-minute hotel bookings, pitching customers using a working prototype he made himself.

Launched that year with two staff and 60 hotels on the platform, Wotif quickly became a go-to site for booking hotels online. It made its ASX debut six years later, with a market cap of $674 million. There was enough dough for the business to enter two boats in the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race, and for Wood, an environmentalist, his personal share unlocked a greater ability to contribute to the right causes.

Enter Gunns Limited. Once valued at $1 billion and one of the largest woodchip exporters in the Southern Hemisphere. One of their mills was in Triabunna, Tasmania, that cleared about 100,000 trees annually from old-growth forests. As the state relies mostly on hydroelectric power, its main cause of greenhouse gas emissions was from logging.

"Triabunna woodchip mill, aerial view" from Libraries Tasmania, used under CC BY 4.0 / Cropped from original

In 2010, Gunns had recorded a significant profit slump, and started selling assets to cover its debts. In mid-2011, the Triabunna mill went up for sale. Southern Tasmania’s forest industry needed access to this site, as it critically featured the only port suitable for woodchip exports in the region.

Wood had found his environmental cause, and alongside Kathmandu co-founder Jan Cameron, they purchased the site for $10 million before industry and government types could get the funding. They're plans for the site had nothing to do with logging.

What follows is a gripping story that just has to be read. Gunns goes into administration. A covert operation takes place to curtail a potential compulsory acquisition of the site. Hopes are quashed of the mill re-opening. And the site needs a new purpose.

Graeme Wood and a supportive team took to a vision that turned industrial infrastructure that processed 600,000 tons of wood chips per year, into the up-cycled events space Spring Bay Mill as its known today.

A key study that recognised Tasmania could claim a carbon negative position, noted the carbon emissions since the mill's closure. “Native forest pulpwood production contracted by 86% in 2011/2012 compared to 2005, and remained 63% lower in 2018/2019 than in 2005”. “This resulted in a sudden and sustained drop in emissions”.

Amongst all the flops from the dot-com bubble, we love the thought of the little Wotif website that persevered, ultimately playing an interesting role in the complex story of Tasmania's journey to negative carbon emissions.