This week LATTE chatted with Judy Vanrenen (OAM), who founded Botanica World Discoveries 20 years ago in partnership with Geoff McGeary, the owner of APT.
Carving out a niche global garden tourism business, taking guests to beautiful gardens around the world, Judy drew on her extensive professional business skills combined with her love of plants and gardening.
Judy is the author of three superbly produced coffee table books; Beyond the Garden Gate, Along the Garden Path and Over the Garden Fence. With each book in the trilogy, Judy takes her readers on a fascinating journey that showcases the amazing people, places and plants from around the world that have played a role in her remarkable life.
Australian Day 2019 saw Judy awarded The Order of Australia (OAM) in the General Division for service to Tourism.
Judy has volunteered with numerous non-profit organisations including the Small Business Mentoring Services, coached small business operators who had dreams of setting up tourist ventures themselves and previously sat on the Grampians Tourism Council after numerous years volunteering with the local tourism authority. Judy continues to give her time to causes close to her heart.
Can you tell us a little more about Botanica as a brand and what inspired you to start Botanica 20 years ago?
I have a lifelong passion for gardening and have managed a farm and personal show garden for many years. When I had the chance to combine my love of travel with visiting gardens around the world I jumped at the chance, especially when joining forces with Geoff McGeary who has created such a successful and respected business in APT. I truly believe visiting beautiful gardens adds a wonderful dimension to the travel experience.
The Botanica travellers tend to become committed to the brand after travelling. Can you give us some more insight into what makes them repeat customers?
Being able to take guests to gardens they couldn’t access themselves and ensuring they get the right balance of gardens and sights is the most important aspect for Botanica guests. When we balance this with our philosophy to under promise and over deliver, our guests receive an added level of satisfaction which makes them want to travel with us again and again.
We also combine our garden visits with cultural experiences incorporating art, music and history as guests really enjoying learning when they travel. Our guests are like-minded they enjoy each other’s conversations and company and often make new and lasting friendships. It really is a Botanica family.
The tours, both international and domestic, provide special access to some of the world’s most beautiful private gardens, can you tell us about some of the gardens visited that are not possible to access with other tours?
Our network of private gardens and our relationship with the owners means we can visit special gardens that are not open to the public and cannot be simply found by searching the internet. As they are private, the garden owners aren’t usually keen to promote their gardens for security reasons. One such garden is my own in country Victoria, situated near the Grampians. I have been slowly expanding the garden my parents started 80 years ago, and while maintaining a show garden is a lot of work, it is my happy place and the place I feel most relaxed. It is a joy and honour to give Botanica guests exclusive access to my garden.
There are a number of travel styles available with Botanica, can you elaborate more on your key travel styles?
Botanica has small group land-based garden trips and also botanically themed cruises. Some of the cruises are on river ships in Europe and others are small coastal ships (100 guests or less). We also combine our botanical theme with art, culture, history, music and gourmet inclusions making all the trips unique to Botanica.
What is your most popular tour and why?
Our private garden tours in Australian and New Zealand are always popular as guests love to meet the private garden owners including Gardening Australia’s Sophie Thomson. Our dedicated flower show tours in Chelsea UK and closer to home in Melbourne, are always a hit. Our guests like to attend these shows with the security that comes with travelling with a group where everything is included and taken care of.
Can you share your most memorable travel moment on tour?
I get goosebumps when I visit our tours and hear our guests talking to each other about their recent Botanica trips, it is humbling to listen to their passion for Botanica. One moment which stands out for me is when we chartered our first small ship (maximum 100 guests) to sail the British Isles, and our group disembarked the ship by Zodiac to arrive at the private jetty of a stunning garden – it was such a thrill.
With the recent pandemic, we have seen a surge in tour operators shift towards growing their domestic tour offering. How has Botanica responded to this new domestic opportunity?
We already have lots of garden trips in Australian and New Zealand which we operate every year. We are adding to this collection with some new destinations such as Norfolk Island, Lord Howe Island, Kangaroo Island and the Flinders Ranges. They are all places with strong botanical interest.
How have you been keeping busy with life during COVID-19 lockdown?
Spending time in my five-acre garden and planting lots of flowering native trees and shrubs for the birds and bees on my farming property. Our new “gardening assistant” has been keeping us busy – our Jack Russell puppy named Baron has been a constant companion for us in the garden.
Where’s your next destination you’re planning to visit when possible?
Lord Howe Island has been on my bucket list for many years and I plan to get there as soon as I can. The Flinders Ranges has an incredible display of wildflowers each spring and I am keen to get there soon too. We are so fortunate that we have an incredible variety of flora and fauna here in Australia which is easy to access and enjoy.
Final question, and LATTE‘s signature question, what is your favourite coffee outlet and your ‘go-to’ order?
As we live in the country, it is a picturesque 15-minute drive to Koopmans in Dunkeld at the foot of the Southern Grampians, where I love to indulge in my coffee of choice – a flat white.
More at botanica.travel/