Only 12 months after graduating, Hailey launched her own business – Vacayit, a revolutionary tourism app enhancing travel experiences for blind and low-vision travellers. The app acts as a tour guide in your pocket, allowing travellers to listen to local stories, history and other information about the places they visit.
“Tourism marketing is primarily visual,” says Hailey.
“For somebody who is blind or has low vision, it can be difficult to make informed and independent decisions before and during travel – and destinations can often be quite an empty experience.”
“With Vacayit, we work with individual organisations and the leading destinations around Australia to create accessible and engaging audio guides at destinations.”
The Vacayit team (left to right): Lisa McEwan (head of content), Hailey Brown (CEO and founder), Henry MacPhillamy (accessibility advisor), Ivan Wang (head of marketing and public relations)
What inspired Vacayit?
Hailey was putting the plans together for Vacayit long before she graduated. The idea first sparked when UQ teachers invited Hailey and 5 other students to present ideas about gaps in the tourism industry to the World Tourism Forum. The twist is that Vacayit wasn’t even the first equality-centred idea she had for the occasion.
“I was originally going to talk about how Australia can’t be a cultural tourism leader until we can recognise our history, and I really wanted to find a solution for that,” says Hailey.
“But I felt like I was the wrong person to do that, and I didn’t have a tangible enough solution.”
The day before she was due to submit her concept, she had a conversation with her friend Henry, who has been blind since birth. Their chat planted the seed for what would eventually become Vacayit. And it only took some questioning about what Henry likes and doesn’t like when travelling – jotted together on a $7 whiteboard from Kmart – to start growing the idea.
“I broke down the three main points from Henry’s stories to work out what the big problem was – that tourism marketing is too focused on the visual experience,” says Hailey.
“I came up with a problem statement, wrote up a report overnight, submitted it to the World Tourism Forum, and then ended up winning at the Moving Forward innovation festival in Switzerland about a year and a half later, which was really incredible.”
Hailey and Henry enjoy a drink at Joedy’s Café, under the watchful eye of Henry’s guide dog Yasmin
From concept to reality
At this point, Hailey knew Vacayit was meant to be more than an award-winning idea. She needed to bring it to life, and so she turned to UQ Ventures. This is where she discovered entrepreneurship – something she had never really considered for herself.
“I took the idea to UQ Ventures because I never wanted to be an entrepreneur; I never wanted to have my own company by any means,” she says.
“Funnily enough, it’s actually worth it – it was exactly what I was meant to do.”
Ventures is the core of UQ’s entrepreneurial spirit. It features co-working spaces for collaboration, innovative tools such as 3D printers and design studios, and an ongoing series of events, programs and workshops to help students bring their brightest ideas to life. See for yourself.
The staff at UQ Ventures were quick to recognise the value of Hailey’s concept and encouraged her to take it further by joining competitions and workshops to develop the idea. This is what made the journey to Vacayit possible, even though Hailey felt like she had dived straight into the deep end.
“In the early stages, you don’t know what you don’t know, and so you don’t know what you’re missing,” she says.
“In a world that seems so new and unfamiliar, it can be really challenging to take that first step or that leap of faith, because it seems like a world where everybody’s so accomplished.”
But Hailey did the best thing you can do in these circumstances: ask the right questions (and lots of them) and find people who have the answers. She participated in multiple UQ Ventures programs, seeking mentors and guidance at every turn.
“That was how I introduced myself into the world of entrepreneurship and into the first steps of the business.”
Much of her Bachelor of Tourism, Hospitality and Event Management was essential for preparing Hailey for this adventure. She particularly credits the Business Industry Placement course (RBUS3999) for equipping her with the skills and confidence to put her learning into practice.
“I was able to work with the Queensland Tourism Industry Council for my placement in my final semester,” she says.
“Through this and all the different internships I did throughout my degree, what I realised is I really love tourism, I really love this industry, and I love how quickly things can change in this industry.”
However, while Hailey adored the industry, she struggled to find one aspect of it that truly resonated with her. This is what made industry placements and internships (and now her role as Vacayit CEO and founder) so rewarding.
“It was perfect, because I was able to do something different in all these roles – a bit of marketing, advertising, PR, branding, budget reconciliation, market research, membership and events,” she says.
“I realised I love everything a little bit but not enough to focus my whole career on one aspect, and this really helped me rationalise starting my own business when I left uni.”
“Without those placements and those experiences, I would have never been able to make this decision.”
The response to Vacayit
The moment we launched, a lot of people finally got that sense of relief and felt heard. They realised there's a solution out there for them that's more accessible and engaging for everybody.
CEO and founder of Vacayit, Bachelor of Tourism, Hospitality and Event Management / Bachelor of Arts
Hailey is highly motivated by tangible change and turning concepts into outcomes, so seeing Vacayit evolve from an idea in her mind into reality has been an astounding experience.
“I genuinely think it’s the most incredible thing in the world,” she says.
“You never feel more humbled and honoured than when you’re doing well while also positively impacting the world.”
Creating hype for something that didn’t exist yet made Hailey uncomfortable at first, but now that all the pieces have come together, she’s glad she put in those early hours.
“I never really liked the publicity that comes around having a company that’s just an idea, because you’re not making a tangible impact on people’s lives yet,” she says.
“It didn’t make sense to me at the start. But what I realised was, while we were building up our network and gaining people’s trust, we were building a community.”
Now the months of promoting something that felt so abstract are paying off, both in terms of download numbers and public reception.
“The moment we launched, we got about 100 messages from people, and they were like, ‘I’ve been following this for 2 years, thank you’,” says Hailey.
“I didn’t realise how big our community was until then, and it’s just the coolest feeling in the world.”
How are things going with Vacayit?
As of August 2023:
The Vacayit platform features over 700 curated stories.
These stories have been listened to over 200,000 times.
The team has built an accessible audio player to put these stories on websites in an accessible format.
The team have partnered with organisations including Tourism Tasmania, Destination Gold Coast, ATSA Independent Living Expo, Accor, and Dreamworld (Ardent Leisure), as well as receiving funding by CPL (Choice, Passion, Life).
Vacayit has expanded its offering to hotels and events while also expanding into new countries.
Future plans include developing accessible maps and navigation that can prioritise ramps over stairs while also factoring in mobility when estimating travel time.
Over time, the dream is for Vacayit to become the go-to app for anyone organising a holiday, with a focus on making destinations accessible and engaging for travellers of all abilities.