It’s Monday, four days before the big announcement, and 27-year-old Greg Snell of Canada is on Kangaroo Island, South Australia’s “zoo without fences,” telling a collection of international journalists, three film crews and a team of tourism reps facts about a sea lion colony that he’s never visited before.
A baby sea lion emerges from the bush looking for its mom and threatens to steal the show, but Snell is a natural at this. Canadian as he may be -- his “about” sounds the way an American might say “a boot” -- he hasn’t been in North America for the past three years, choosing instead to live out of a backpack while taking thrill seekers on guided tours through the Southern Cone of South America.
His tour of Seal Bay is one of four challenges that he needs to complete over the course of one marathon week in Australia. He’s already swum with sea lions at Port Lincoln, wrapped a snake around his neck for a press conference at Cleland Wildlife Park and gulped down an oyster bigger than his face. And things are going swimmingly.
He doesn’t know it yet, but in four days Tourism Australia will crown him the ultimate winner of one of the Best Jobs In The World -- a wildly successful marketing campaign that offers dream jobs across the disparate nation to six of the staggering 330,000 people from 196 countries who expressed interest in them.
Snell would learn Friday morning that he’s to be back on Kangaroo Island this December to, as the job description notes, “talk to wallabies, care for koalas, sunbake with seals, feed echidnas and mother penguins.” It’s supposed to be the best job in the world, and it may just alter the course of his life.
A Man With A Message
It was clear from the start that, of the three finalists for the “dream job” of Wildlife Caretaker, Snell wanted it the most, though whether that would win him the title was a matter up for debate. Some of the crew following his every move worried that his didactic spiels and penchant for jumping on others’ questions might hurt his cause. It didn’t. Snell breezed through each challenge and ultimately eclipsed his rivals, 33-year-old Nick Tilley from the U.S. and 25-year-old Hsin-Hsuan (CC) Hseih from Taiwan.
“It wasn’t in my wildest dreams that I’d make it this far,” Snell said when I caught up with him at the Remarkable Rocks in Flinders Chase National Park Monday. Snell had just finished posing on each and every one of the “remarkable” and precariously balanced granite boulders that give the icon its name. He’d tweeted, instagrammed, blogged and facebooked about the place, and made sure his face got in every press shot available. “What I’m trying to do is share my experiences through engaging content with other young people interested in coming to Australia, interested in learning more about themselves, and interested in gaining an experience that will be useful within their professional careers.”
Snell -- who said he’s “been training for this job for the past nine years without even knowing it” -- fashions himself as an educator or a “full-time travel advocate” as he put it.
“I want to go around to high schools, colleges and universities and explain how many opportunities there are out there,” he enthused. “I think people feel stifled in our current economy, especially new graduates coming out of school with no job prospects. They have a four-year degree in psychology and $60,000 in debt and no potential to get a job because they don’t have the ‘experience.’ That to me is a dead end. There are so many opportunities if you get out [into the world].”
Snell talks like a revivalist preacher and his church is planet earth. He’s convincing, too. He’s already snagged a convert in recent college graduate Sam Clarke, who won a Canada-wide competition to follow him to Australia and blog about the experience. She’s been his No. 1 cheerleader throughout the competition and is now ready to ditch her kinesiology degree from the University of Western Ontario and return to Australia by the year’s end.
For Tourism Australia, that means the A$4 million (US$3.7 million) campaign has been a success. And while it may seem like a massive marketing stunt to lure the youth segment into the nation’s Working Holiday program with little in it for the actual winner, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Snell will get A$100,000 for his six-month contract and a role that’s the closest thing the travel industry has to a star-maker.
A Star Is Born
The Best Jobs idea comes from a 2009 campaign of the same name from Tourism Queensland that offered one lucky applicant A$150,000 and the chance to be the “caretaker” of a paradisiacal island in the Great Barrier Reef. Briton Ben Southall emerged as the ultimate winner and became somewhat of a minor celebrity in the process.
“The experience of winning the original Best Job in the World was nothing short of life-changing,” he told me before the final announcement Friday. “Being able to explore a new part of the world, meet some incredible people and dive the entire Great Barrier Reef was a dream come true.”
Yet, these are modest accomplishments compared to what happened next. Southall did a six-part series for National Geographic, was the star of a BBC documentary and became involved in an Australian children’s show called "Totally Wild." He remains a highly sought after travel personality and has adopted Australia as his home.
Suffice it to say, the Best Jobs gig could easily launch a career -- and it might have already done that for CC Hseih. Over the past month, she’s became a bona fide celebrity in Taiwan, working the morning talk show circuit, lecturing at local high schools and universities, tossing the opening pitch at baseball games and garnering more than 127,000 Facebook followers along the way.
When you meet her, it’s easy to see why she’s such a sensation. Hseih talks in cute screams, jumps on cue for the posse of Taiwanese journalists that encircle her at all times and spouts off the kind of lines that are instantly quotable. “I think I was a mermaid in my past life,” she screamed in her campaign video. “I’m a party girl in the city, but in the countryside, I party with the animals,” she announced rather suddenly during a lunch on Kangaroo Island. Moments earlier, she had been chasing sheep around a blazing green field to the delight of the Taiwanese film crew.
Hseih told me she thought of herself as Cinderella, and that she hoped the magic wouldn’t end, but by Friday morning’s announcement ceremony in Sydney it was clear that her wacky one-liners and quirky ideas weren’t viewed as the best fit for Tourism Australia.
Livin’ In A Land Down Under
Aside from Snell, whose position drew the most international applicants, Tourism Australia crowned five other Best Jobs winners Friday: Andrew Smith of the U.S. (“Chief Funster,” New South Wales), Roberto Seba of Brazil (Lifestyle Photographer, Melbourne), Allan Dixon of Ireland (Outback Adventurer, Northern Territory), Elisa Detrez of France (Park Ranger, Queensland) and Rich Keam of England (Taste Master, Western Australia). Virgin Australia announced that it would keep on American Cameron Ernst, runner-up for the Chief Funster position, to be the airline’s new “High Flyer.”
Tourism Australia Managing Director Andrew McEvoy said the whole contest -- and the tens of thousands of stories it has generated in the international media -- had been a massive hit. “The youth campaign that sits underneath this ‘Best Jobs’ competition is already delivering results, with commercial partners like Virgin Australia and STA Travel reporting increased bookings and Tourism Australia seeing a significant spike in international interest in Australia’s Working Holiday Maker program [which gives residents of 29 nations the chance to live and work in Australia for up to one year].”
Tourism Australia’s working holiday-themed Facebook page has trebled from 150,000 to nearly 470,000 fans since the competition launch. A survey it conducted on 15,000 of the 330,000 Best Jobs hopefuls, meanwhile, found that 72 percent were planning to apply for an Australian working holiday.
Snell will be responsible for keeping that momentum up in his new ambassadorial role. He’ll hug koalas, pet kangaroos, lead tours to watch baby sea lions howl for their mothers and blog about every second of it. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkJohansonIBT