Becky Kiil from Newcastle Afoot

May 28, 2020 | Female Founders, Founder, Hunter Central Coast, New South Wales, Newcastle, Podcasts

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In this episode guest host Andy Jones (from Colour & Sound) goes on a walking tour with Becky Kiil, founder of Newcastle Afoot, a top rated walking tour and cultural experiences business. On top of her already hectic work life, Becky is also volunteering her time as festival coordinator for Big Picture Fest Newcastle, a project which received over $120,000 in grant money to bring local and international mural artists to the city in October 2020. In this conversation Becky discusses the challenges of managing a work-life balance, and her love for the city which she now calls home.


Andy  00:03

How much is the grant for?

Becky  00:05

We received just over $120,000, all of which will go into running the festival.

Andy  00:10

So I understand that none of that money will cover your time and-


Becky  00:15



Andy  00:15

..so that being the case, it’s obviously a massive undertaking.


Becky  00:19



Andy  00:20

Can you explain why you chose to take on the project?


Becky  00:23

I just felt like it couldn’t not happen. It had to happen.


Andy  00:30

Hi, and Welcome to Day One, the show for regional startups and the organisations that support them. I’m Andy Jones, guest host for today’s show, and I’ll be sharing with you the story of Becky Kiil, founder of Newcastle Afoot.


Becky  00:44

Hi, I’m Becky, I run Newcastle Afoot. It’s a walking tour and cultural experiences business and we are also running a street art festival this year.




A quick note before we dive in. This interview was recorded in February of this year, before Covid-19 turned everything on its head, and so our conversation doesn’t touch on the effects of the pandemic. But the themes we discuss in this episode, like the importance of supporting small businesses and of being involved in your local community, I feel are more relevant now than ever. Okay, lets get started.


Andy  00:53

On top of her already hectic work life, Becky is also working in-kind as Festival Director for Big Picture Fest Newcastle. The project received $120,000 support from the City of Newcastle to bring local and international mural artists to the city in October 2020, and this month Becky announced that the festival would go ahead in October as originally planned, with careful considerations made to enable a social-distancing friendly event. It’s a massive project on a scale unlike anything Becky’s ever taken on before, and she won’t be receiving a cent for the hundreds of hours of work that will be needed to make it happen. So why would a small business owner with more than enough on her plate already (who by her own reports never gets a day off), why would she volunteer for such a huge workload? To answer that question, first, we need to go back to day one, and hear the story about how Becky uprooted her life in Melbourne and moved to Newcastle for a sea change.


Becky  01:39

When I very first moved to Melbourne almost 10 years ago, I went on a friend’s walking tour that he ran, and I kept on going on that walking tour. I kept on inviting every friend or family member that came to Melbourne to go on the walking tour with me, or to go on the beer tour.I really really enjoyed it and I secretly wanted to work from my friend Dave, but I had my own career so it wasn’t really something I could contemplate. I was a case manager at Melbourne Magistrates Court. I was the lead acquired brain injury case manager. I loved working with people that were vulnerable and supporting them to get what they needed, and to assist them to have a vibrant life in the community. But it wasn’t always that easy, and systems tend to get people down in those sort of roles. That did get me down after a while, and I think.. I guess a lot of my burnout was working in a system that didn’t meet my values. So I ended up making some major changes around three years ago. Once I did decide I needed to create change I actually sat down with a psychologist because I honestly couldn’t comprehend doing anything else. I did a psych session where we looked at quite a few of my values, but also what drives me, what interests me, what motivates me. The core thing was making that decision that I didn’t have to always change the world in a really grand way through my career. That I could do positive work that was still, I guess a bit more of a luxury as opposed to disability or public service. So I needed to make that change. So that was the first thing, I absolutely had to make that change for my own well being. I needed to get out of that career, but I also needed to, I think, leave Melbourne. I loved Melbourne, but it’s a very grey city sometimes, and a lot of time on trains with people in suits, looking at their phones, and I just needed to get away from that. I came here five years ago to Newcastle to visit some friends that just had a baby and was here for only 20 hours. I still remember most of it pretty clearly, and realised that Newcastle met a lot of those needs that Melbourne didn’t. Well it had the things that Melbourne had, it has a culture, it has great food, great bars, art galleries that are just out of this world. Things that intellectually get my mind going, but on an amazing beach, away from the rainy weather, and a much more welcoming, more vibrant culture.


Andy  04:23

So Becky leaves her job and makes a sea change, having decided she’ll pursue a new career. She hasn’t forgotten how much she enjoyed her mate Dave’s walking tours, so when she arrives in Newcastle, she looks for a tour guide company she can work for.


Becky  04:39

I was here for a little while once I moved here, couldn’t find someone that I wanted to work for. There was a bit of a big gap in the market for just general walking tours. There was a beer tour, there was a food tour, and a ghost tour. I didn’t want to just cover one particular area, so I saw that gap of a broad business which I think has been one of my biggest assets, is that I’m adaptable in my business.


Andy  05:03

So as an outsider who’s only just moved to Newcastle, Becky decides she’ll start her own tours. Okay, can you remember the first tour that you ever gave?


Becky  05:13

Yeah, I mean, I did it a tour for some strangers. It was a friend and she brought two strangers along. They were mums, and they were… They had free time, and so I gave it to them for free. It was a bit scary.


Andy  05:29

What did you talk about on that first tour? 


Becky  05:32

You know what, a lot of the same things as I still talk about, because there’s some real core things that are quite interesting about Newcastle. I think as an outsider, I’ve.. I think there’s a benefit to being someone who hasn’t always lived here because you can see what’s really unique about this city. So I talked about Aboriginal culture, and also I guess the core things that have helped shape this inner city area, which are quite interesting. I felt like a fraud, and I was definitely doing the fake it till you make it. But the fact is, I had spent many hours, over months preparing. I had a lot of research done, I knew what I was talking about. I knew that I could provide excellent customer service and make sure people had that sort of point of difference. Like sometimes you’ll go see a tour guide, and they might have all these interesting facts, but they don’t even say hi and who they are, and they don’t really engage you. So I knew I had those things. Yeah, so it went well, I think.


Andy  06:37

And after that first tour, what happened next? What was the next step?


Becky  06:41

Oh, the next step was just identify how I can get people to start coming on these tours because I recognised people are not going to come on a walking tour, very unlikely, if there haven’t been reviews. So I needed to convince all of my friends. These were new friends, I hadn’t been in Newcastle that long. Every single little friendship group I had, I would ask them to come along for free and just get that started and keep on practising. Eventually I started getting reviews from those and started getting more natural bookings, which was really exciting.


Andy  07:16

Were you marketing yourself at the time on like social media or otherwise?


Becky  07:20

I was online with my website. I was bookable on TripAdvisor. I tried working with print media for advertising. I don’t think I’ve received any bookings from that. So I tried to just focus more on word of mouth and online, Facebook and Instagram. Building up that sort of profile so that people have a good idea visually of what I do.


Andy  07:46

I think your social media presence is really great because your enthusiasm for Newcastle really comes through and it’s often just celebrating cool stuff that’s happening in the city. It’s not overly self emotional, which I really like.


Becky  07:58

Well, that’s all people want, isn’t it? Like they don’t want to experience someone just talking about themselves, I guess. I’m not necessarily actually trying to push sales through any of that! I definitely do get sales from social media and I have people stop me at bars and just be like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been following you for a year. What you’re doing is amazing for the city. That’s great.” That is so valuable to me and I definitely am getting sales from it.


Andy  08:25

But you’re not shoving a sales pitch down people’s throats on Instagram.


Becky  08:28

No, definitely not, and when I’ve tried to do that it’s not felt comfortable or natural.


Andy  08:35

Okay, so you started to get some reviews coming in and then some strangers are starting to book you for tours. Was there an event that made you think, “Ooh, this has really got legs, I really should commit to this in a big way”?


Becky  08:49

Yeah, you were there, Andy. 


Andy  08:52

I was there?


Becky  08:52

Yeah, you were there. It was actually when the co working space that we work in, The Roost, booked Newcastle Afoot for a major Christmas party and scavenger hunt.


Andy  09:02

Of course! Okay, for a little context, The Roost is a not for profit co working space where Becky and I both have a desk. A few years ago, before Becky joined the roost, she ran a scavenger hunt as part of The Roost’s Christmas party. It was a lot of fun. We were split into teams, then given a list of cryptic clues and quirky challenges, which all had us exploring the city on foot. Until my interview with Becky I actually had no idea that this was the first time she’d run a scavenger hunt!


Becky  09:30

Yeah, it was, it was huge. It was a gamble. I had a good 30 people that I needed to entertain for maybe four hours. It was so much fun, and I definitely was just jumping in the deep end. But the response to that was so incredibly positive, and it wasn’t just a scavenger hunt. There was an element of a bar tour, just the basics of it there. We met at a bar, we finished at a small theatre. I just realised the value of I guess one of my core products that has developed from that, which is corporate experiences that are combined fun team building, but also relaxing food and drink experiences. I don’t think I ever predicted that business to business was going to be where I would get so much of my income, which has been great.


Andy  10:22

That’s so cool. I had no idea I was there for such a milestone for Newcastle Afoot. 


Becky  10:27

Yeah it was unforgettable.


Andy  10:30

What was the hardest part about getting the business off the ground in those early days?


Becky  10:35

Oh, the classic cycles of starting a business like self doubt, self reliance. I needed to do every single element, so I was not just setting up a business plan and a financial plan and learning how to do those through doing a training course. I also was researching for the tours, setting up the tours, doing risk assessments for the tours,and also doing all the marketing things. Creating my brand, getting the logo,  thinking just about the name. That was such a hard thing to do. Designing my website learning how to use Squarespace. Trying to make sure that the SEO was right, still don’t know if I’ve got that. Everything, absolutely every single element. Trying to be a master of all is just not possible, but it’s also really exciting and it was an amazing learning experience.


Andy  11:33

Just a few short years later, Newcastle Afoot is ranked number one on TripAdvisor for walking tours and guided experiences in Newcastle. I wanted to experience one of Becky’s tours for myself and Becky was kind enough to invite me along on a day when she was giving a family with young kids a tour. 


Becky  11:50

“His dad was one of the coordinators of the first fleet and he wrote a letter with this map, and he said, “Dad, I found a harbour. It’s deep, it’s landlocked, and there is coal falling out of the hills.” You can still see coal falling out of hills around here. So within a year we had our..”


Becky  11:51

The Seascapes to Laneways is the main tour that I run. It’s a culture and history walking tour of Newcastle East. It lasts around two and a half hours, and it’s all about providing everyone with the ultimate understanding of Newcastle in a short amount of time. I take people for a wander along the foreshore to learn about Aboriginal history and traditional language, traditional customs.


Becky  12:31

“In Newcastle around this side of the river only and all the way down to the bottom of Lake Macquarie is the traditional Land of the Awabakal people. They are the people that have lived here for around 6000 years we’re guessing at the moment.”


Andy  12:46

I really enjoyed the depth to which you talked about Aboriginal history and culture in the tour. How do you think you managed to achieve going beyond a token reference and make it meaningful for tour goers?


Becky  12:59

Just with intention. You need to understand what you’re talking about. I have spoken a fair bit with a local Aboriginal Language Centre. A couple of people there, Terri-lee and Daryn at Miromaa have been amazing in actually sitting down and going over language with me, and talking about their perspective of their culture and the things that are important to them. What’s appropriate to be talked about, what’s not appropriate to be talked about, and understanding that. 


Becky  13:28

“They would make their own fishing line out of Casuarina, which is a tree that we’re all surrounded by right now. And on that canoe, they would have their babies and their toddlers, and they would cook up that fish on a fire out in the water in a tiny little canoe. Then they would feed themselves and their babies and their kids before they took the leftover fish home..”


Andy  13:50

Before Newcastle Afoot and before her previous job as a social justice worker, Becky actually got a degree in architecture. While she never worked as an architect, it does come in handy during her tours. 


Becky  14:02

“That’s called Longworth house and that’s our pièce de résistance of our most prolific and well known architect. His name is Frederick Menkens and he was very talented at what he did. He was quite well known for being a bit fussy about his buildings. Did he build that house? He did build that building…”


Becky  14:20

These buildings create tales. It’s not just that I’m interested in how a building was made, it’s that those buildings were then used and have stories within them. People get that, people are interested in who was in this place when.


Becky  14:34

“On December 28, 1989, there was an earthquake. It was 5.6 on the Richter scale. This entire hospital was evacuated, including people who were under general anaesthetic, and there are people who have said that they woke up from general out in this park or down at the beach, looking at the blue sky, and they saw all these people dressed in white around them. They thought they were dead, they thought they’d gone to heaven.”


Andy  14:57

As part of the tour we visited several local businesses including Timeless Textiles, where we met the owner Anne Kempton.


Becky  15:05

“So Anne runs Timeless Textiles, and it’s the only commercial fibre art gallery in Australia.


Anne  15:13

“So I opened the gallery about nine years ago. We have an exhibition space, which is these two rooms and it changes between local, national and international artists.”


Andy  15:23

Why is it important for you to to make local businesses a stop on the tour?


Becky  15:29

I think it’s just so important to support the people that create the vibrancy of this city. Without them this city wouldn’t be what it is. Newcastle is a place with amazing strong tough small businesses, and I’m really trying to make sure that these businesses keep thriving, and keep supporting them. If they don’t get the support that they need, especially with the battle against things like large shopping centres these days, they won’t be around anymore. We want them to continue over the next 10 years or so, so I just want to increase foot traffic into the city and support those.


Andy  16:07

So after we visited and the tour wrapped up, I went back to Timeless Textiles briefly to chat with Anne. I just asked her about the tours that you take on and the relationship you have, and I just wanted to quickly play you what she said. 


Andy  16:22

“It seems like Becky really makes an effort to sort of visit local businesses. So I take it this isn’t the first time Becky’s brought a tour through your business?”


Anne  16:31

No, she comes in regularly, at least once or twice a week, and I’m always very grateful. Not only do you see her wonderful, smiling face, but you get to meet all these people. Some of them are locals who have no idea that Timeless Textiles and other businesses that Beck goes to exists. It’s wonderful, they say, “Lived here all my life, didn’t know you’re here” and also we get a lot of tourists who come through and sometimes they come back. I think it’s great because what it does is highlight the unique makers that are here in Newcastle. Beck’s very good at finding them out and then building wonderful relationships with us all, so we feel like we’re part of her family really.”


Becky  17:15



Andy  17:17

I thought that was very sweet.


Becky  17:18

That’s so lovely.


Andy  17:19

How does that feel hearing Anne refer to you as feeling like part of the family?


Becky  17:24

That means so much to me. I’m not just doing this to survive and make money, I am doing it to have relationships with people who are doing really interesting things, so that just means so much to me. It’s funny because I could say the same thing about her and about all of the makers, like that they’re not just doing things out of self satisfaction. They’re doing things for the community and for relationships. So that’s just so lovely.


Andy  17:54

Last year, Becky set her sights on a huge opportunity to bring more people into the city. But it would be a project on a far larger scale than anything she’s ever taken on before, a massive street art festival, which would bring artists both locally and from around the world to Newcastle to paint large scale murals throughout the city.


Becky  18:17

I wanted a major street art festival in Newcastle since the moment I came here five years ago. You just see these giant big walls that are just asking for massive artworks. So I recognised the opening of a grant, which is called Special Business Rates that the city has put out, and I had less than two weeks. It was a very brief opening for a grant, we had to have letters of support from local businesses. So that’s where my relationships were really handy. All these local businesses and business owners supported me, and it was amazing. It’s the first grant I’ve ever applied for, and I won. So yeah, really amazing.


Andy  19:01

Instead of building a festival up from scratch, Becky opted to work with Big Picture Fest, an organisation that has run street art festivals in Victoria and Becky’s home state South Australia.


Becky  19:12

Big Picture Fest is a major international street art festival that’s coming to Newcastle in October. We’re going to have around 12 murals with large scale murals with beautiful artwork. Alongside it we’ll have a lot of variety and festivities, so like a block party with artists talks and music. Augmented reality, tech installations, projections, workshops, lots of different things. Our goal is to bring people from around the greater area of Newcastle, even right through to Sydney, into Newcastle to be on foot, have a look up and around and hopefully, as they watch these murals go up, have an even stronger emotional connection to the landscape and to these streets and want to come back over and over again. Every time they see that wall they’ll have that lovely emotional response, which is the goal.


Andy  20:10

There’s no way the festival would be possible without the Special Business Rates grant from the City Of Newcastle. 


How much is the grant for?


Becky  20:16

We received just over $120,000. All of which will go into running the festival, yeah.


Andy  20:24

So I understand that none of that money will cover your time and-


Becky  20:28



Andy  20:29

..so that being the case, it’s obviously a massive undertaking. 


Becky  20:33



Andy  20:33

Can you explain why you chose to take on the project?


Becky  20:37

I just felt like it couldn’t not happen. It had to happen.  I’ve wanted a major street art festival since the moment I came here five years ago. Yeah, I just felt like it had to happen. I think the city is gonna benefit from it, culture will benefit from it. I think that’s going to, in the long term, be a benefit to my business.


Andy  20:58

So we work in a co working space called The Roost together-


Becky  21:01



Andy  21:01

..and I haven’t seen you be just manically busy the last sort of 12 months or so.


Becky  21:06



Andy  21:07

You’ve talked to me in the past about the fact that you almost never get a day off, that you’re doing at least a little bit of work almost every day. Would you say that you struggle with work life balance?


Becky  21:17

I’d say probably at the moment, yeah, because I am at the peak of setting up a new festival on top of a peak busy season in my business. But I think I probably have throughout this whole process of setting up this business, had every single day at least a tiny bit of work. I don’t know that many business owners have a complete weekend, ever. A lot of people tell me that they are really working every single day, particularly in tourism. So as a tourism and festival operator, I need to be available pretty much every single day of the week. That is a constant battle for me, is trying to find those times for the days off and to get out of this. Like all I do and think is about Newcastle, so physically getting out is a big goal of mine that I’m working on, to go bushwalking and to have like self care, and all that sort of stuff.


Andy  22:14

Does that take a toll, having that sort of work process constantly going on in the back of your mind?


Becky  22:19

Yeah, absolutely. It’s something I’m working on for sure.


Andy  22:22

Becky works very hard, too hard if you ask me. But it’s clear to me that she works so hard out of her love for the city and the community that she found in Newcastle. I find her love of my home city really inspiring. I’ve lived here for over 10 years now, but on Becky’s tours, she helped me see the city with fresh eyes. 


Becky  22:42

“This is actually a really dangerous harbour and ships wreck. We’ve had dozens and dozens, hundreds of ships wrecked in this harbour over the last 200 and something years, and it’s a very…”


Andy  22:52

I’ve lived in Newcastle for 10 years, but I didn’t know almost all of the stories that you did tell about buildings that I’ve walk past, you know, 100 times before. You really made me feel like a tourist in my own city, which is such a wonderful feeling. Do you still feel that way about Newcastle?


Becky  23:08

Absolutely, every single time I go on a tour. I could be doing the same walk four or five times a week, and every time I get to Alfred Street and then Parnell Place and then see the ocean baths and then step around to the beach, I see it as a tourist. It blows my mind that we get to live in such a beautiful place and that there’s a central business district on one of the most beautiful ocean beaches I’ve ever seen. I will forever be amazed, and amazed that there are ocean baths that are free and accessible 24 hours a day. The locals don’t seem to realise how special those places are, and I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of them. It doesn’t mean I don’t get bogged down by Newcastle, and and I guess the politics, and the changes and sometimes those can be hard, but all they need to do is walk, and I recommend everyone walk down these streets and you’ll reset.


Andy  24:10

Thank you so much for listening. A big thank you to Adam Spencer, the creator of Welcome to Day One for having me on as a guest host for this episode. I’m Andy Jones, a freelance photographer and video producer based in beautiful Newcastle New South Wales. You can follow my work, Colour and Sound Creative on Facebook and Instagram, or at colourandsound.com.au. Information about everything mentioned in this episode can be found on the show notes page at welcometodayone.com. Music by Lee Rosevere, full attribution on the Welcome to Day One website. And one last thing, if you really enjoy the products or services of a local business, why don’t give them a review?


Becky  24:49

Because I recognised people are not going to come on a walking tour, very unlikely if there haven’t been reviews.


Andy  24:57

It makes a big difference, and the business owners will really appreciate it. Who knows you might even consider giving Welcome to Day One a review. I’m Andy Jones. Thanks for listening.



Resources mentioned


A big thank you to Becky Kiil from Newcastle Afoot for taking part and to Andy Jones from Colour & Sound for guest hosting  this episode of Welcome to Day One.

Music Credits

Music by Lee Rosevere.

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