Lessons from a winning tourism business

Skyline Rotorua isn’t just a successful business; it’s a successfully re-invented business. Facing limited revenue growth and increased customer expectations the flagship Rotorua tourism company invested, innovated, gave itself a major shake-up and did it so well it was awarded the Air New Zealand Supreme Tourism Industry Award 2015.  Kathy Ombler asked Skyline Rotorua general manager, Bruce Thomasen, how they did it.

Anyone who attended the TRENZ farewell party, at Skyline Rotorua last year, will likely say it was one of the best, ever. Next morning, delegates were still buzzing as they recounted the fun they’d had, playing on the Ziplines through the redwoods that were all lit up, riding the Luge and the Skyswing, finding live-cooking food stations everywhere, and great music.

We know how to throw a party, says Bruce Thomasen, general manager of Skyline Rotorua, which is celebrating its 30th birthday this year and going stronger than ever since its reinvention, which began just three years ago.

Before then, he said, Skyline Rotorua was dependent on its gondola, luge and views to attract visitors, and these were no longer working the magic. Food and beverage patronage was down, competition was up and visitors were looking for something more. Hence the shakeup.

At the Tourism Awards, judges said Skyline Rotorua had gone through an incredible transformation to successfully attract more visitors, broaden its appeal, drive up revenue and improve guest satisfaction. The big business changes it made had helped re-invigorate Rotorua, they added.

In fact, 492,000 people visited Skyline Rotorua in 2014, an impressive 100,000 more than in 2012.

Thomasen says the key to success was having a big enough goal. “In terms of investment and service delivery, it was knowing where we wanted to take the property and what was required to make that vision a reality.

“We went down two paths, capital investment spending and developing our own ‘Skyline Edge for Excellence’ (SEE) Lean management toolbox, a continuous improvement programme. Both went hand in hand, we had commitment from our board to invest, and a commitment to training our people and improving our processes.”

Key ploys for the capital investments were innovation, considering every aspect of the business, and complementing the current offering, says Thomasen. Gravity, something Skyline’s Mt Ngongotaha location has in spades, was a big focus. So, too, was a ‘stratospheric’ re-jig of food and beverage offerings. Let’s take a look.

  • Stratosfare Restaurant: We totally refreshed and transformed from the old buffet-style format, says Thomasen. “We brought the chefs out front to create kitchen theatre; we call it ‘Ala Buffet’. We have a tidal mussel tank, a flame rotisserie, char grills, an aged-beef fridge, serving ‘paddock to plate’ from Mangatu Farms in Gisborne, and ‘a la minute’ fast cooking of venison, salmon, lamb and prawns. It’s been a huge success; we won the Rotorua Hospitality Awards Best Restaurant 2015. Trip Advisor rated our previous restaurant 59 out of 160 Rotorua restaurants, the new Stratosfare is consistently in the top three.”
  • Market Kitchen: The old-style café has gone, now it’s live cooking just like in a food market. “We have an espresso bar, pizzeria, tandoor oven, bakery and an ice cream parlour. We still have the fries and pies (house-made, gourmet), we’ve simply lifted the standard and presentation, and our yield has increased by 30 percent.”
  • Volcanic Hills Winery and Tasting Room: New Zealand is known world-wide for its wines but Rotorua had no offering, says Thomasen. “Now we have two winemakers making wine on the property and that really complements our business. They source grapes from premium New Zealand wine regions. The Tasting Room has superb views, and occupies space that had been empty for seven years.”
  • Jelly Belly Gallery and Store: Full of novelty and colour, the store features 100 jelly bean flavours, plus famous art works made entirely of jelly beans. “It’s a great hit with families; it adds value and puts a smile on kids’ faces,” says Thomasen.
  • Zoom Ziplines: We have gravity here, now we use it, says Thomasen of the 383metre line that launches from the very top of the Skyline complex. “We also have thousands of 30-year-old redwood trees; zipping through them at up to 80 kilometres per hour is an amazing experience.”
  • Skyline Rotorua MTB Gravity Park: “With 100 acres of downhill, we developed more than 10 kilometres of mountain bike trails to suit all abilities, and of course we have the gondola assisted bike lift. Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest is already acknowledged as one of the world’s top mountain bike destinations, now we complement Whakarewarewa. Riders are coming to Rotorua to do both, it’s huge. Dirt is the new snow!”

The MTB Gravity Park development was also the catalyst for Rotorua to secure Crankworx, the world’s biggest mountain bike festival.

Through the Tourism Growth Partnership, local government input, Skyline investment and the Rotorua mountain biking fraternity, Rotorua won the rights to host this festival for three years. In 2015, the event hosted 24,000 visitor days, 720 domestic and international riders competed and it generated a $3.68 million boost to Rotorua’s economy.

Crankworx was great for the destination says Thomasen. “It’s huge, spectator-friendly and spectacular. It really raised our profile and it’s absolutely given the mojo back to Rotorua.”

Destination marketing

Working with Destination Rotorua has been critical to Skyline achieving its goals, says Thomasen. “We need to increase visitor numbers into the city. If the pie grows then we grow. So it is vital to ensure Destination Rotorua is strong and that we support it as much as we can. Skyline was one of the leaders in the development and a founding contributor of the Famously Rotorua Partnership Programme, where industry partners are (voluntarily) funding a campaign to drive domestic visitation, and ultimately international marketing. We contribute 25 cents per visitor.”

Thomasen’s motivation for this programme came from his experience in operating  Skyline Luge Mont Tremblant, in Quebec. “Mont Tremblant has a small rate payer base and hosts one million summer visitors and more in winter. They have established a uniform resort tax in addition to what they receive from Federal and Provincial governments, so they have leveraged the visitors to help fund the facilities, marketing and events of the resort.”  

Skyline Edge for Excellence (SEE)

Very simply, SEE is our continuous improvement programme, says Thomasen. “Hand in hand with our capital investments was the need to improve quality and service levels; to improve staff engagement by making our business easier, better, leaner and safer and thereby giving our customers a ‘wow’ experience. The programme enabled us to harness the energy and ideas of all our staff,” he added.

Since SEE was introduced in 2013, more than 640 ‘opportunities for improvement’, identified by 145 staff, have been actioned.

“These have driven operational improvements, improved customer experience and satisfaction, improved staff satisfaction and morale, led to significant efficiencies and net profitability gains. It is actually easier, due to these better systems and processes, for our staff to manage the visitor numbers we have now, than when we had fewer visitors,” says Thomasen.

Skyline is not resting on its laurels, however, the innovations continue, he adds.

They will have a new star gazing experience – Mt Ngongotaha has long been considered one of the best spots on the North Island to view stars. “And there’s still more to come. A good business never stops.”

Posted: Sunday 28 January 2018