Daring to be different

From our May 2008 issue: Creating something different can generate business opportunities and publicity for innovative operators. Yet does the industry really cater for innovation? Kathy Ombler looked at tourism operations with a difference and discovered a world of ingenuity, opportunity, and not a little frustration with convention.

Thinking outside the square or downright odd ball quirky? Call it the Kiwi number eight wire mentality, but when it comes to making something out of nothing, creating something different, or filling a niche not previously even recognised as such - there’s no shortage of inspiration to look to in the New Zealand tourism industry.

And there’s little doubt this inspiration, and innovation, can raise the profile of the venture and help keep it in the public eye, with news media, television documentary makers and magazine travel editors all queuing to add their gratis contribution to marketing the business.

Clients who operate with a point of difference offer significant potential for media attention, confirms Simon McManus, of McManus Tourism Communications.

“There are massive benefits, especially for a young tourism business. Media enjoy the stories behind uniqueness and especially the people behind the business.

The bungy story, obviously, is a prime example. How two out-there Kiwi boys convinced young tourists to pay to leap from a bridge in a heart-stopping variation of an ancient Vanuatu manhood tradition, has been international headline material from the very start of the now multi-faceted, multi-million dollar venture.

Conversly, thinking outside the square means it’s not always easy to fit into that square. Those innovations so good for publicity—and business—can also create difficulties; of being understood and of fitting into established systems for accreditation, safety and distribution, for example.

Here are seven examples.

Stonehenge Aotearoa: A very scientific undertaking

When the Phoenix Astronomical Society built their very own “henge”, a circle of stones on a grassy hilltop in rural, southern Wairarapa, they did not anticipate the huge international interest it would generate.

Just three years on, this group of volunteer Kiwi astronomers are completing a business plan that will see the development of a full time tourist attraction; daily guided tours and regular events, be they solstice-related, music performances (embracing the circle’s extraordinary acoustics), some Shakespeare, perhaps, along with a café and specialist retail store.

Astronomer Richard Hall says that Stonehenge Aotearoa is a real, working henge; not a replica of England’s Stonehenge.

“Our henge combines Celtic and Babylonian astronomy, Polynesian navigation and Maori star lore. It took 1500 hours of surveying, positioning everything by the stars, and one year of volunteer labour to construct.”

Some funding came from a government science and technology development grant.

“The public interest took us by surprise. As soon as we started building, people came visiting. When we opened we had coverage from three New Zealand television channels, one on-sold their programme to the BBC and the day following the BBC broadcast our website had 384,000 hits per hour.”

In response, the society organised public tours on weekends, public holidays and for two to three weeks over summer, plus group tours by arrangement. Tours are limited to 50, last 90 minutes and are led by volunteer, albeit very knowledgeable astrologers.

“What we provide here is a unique experience. People don’t really know what they are coming to, that’s why they learn so much. They get pretty stunned when they learn how clever their ancestors were, how they used the sun, moon and stars.”

The henge is a multi-cultural thing, he adds. “It links with Europe, Africa, Egypt, Asia and the coral circles of the Pacific. Go back 5000 years and one of your ancestors, somewhere, will have been involved in building a henge.

“We get people booking from the United Kingdom, United States and from all over New Zealand, plus the locals in winter. We had 700 Druids here for the Equinox.”

Apart from a small brochure and the society’s very comprehensive website, most advertising has been by word of mouth..”

Talking of future plans, Hall says infrastructure needs to be developed so the society can extend operations.

“We have been running for long enough to know now what the public is interested in. We have a membership of 600 that includes astrologers, surveyors, architects and engineers who will have input to our business plan. We will work with Destination Wairarapa for special events, and we have individuals, educational groups and organisations prepared to put in finance.”

Tawhiti Museum: Historic dioramas

It was primarily a labour of love rather than a desire to establish a high profile tourism venture, but former art teacher and self-made historian Nigel Ogle is very happy to have created a livelihood doing what he most enjoys – collecting old things and beavering in his workshop, crafting figurines for the history dioramas that enthral – and educate - his visitors.

Tawhiti, four kilometres from the South Taranaki town of Hawera, is no fusty, serious museum. Entertain, then interpret, is Ogle’s mantra.

Ogle’s museum, which opened in the former Tawhiti cheese factory in the 1980s, encompasses several themed galleries with scale and life-sized models and artefacts. Attention to research and detail is meticulous; the results are compelling three-dimensional images of our past. There are more than 800 Ogle-crafted figurines in one diorama alone, a depiction of early Maori/European interaction on Taranaki’s dramatic coast.

It’s the art, not the history that draws people, says Ogle. “The crafting of the actual displays is what gives us our point of difference. That’s what everyone comments on.”

The entertainment theme continues into the museum’s ‘Mr Badger’s Café’, where life-sized Wind of the Willows characters ‘join’ patrons enjoying the wholesome country fare.

Ogle says Tawhiti has been developed at the pace he and wife Teresa could afford, despite that being frustrating at times.

“It was a major turning point when we were able to employ someone at the front counter; that enabled me to stay in the workshop without constant interruption.”

Tawhiti is not exactly on a great tourist trail, he says, so publicity generated from his imaginative displays has been welcome.

“Some years ago we were on Country Calendar. Profile-wise that put us on the map. When we felt that effect was waning we did more television advertising throughout the lower North Island. Our visitor numbers grew from 5000 to 8000 a year.

“We’ve also been in a lot of magazines. Venture Taranaki brings visiting journalists, plus they are building on the spin-off effects from their events. We always notice an increase in visitors after an event like WOMAD.”

Nevertheless, business is still highly seasonal, ranging from 200 to 300 visitors a day in summer to a trickle in winter. Clientele is mainly New Zealanders on holiday, school groups and some international FIT’s. Museum hours range from seven days a week during January to one day a week in mid winter and three days for the rest of the year.

Ogle says he does enjoy the winter break however, this is likely soon to change, with Tawhiti’s traditionally quiet growth about to take a giant leap. The South Taranaki District Council has recognised the tourism and educational potential of Ogle’s craft and is supporting development of a major new component at Tawhiti; the “South Seas Traders timeline”.

Ogle is now toiling away, building 58 life-sized figurines and landscaping a massive space for the new display which is scheduled to open in late 2009.

Feilding Saleyards Tours: A slice of real life

If “telling our stories” is a mantra for developing good, authentic New Zealand tourism product, then the Feilding Saleyards Tours is about as authentic as it gets.

Farmers have been droving or driving livestock to the Feilding sales for over a hundred years. Today, the Williams & Kettle & Elders-owned saleyards are among the largest in the Southern Hemisphere; each week an average 15,000 sheep and 1400 head of cattle are sold.

Feilding Promotion manager Helen Worboys says the stock sales are the backbone to the community’s economy and while the locals take them for granted, they provide a snapshot of rural New Zealand most tourists – and most New Zealanders for that matter - would never see.

Recognising the unique opportunity, Feilding Promotion launched weekly Saleyards Tours, to coincide with the town’s Friday Farmers’ Market.

The volunteer guides are retired farmers – they know their topic and love to talk about it, says Worboys.

The tours ($5 per person) begin with a chat about the history and significance of the saleyards, a walk through the sheep pens, where the different breeds and auctioneering process are explained, then enter the indoor cattle rostrum, with its sophisticated computerised weighing and auction system.

Feedback is fantastic, says Worboys. “People are staggered at the turnover, one group of Japanese students couldn’t believe one pen of cattle would buy them a car.

“International visitors are our main clients, often with local relatives or friends accompanying them. We also do package tours for schools that include visits to other rural industries here such as the freezing works and wool store.

“Word of mouth has been our biggest promotional tool. Visiting media love the tours because they are so unique and so accessible. We have been featured in various national and international papers and magazines.”

The tour cost covers the cost of promotional brochures and website links, while Destination Manawatu and Tourism New Zealand also promote the tours.

“At first the locals were sceptical about who would want to do a tour, and we were concerned that the farmers at the yards would be put off, but it hasn’t happened that way at all.”

Volunteer guide David Stroud believes the opposite is the case. “I think the farmers are rather pleased and proud that anyone would be faintly interested in what they consider is just doing what they normally do.”

Touch of Spice: Personal concierge services

Sourcing ponies for a holidaying client’s children; preparing an elopement for a client fed up with the stress of wedding organisation; arranging hang gliding at dawn and a champagne breakfast for clients on New Year’s Day.

These are just some ‘thinking outside the box’ achievements on the books of Queenstown company Touch of Spice. Jacqui Spice established the “luxury lifestyle” company in 2005, providing personal concierge services and later adding event planning, luxury villa accommodation and accommodation management to the portfolio.

“Our point of difference is, and always will be, that we provide on-call, 24/7concierge service to all our clients 365 days a year. We act as their one point of contact, organising everything from luxury accommodation and on call private chefs, to helicopter transfers and providing executive assistance.

“We provide unique experiences each and every time, always thinking outside the box and exhausting all the options to ensure we exceed our client’s expectations...”

This policy has been paramount to success, says Spice, with the company growing by word of mouth promotion and more repeat clients every year.

While personal concierge services are common in the United Kingdom and United States, she says the concept is largely new in New Zealand.

“It was and still is challenging marketing the company in a way that potential clients understand what we do and how we can assist them.

“We also initially struggled with the inbound and wholesale market as some see us as a competitor rather than what we are which is an on-the-ground service provider for them.”

Operating a multi-faceted company also presents challenges, for example fitting into categories for brochures and trade manuals.

“We have found a tendency for the trade to pigeon hole us into one specific category and to not understand the many levels to the business.”

This insistence on categorising has led to being deemed ineligible for certain trade shows, for example Pure Luxury. “Despite being a luxury service provider we do not fit their criteria due to the wide range of services we offer.

“Thankfully international trade show organisers recognise us as a luxury brand and are more than happy for us to exhibit. We are attending the ITLM in Cannes, France this year, as well as TRENZ again.”

Conference and incentives industry shows, Meetings New Zealand and Melbourne’s AIME, are also being added to the marketing agenda as Spice realises these are target suitable markets.

Hapuku Lodge: Grown up tree houses

"I love tree houses. I loved them when I was a kid and nothing has changed now I'm an older, fatter kid. Hapuku Lodge … has taken the tree house concept to new heights. …”

Sun-Herald journalist Winsor Dobbin proved the value of innovation when he found an interesting story angle, in a tree house at Kaikoura’s five star Hapuku Lodge.

Since their completion in 2006 the seven, ten metre high tree houses, set among manuka trees and featuring stylish contemporary design, custom made furniture and luxury facilities, have piqued the interest of travellers and travel media.

Hapuku is owned by, and the creation of, the Wilsons, a Kiwi born-US based family of somewhat adventurous architects. The tree houses were added to the coastal property, which originally comprised a six-room lodge, restaurant and Olive House luxury apartment, to meet increased accommodation demand.

Justin Stafford-Wilson says the tree houses have created huge interest and business spin offs, and attract twice the demand compared with the lodge rooms.

“There is name recognition through the term ‘tree-house’, and the media has been especially interested thereby allowing us to reach into otherwise tough international markets.

“Our clientele is predominantly international leisure travellers, however the tree houses have also increased the number of domestic guests who stay with us.”

“The interest of the tree houses has been particularly helpful attracting domestic clientele in the shoulder and winter season.”

He says the increased accommodation, combined with the tree house- generated interest, has also increased demand for small conferences and weddings. A new dedicated meeting and event room was added to the property in April.

Adrenalin Forest: Affordable adventure

Red tape, language difficulties and near bankruptcy almost beat French-born Jean Caillabet in his quest to develop an “affordable” adventure park in Christchurch.

Adrenalin Forest is based on a popular concept in France, a commando-style series of rope ladders, flying foxes and aerial pathways that provide challenge and enjoyment.

The first such park was built in France in 1995, now there are around 500 worldwide, says Caillabet.

“When I came to New Zealand, after more than 20 years involved in ski and rafting businesses in the French Alps, I thought it could be a good idea to set up some affordable activities here. My point of view is that activities and attractions are too expensive for most in New Zealand.”

With the backing of (then mayor) Gary Moore and city councillors, Caillabet began two years of paperwork to establish Adrenalin Forest at the city’s Spencer Park.

“Of course it was a little hard to get through all the processes and approvals. The last delay almost put my business in bankruptcy. Another factor is that my English comprehension was low and it was hard to understand how business is organised in New Zealand...”

Caillabet persisted. His park opened in February 2007, he achieved national outdoor safety accreditation, OutdoorsMark, last November and has since added higher level pathways to the park.

“During the first nine months the few clients were sceptical, some teachers told me they were too scared to come along with their kids.

“Now, after hosting 11,000 clients in the first year of operation, I get school groups most days and often reach 100 clients a day. Clients are everyone; families, birthday parties, youth groups, special needs groups, team building corporates, language students and tourists,.”

Adrenalin Forest has quickly earned media attention, featuring for example on “Springwise” a website that “scans the globe looking for smart new business ideas” and on Close Up on TV1.

Caillabet now has expansion plans, and is currently investigating new parks in Queenstown, Wellington and possibly Australia.

U-Fly Adventure Ride: Tourist pilots

U-Fly Adventure Ride has introduced just that. Wanaka-based flying instructors Wayne Allanson and Ruth Presland have introduced a scenic flight option where the tourists can fly themselves – barring the take off and landing that is.

Flights are in Tecnam Light Sports Aircraft and tailored to the individual client. Presland says U-Fly is targeting backpacker and shoulder season Kiwi family markets, and was a concept born out of “the long hard winter” of 2007.

“We thought there must be a way of using our aircraft outside our usual flight training business.”

Mussel Inn: Being themselves

Mussel Inn in Golden Bay serves only its own brewed beer and wines, and no-one complains.

“When we started we kept on a few boutique beers just in case, but no-one asked for them,” says co-owner Jane Dixon.

There are other quirky, individual touches at the popular music/pub/restaurant holiday and community venue; the non-too-subtle hint of cellphones nailed to a pole, composting toilets and, for a while, the beer-for-a-possum-tail bounty. This was the Inn’s response when aerial 1080 drops were proposed for the neighbouring hills.

After four years, 5000 tails, and ground bait being applied instead, they felt they’d achieved their purpose.

“What we’ve tried to do is just be ourselves, do what we like and go where we wanted, says Dixon.

Posted: Saturday 24 May 2008