Facing ultimate challenge

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It’s turbulent times for Queenstown’s adventure tourism industry. It’s the sector that’s put the resort on the international map, but that’s of little use when international visitors, because of the Covid-19 crisis, can’t get here for the foreseeable future. PHILIP CHANDLER talks to three local operators.

With New Zealand’s borders closed for some time, no one’s summed up the rough ride that Queenstown adventure operators face better than a former Shotover Jet Group CEO.

Adrian Januszkiewicz, who’s still in the industry, says for most businesses he’s been involved with, more than 90 per cent of customers hail from overseas.

Even if their domestic or Kiwi clientele doubled, they’d be on a barely-survivable 20 per cent of former revenue, he adds.

Maybe that explains why Ngai Tahu Tourism, owner of local icon Shotover Jet, has mothballed its businesses till things pick up.

However, that’s not deterring operators like local Totally Tourism director Mark Quickfall, who started his 40 years in the business, ironically, as a Shotover Jet jetboat driver.

Once NZers can travel again, he’ll be chasing their dollars for the likes of Milford Sound cruises and helicopter rides – he’ll even offer ‘bubble flights’ for anyone wanting to fly in their lockdown bubble groups.

Don’t forget, he says, over half of NZ’s tourism expenditure last year came from Kiwis, and, till the borders reopen, those with a pent-up demand to travel can only do so within NZ.

“A lot of people I talk to are not impacted at the moment.

“It’s not going to replace 100 per cent of what we had prior to Covid-19, but if we can keep breathing on, say, 15 per cent of what our business was, then we if got the bubble with Australia, it would be 50 per cent of our business back.”

Quickfall says he and his wife, Jackie, are prepared to tip money into the business, month by month, just to keep it going.

There are two main reasons why he’s “absolutely committed” to the cause.

Firstly, he doesn’t want to lose the experience and skill set of his key staff.

“For them it’s not just the threat of losing their income, it’s not how they want to finish their careers of 20, 30, 40 years.”

Secondly, in adventure tourism, particularly, there’s a high level of compliance, he says – if you don’t keep senior personnel on your books, or keep manufacturers’ specs current for choppers, for example, you can’t operate.

So how does he attract that Kiwi business?

Quickfall says he’s already preparing to launch major domestic marketing campaigns, and last week announced he’ll work in with sightseeing companies Altitude Tours and Black ZQN.

NZers will also, he says, benefit from heavily-discounted packages, including accommodation, to entice them here.

“There is no question we are going to have competitive pricing, but there’s no point in panic pricing, which we’ve already noticed, where operators go below cost.”

Local NZONE Skydive business development manager Derek Melnick says his company was also highly dependent on overseas clientele.

‘Buy us some time’: NZONE Skydive’s Derek Melnick wants the wage susbsidy extended for the tourism industry

“The domestic market offers a little bit of reprieve, and if we reposition our products accordingly, even if on a temporary basis, maybe there’s a little bit to be had, but nothing material enough to actually make a difference.”

He wants the government to extend the wage subsidy beyond the end of next month for Queenstown’s, or even the country’s, tourism sector till late spring/early summer.

That timeline, he suggests, also aligns with the epidemic flattening out in Australasia and East Asia.

“It’s about giving us a lifeline, buying us some time.

“It could be the material difference that prevents some businesses from completely shutting down.”

On the other hand, local Ziptrek Ecotours boss Trent Yeo is viewing the prospect of domestic-only business as, yes, a challenge, but also a huge opportunity to reconfigure its offering and to come back even stronger than before.

‘Challenge, but huge opportunity’: Ziptrek Ecotours’ Trent Yeo

An advantage is they already enjoyed about 40 per cent domestic patronage.

Yeo says their emphasis on sustainability will remain, but the product offering will change.

It’d be fair to assume they’d need to sell cheaper ziplining trips to Kiwis, but he says that needs testing.

“If you offer something which is more value to them, then maybe they’ll pay the same amount.”

scoop@scene.co.nz