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Loves a challenge: Queenstowner Matt Wong at iFLY

He’s got to be one to watch. How Queenstown iFLY’s co-owner Matt Wong turned Covid into
a positive has intrigued the local tourism industry. He talks to PHILIP CHANDLER about his prior track gallops and how he turned around his current business after its ‘‘horrific’’ start

It’s hard to believe, but at least one Queenstown tourism operator believes he’s benefited from Covid.

He’s Matt Wong, who hit the news over summer after he and his wife Amy bought indoor
skydiving centre iFLY from its United States owners.

He’d been the attraction’s general manager since it opened in 2018 but, hog-tied to systems and staff he inherited, it took him a year to turn it around before Covid hit.

However, that year better positioned him to weather the storm than most — along with his love for a challenge and wide experience in local tourism.

From the Wairarapa, Wong, a fourth-generation Chinese-Kiwi, graduated from university
with a masters in ecology.

He then spent about a year in the US, studying birds of prey at a research institute.

In 2002, he was attracted to work at Queenstown’s Kiwi Birdlife Park — ironically, two doors from where iFLY now is — for a conservation hero, Martin Bell, who’d saved the
native takahe bird from extinction.

When Bell left after three months, Wong took over as operations manager.

While there he met his wife-to-be, who was then an Otago Uni student.

‘‘That was really what tied me to Queenstown, I wasn’t necessarily interested in tourism back then.’’

That changed when he went to work on the front counter for i-SITE Visitor Centre.

‘‘I was the junior but that gave me huge exposure to learn about the tourism industry, from the marketing and sales side, anyway.’’

To make ends meet, he also had a photography business and taught computing at SIT.

But after about two years he’d worked his way up to be come GM of both iSITE and its sister outbound travel company, United Travel.

‘‘It was a very fast track.’’

After 11 years with the company, during which the latter became World Travellers, Wong was shoulder-tapped to become Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters’ GM.

‘‘It was just a huge learning curve for those first couple of years.’’

Wong stayed on when Ngai Tahu Tourism bought the company.

‘‘I was interested in what it would be like working for a big corporate tourism operation — it’s different, shall we say.’’

A bonus was being seconded to set up its Franz Josef base.

Craving for more autonomy, he then became iFLY’s first GM, working for a global firm with 87 wind tunnels.

‘‘I went from a cushy job to a very high-risk one, but I was willing to take that risk.’’

He says the job, initially, was ‘‘horrific’’.

‘‘There were legacy systems and processes from iFLY and they plonked them in here, trying to cookie-cutter it.

‘‘In the end, they gave me full autonomy to run the business how we needed to.

‘‘The first year was all about fixing all the mistakes made in set-up and then getting us back on track.’’

That included culling ‘‘bad staff’’ and recruiting a new team.

‘‘By 2020 we were hitting our stride.’’

Before, of course, Covid hit and Wong, who admits he’s easily bored, faced his biggest challenge.

But, rather than sit idle during lockdown, his business sold pay-in-advance gift vouchers,  discounted 46%.

Vowing not to make any staff redundant, he instead decided to pay them commission for upselling.

The business reopened on May 13, and after turning the corner with the Kiwi-only market at Queen’s Birthday weekend, broke revenue records in July.

He’d introduced a new pricing structure and found other business avenues like a contract for military personnel and education programmes such as training pro flyers who can fit in far more flights than if they trained outdoors.

‘‘We’ve got positive cash flow,’’ Wong says.

Buying iFLY probably wouldn’t have happened without Covid, he admits.

While it’s put him and Amy on the back foot financially — ‘‘this is the poorest I’ve ever been’’ — the 43-year-old has unbounded faith in Queenstown’s tourism future.

‘‘Unless those mountains get flattened, unless that lake disappears, unless the skifields dry up completely, tourism will survive and it will come back.

‘‘It’s just you’ve got to look two years ahead.’’

scoop@scene.co.nz