A Queenstown legend is moving on

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He’s probably been Queenstown’s most well-known tourism personality for almost 20 years. Before leaving for a big job near Christchurch, David Kennedy discusses his reasons for leaving and his Queenstown highlights with Philip Chandler

News that Queenstown tourism leader David Kennedy was leaving town to change career came as a shock for many people.

The 54-year-old, who moves to Christchurch with wife Mandy and son Jack next weekend, has had two big tourism gigs in town over the past 19 years.

After almost 10 years as Destination Queenstown’s longest-serving chief executive, he became Ngai Tahu Tourism’s southern regional general manager, in charge of attractions like Queenstown’s Shotover Jet, Glenorchy’s Dart River Jet and Fiordland’s Hollyford Track Guided Walk.

Late last year, after the company had bought other attractions, Kennedy shed direct responsibility for iconic Shotover Jet.

But he maintains this played no part in his resignation.

His role was reshuffled “because it was just getting too big for one person”.

His resignation “wasn’t really a sudden thing”.

“We had been thinking about it for a little while.

“Some of it’s been Mandy – Mandy’s family is all in Christchurch, her mother’s getting older.

“It’s probably a little bit like the DQ thing – you go, ‘I’ve actually been here eight-and-a-half years, you don’t want to get stale, maybe it’s time for me to change’.”

When the job running Lincoln University’s hospitality company came up, “it seemed like just an awesome opportunity”.

“It’s like anyone’s life – you find these cross-roads and then you realise that you’ve got to take them.”

Looking back at his Queenstown years, he’s got no regrets: “The town’s been good to us, it’s given us great careers and a great family.”

Running DQ, he recalls, “was one of those ‘pinch yourself’ jobs, ‘cos people would say to you, ‘so you’ve got the job of promoting Queenstown?

“Isn’t that the best job in the world, and the easiest?’

“After the first couple of years, I realised there are either too many [tourists] in Queenstown, or too few, and it was actually my fault, either way, so nothing’s really changed.”

In fact, he did face some challenges.

“When I started, in ’98, it was just after the Asian financial crisis – it was a bit of a disaster for tourism.”

Queenstown’s record flood the following year was another threat, which Kennedy countered with the line, ‘we’re 99 per cent open’.

When it struck, he was in Auckland on Winter Festival business.

“I remember Duncan Field, the council chief executive, who was on my board of directors, rang me and went, ‘you better get your arse back here because you’re going to be needed’.”

Perhaps his greatest DQ legacy was convincing the council to raise the commercial rates levy that largely funds it by $1m, to target the Aussie market.

“It was pre-GFC but you could see from looking at the stats that the opportunity was less long-haul and more short-haul out of Australia because the airlines were increasingly putting [trans-Tasman] flights on.”

The opportunity to shift to Ngai Tahu came after southern regional manager Tony Warwick died.

“That was a difficult time because Tony was also chairman of my DQ board.

“I rang [his wife] Lauren and asked her if she thought it was appropriate that I take the role, and she gave me her blessing.

“For DQ, you work for this iconic place, Queenstown, then the opportunity was to work for these iconic experiences, so I’m pretty lucky, in a way.”

When he took the job, he says he jokingly thought, ‘jetboats are not that hard, you put some petrol in them, turn the key on and put them in a shed at the end of the day’.

“It turns out it’s a bit more complex than that.”

A highlight was seizing the opportunity to promote Dart River Jet, in particular, to the fast-growing Chinese market.

“It turns out, which I didn’t know, that Glenorchy is world-famous in China.”

About halfway through his Queenstown innings, he became a family man.

“As Mandy and I say, it’s a great love story because we knew each other for 10 years as friends before that, through tourism.” In recent years, Kennedy’s also chaired Queenstown’s Shaping Our Future forum.

Asked about runs on the board, he cites the council’s events fund.

“The other ones are probably not so easy to define, but seeing large groups of people having conversations and connecting to each other does make a difference.”

Over the years, Kennedy’s also adopted some odd guises for 10 or 11 WinterFest drag races and the Christmas concert male ballet troupe.

“I did the first drag race [in] 1991, and the year I leave there are no more, so no one can break my record.”

He admits he’ll probably get a bit emotional when he drives out of town.

“Apart from the beauty of the place, it’s about the people – it’s such an amazing community, but that’s the good thing, because as you leave you go, ‘well, actually, these people are still here’.”

scoop@scene.co.nz