Family celebrates the business of adventure

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Ask Denis Columb the secret to a successful 25 years in business in the competitive adventure tourism industry and the answer comes quickly: “I love what I do.”

Mr Columb (60) was previously a plumber, with a passion for motorcycles and adventure, when he and his wife Marilyn founded Off Road Adventures Queenstown.

He believed it was the world’s first quad-bike tourism business and also possibly the first for buggy tours.

“I love what I do. I’ve always loved taking people into the mountains and showing people them and I like challenging people,” he says.

Since humble beginnings, the business has grown to boast a range of adventure tourism products from rentals, to tours with motorcycles, quad bikes, four-wheel-drive and side-by-side buggies.

The idea of such a business had always been in Mr Columb’s head, even during his plumbing days.

For some years, he had been taking Otago and Southland people out on motorcycles into the mountains and, as a family, motorcycles were what the Columb family “did” at weekends.

Then came two German tourists who approached him to see if there was somewhere they could hire motorcycles.

Quickly assuring them that no-one did, he said he would take them for a three-hour ride the following day.

He led them, riding one of his sons’ “kids” motorcycles, on what turned out to be a a nine-hour ride.

The tourists were “elated” and the positive repercussions of their trip soon snowballed, with word spreading quickly that such a service was available.

Off Road Adventures was subsequently formed and has grown to own about 135 vehicles.

It has taken more than 250,000 clients on trips over the years.

Famous names included Lord of the Rings actors Orlando Bloom, Sean Austin and Elijah Wood.

Off Road Adventures had featured on The Amazing Race, Mr Columb and youngest son Scott entertained Henry Cole from The World’s Greatest Motorcycle Rides, while middle son Lachie hosted Jason Mamoa from Game of Thrones.

In 2005, the Columbs bought the former Hakataramea Valley School, which they’ve converted into an adventure conference centre.

With sleeping capacity for 40 people, plus tennis courts and a swimming pool, its claim to fame was that it was where All Black captain Richie McCaw received his primary education.

Adventure tourism was a competitive industry and though tourist numbers might be up, the number of businesses in the industry was also up, but tourists only had “a certain amount to spend”, Mr Columb says.

He recalled a time, in about 2000, when tourists would do at least four “main ticket items” but now they would do one, possibly two.

The business needs to consistently produce new products and Mr Columb is “always looking for new excitement, new tracks, new machines”.

It’s also about letting the customer ride to their ability “and not try and treat them like a government-run kindergarten”.

“That’s what the world’s trying to be and I’m trying not to be,” Mr Columb states.

The stumbling block to the business’s growth and future is “safety stuff” as New Zealand is following the United States, Australia and England and becoming a country “where they think people can actually develop without taking a risk”.

Mr Columb was one of four operators involved in the initial industry review of quad-biking safe practices in 1995 and he was often still asked if quad-biking was safe.

“Safe by definition means free from harm or danger, which almost no activity can guarantee.

“We’re industry leaders and have always made safety our priority and always will,” he says.

The most common comment he hears in winter is from Australian mothers, with their children, saying it’s “absolutely fantastic”, as they could not do anything like that at home.

For children to develop, they have to be able to “have a go” and with that comes some risk.

And he’s confident that young people, especially in New Zealand, were “definitely looking for adventure”.

His four children grew up with adventure and he and his wife were enormously proud of their achievements, with more than 10 national titles in motocross, supercross, quad-bike racing and downhill mountain biking between them.

Eldest son Brendan was born with a “huge” hole in his heart and they are very proud of his achievements and “commitment to life”.

Lachie raced motorcycles and quad-bikes and has a national ATV title; Scott, who races for Yamaha, has seven New Zealand supercross titles and two New Zealand motocross championship titles, while Alanna has made the world top 12 in downhill mountain biking.

The siblings all worked for Off Road Adventures while pursuing their own goals and they were all home this month in Queenstown to mark the 25th anniversary of the family business.

A new product, the Wakatipu Wine Adventure, was being launched to mark the anniversary. It combined a four-wheel-drive tour with stop-offs at local wineries.