Setting sail to retire: Real Journeys commercial director Tony McQuilkin with his beloved Earnslaw

Tourism personality Tony McQuilkin is winding up an amazing 37-year career with Real Journeys. He discusses with Philip Chandler his various company roles, how he coped with floods and how he almost knocked over the Queen

Today marks the retirement of not only Queenstown’s longest-serving tourism manager but also one of its most influential.

Tony McQuilkin has held management roles his entire 37-year career with Real Journeys.

He started out in 1980 as area manager in charge of the vintage Earnslaw steamship, a Fiordlander boat and a tug.

He’s weathered floods and tourism downturns but leaves with his company, in which he has a small shareholding, in better shape than ever.

As he says, he and Real Journeys – formerly Fiordland Travel – have grown together.

Appropriately, last week he was awarded life membership of the Tourism Export Council (TEC).

That’s on top of the Sir Jack Newman Award in 2014 – New Zealand tourism’s most prestigious individual award.

Presenting last week’s honour, former TEC chairman Martin Horgan called him tourism’s own “Speight’s Southern Man”.

“Over four decades, tourism in NZ and Real Journeys in particular have benefited from Tony’s no-bullshit, honest and incredibly loyal and hard-working approach to business.

“Tony has been constantly innovative over that time, full of ideas to grow and with the drive and energy to make them happen.”

McQuilkin’s credited with ideas like RJs’ glass-roofed, bullet-design Milford coaches, overnight Fiordland cruises and developing Queenstown’s Walter Peak product, but stresses everything’s a team effort.

A major contribution was identifying the Chinese tourism market early on.

After his first job, he took on roles like head of sales and international markets director before more latterly becoming commercial director.

“We always had an attitude that we’d get out and promote our excursions and our experiences all around the world, and that proved to be really successful.

“Even if you were in the back streets of some godforsaken place in southern China, and there was just a wall of black bicycles, you’d be out there with a Chinese brochure saying, ‘this is what you can do’.”

He recalls lugging 15kg boxes of brochures around the world in the pre-internet age.

He notes that after the late-2000s global financial crisis, numbers from tourism markets like the UK, Europe and the US virtually halved

“The saviour of NZ, and indeed Queenstown, was the burgeoning Chinese market, and today it’s hugely significant.”

If there’s one RJs product McQuilkin’s synonymous with, it’s the Earnslaw, which he spearheaded a major refit of in ’82.

“The good thing about that steamship is it’s such a goddamn good vessel – when you see her cruising on the lake, she is the guts and the bones of Queenstown.”

He well remembers floods in the ’80s and ’90s.

“When you were standing in the Railways goods shed with water up to your nether regions and the wharf was floating and the Earnslaw was coming in, life was challenging.”

In the record flood of ’99, he recalls the steamship, which kept operating, had to moor overnight in Frankton Arm “because there was nothing left to hang on to in Queenstown Bay”.

A highlight was escorting dignitaries, including the Queen and Prince Philip who took a Frankton Arm cruise in 1990.

“I was walking backwards and I nearly knocked the Queen over, which was a bit unfortunate.

“I had quite a good yarn with old Prince Philip just on the wing of the bridge.”

McQuilkin, who’s 63, says it’s time to move on.

“I’ve got heaps of expeditions, I’ve got a number of personal/business opportunities and development things which I can choose to do.

“I’m not going to be sitting [at home] on the Crown Terrace chewing on a corn cob, wondering what to do.

“Life is full of opportunities – I’m still hugely optimistic.”

He intends continuing his chairmanship of the Queenstown Trails Trust.

“I have a desire to see maybe 150 more kilometres of really good tracks and trails put in place.”

He’s sure Queenstown will continue to grow phenomenally.

“It brings challenges but it also brings great opportunities, and I can tell you that it’s a hell of a lot better than the reverse, which is when people don’t have jobs, things are going backwards and there’s tumbleweeds going down The Mall.”

McQuilkin adds that he couldn’t have operated without the support of his “long-suffering” wife, Nicky.