Martin Snedden: Mr Fix-it

By Suzanne McFadden

He brought the world to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup. Now Martin Snedden is bringing New Zealand to the world, writes Suzanne McFadden

Former test cricketer, Rugby World Cup boss and now Tourism Industry Association, NZ chief executive Martin Snedden. Photo / NZH
Former test cricketer, Rugby World Cup boss and now Tourism Industry Association, NZ chief executive Martin Snedden. Photo / NZH

As Martin Snedden strides through the big revolving door of Auckland's Sky-
City Grand Hotel, the doorman greets him like a long-lost nephew.

In his last job, as boss of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Snedden lived here one day each week for 18 months.

Now he walks into the hotel wearing a different hat. The former lawyer, Black Cap and sporting Mr Fix-It has gone through another of life's revolving doors, and come out the other side as the head of New Zealand's tourism industry.

To most of us, it would seem like a massive career shift: a cricket and rugby fanatic, by his own admission, has suddenly become the voice and sympathetic ear for our country's hotels, airports, adventure parks and bus tours.

But Snedden sees it as a natural progression from organising the biggest sporting event New Zealand has known, where he worked with the tourism industry to ensure the 133,000 rugby visitors who spent roughly $387 million during the tournament had an unforgettable stay.

Now it's his goal to make sure every holidaymaker who comes here experiences that same buzz of those 50 glorious days of spring 2011.

Eighteen months on, a Rugby World Cup analogy is never far from the tip of Snedden's tongue, and he makes no apology for that.

"I love the World Cup memories, so I talk about them a fair bit. Others just roll their eyes, and I don't blame them," laughs Snedden who, at 54, still sports a dark head of hair and a dimple in his chin. "But it is a reality, and sometimes I challenge people and say, 'Well, sometimes you might get bored by it, but it did happen. None of it is bullshit.' It showed that things are possible."

When he delivered that rugby tournament to the fervent masses on September 9, 2011, it was on Cabbage Tree Swamp, which became Eden Park when Snedden's great-grandfather, Alexander, bought the land with five others and turned it from bog to world-class sports arena a century before.

There are plenty of other times when New Zealand must feel like a village to Snedden. In Wellington, his wife Annie teaches at St Mark's Church School, over the back fence of the Basin Reserve, where Snedden played his first cricket test match for New Zealand against India in 1981.

Incidentally it's also where he played his last test on New Zealand soil in 1990, before becoming a partner in his family's Auckland law firm. In that match, he became an unlikely hero - as the night-watchman, he broke the world record for the longest time without scoring a run, stuck on six for 94 minutes.

Further south, a few weeks ago - part-vacation, part-recce for his new job - Snedden and Annie cycled the Otago Rail Trail, where another former Black Cap, Shayne O'Connor, runs the local tour company.

Snedden will tell you that there is much of New Zealand that he doesn't know yet. And he says this unashamedly as chief executive of the Tourism Industry Association of New Zealand (TIANZ). "I had a rude awakening when I started in this job; I thought I had seen most of the country," he says. "But what I realised was there was so much at the edges I had no idea about."

So he's making it his job to make New Zealand feel like his village. The old "Don't leave town until you've seen the country" tourist board campaign of the 1980s is ringing true, as he makes his way around to see what makes tourism our No. 2 export earner (overtaken last year by dairy cows) and generator of $23 billion in spending every year.

This summer was spent at Ohope Beach and at the family bach on Taupo's Five Mile Bay, on land Annie's father bought in the 1950s. The Sneddens explored the Waimangu Volcanic Valley on the outskirts of Rotorua, and walked the Abel Tasman Coast Track.

Now their four children have left - for Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and England - the couple are taking the opportunity "to go see New Zealand in all sorts of ways", Snedden says.

"Each time, it's educating me about a way of life in New Zealand I was only peripherally aware of. People in this industry are every bit as passionate about what they do as I am about cricket and rugby. You can have Treasury come out with all sorts of pronouncements that tourism has low productivity. Yeah, okay, but there are people in this creating an experience that's more important to them than money. Tourism is lucky that most people are in it because it's their love."

You get the feeling Snedden could soon become as passionate about holidays as he is about sport.

As a kid, he didn't venture much further on holidays than a hop, skip and a jump across the Auckland Harbour Bridge. The youngest of five growing up in Mt Eden, Snedden's family spent every summer for 30 years renting a house near Takapuna Beach. "It seemed like a big trek in those days to pack up and cross the bridge."

Of course his international cricket career - bowling his trademark yorkers in 25 tests and 93 one-dayers, and then almost six sometimes-controversial years at the helm of New Zealand Cricket - took him to all corners of the Commonwealth. And his tenure as Rugby New Zealand 2011 CEO led him around all the country's big rugby grounds.

"Yeah, it had its difficult times but you really forget about those now," he says. Like the heartbreak of removing games from a quake-stricken Christchurch, and the first-night train fiasco at Eden Park. He'd rather remember the 5000 "bucketheads" supporting Romania and Georgia in Palmerston North.

In the aftermath, Snedden took three months off; writing his "therapeutic" book about the experience, A Stadium of Four Million and considering his next career move. An opportunity to become chief executive of London's Marylebone Cricket Club, with its hallowed ground of Lord's, didn't pan out and he wasn't ready to return to the cricket boardroom (he'd like to again one day though, he says).

Then, Norm Thompson, deputy CEO of Air New Zealand and chairman of the board of TIANZ, approached him to consider a job leading the association.

"When Tim [Cossar, the previous CEO] said he was moving on, I thought of Martin straight away," says Thompson, who worked with Snedden throughout the Rugby World Cup. "During the World Cup, he'd had some quite strong views that a number of the tourism businesses and segments needed help. He wanted to make a difference."

Snedden was intrigued by the role. "One of the significant work-streams I led during the cup was the interface with tourism - hotels, Air New Zealand and others - making sure the visitor experience was, over and above the rugby itself, going to be special," he says.

"I thought I'd learned a lot about it, but it wasn't until I started this job I realised I'd only learned 5 per cent of it. But it struck me as being an industry that has, by default, a positive feel to it. It's the nature of the business that the people who really succeed are those with a reasonably cheery disposition."

Just short of a year since he took on the job, Snedden's "refreshing" approach continues to impress Thompson. "He is a good listener, he's very fair. He wants the best outcomes for New Zealand - first it was the case of the Rugby World Cup, and now tourism. He has great mana. He can walk up to the Prime Minister [who's also Minister of Tourism] and have a good conversation about what's going on," Thompson says.

When we meet in the hotel lobby, Snedden had just come from a workshop with Thompson and the CEOs of 12 of the country's biggest tourism players - the likes of Air New Zealand, Tourism New Zealand and Auckland Airport. He's been touring the country picking brains in his quest to create a national tourism plan.

He was gobsmacked that, for an industry with exports of nearly $10 billion a year and employing 187,000 people, there has been no all-encompassing strategy on how to keep people holidaying, and spending, in New Zealand.

One of the problems in pulling together a plan has been tourism's diversity. Of the 1500 members of the association, around 400 make their livelihood out of adventure tourism; a significant chunk run hotels, luxury lodges and holiday parks; then there are airports and bus tour companies.

Snedden sees his job as directing cohesion between all industry players, not unlike a coach. It will be a private sector game plan, with politicians on the sidelines, but invited to contribute.

"Ultimately we would like, and I'm being a bit selfish here, that in 10-15 years' time, visitors routinely feel their experience in New Zealand is as good as it was during the Rugby World Cup."

One of the big growth areas is Asia. In the past year, New Zealand received 197,000 visitors from China - up 35 per cent - second only to the 1.1 million visitors from across the ditch. As a new generation of Chinese travel the world, TIANZ predicts growth could double in the next five years. Although Chinese tourist numbers have swelled, what they spend when they get here has barely increased. Most travel in tour groups with a pre-approved itinerary, staying two or three days in Auckland and Rotorua, "and most of profits are siphoned off before they come to New Zealand," Snedden says.

The goal is to get them to stay longer, travel further and spend more here, and that means catering to their needs. "What they expect from food and retail is completely different to what's desired by an English or German tourist," he says. "I've picked up a bit of resistance from tourism business operators who don't want to adapt their businesses in any way to meet the Chinese visitor expectations. If they want to survive, they have to adapt."

The other opportunity lies with cruise ships, which Snedden watches enter and leave Wellington Harbour from his home above Oriental Bay. Again, it's about getting the tourism operators to change, particularly businesses accustomed to visitors staying on land.

Snedden doesn't feel comfortable being labelled Mr Fix-It for this mission. "I'm so heavily reliant on the skills and experience and support of the guys who are running businesses." he says. "I got through the first six months where I knew very little and felt a bit vulnerable, and now I'm at the point where I know enough to hold my own in conversations. I'm still just listening, but don't feel like a fish out of water."

He would love to one day return to his comfort zone, the realm of cricket. Maybe in two or three years, when the 2015 Cricket World Cup comes to town (Snedden led the bid for the tournament).

But he doesn't want to run the show; more along the lines of returning to the board. "Cricket will never not be part of my life. When you are running the game, you get so immersed in it, saturated with it, that you are loving, eating and dreaming it. But for my own health I had to take a break. Rugby then became the same sort of passion," he says.

"Tourism is fairly new to me, but now I'm dreaming about it all the time too. The Rugby World Cup hit every positive note you could hit. The reputation of New Zealand as a host just soared; it showed off the country, and the people, in such a positive light. It showed what New Zealand could do if there was a unified approach to something. All of that is so relevant to what I'm doing now."

- NZ Herald

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