Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

The man who sold New Zealand

Successful Tourism NZ boss Kevin Bowler tells Grant Bradley how he does it.
Tourism NZ's Kevin Bowler has brought his digital expertise to bear on updating the organisation's marketing. Photo / Greg Bowker
Tourism NZ's Kevin Bowler has brought his digital expertise to bear on updating the organisation's marketing. Photo / Greg Bowker

Now into his sixth year as head of the country's tourism promotion agency, Kevin Bowler has a good problem to solve.

Tourists are flooding into the country as never before and they're spending up a storm.

Overseas visitor arrivals hit their highest annual total of 3.17 million for the January year, up 11 per cent on the previous year.

And figures out yesterday were even more gratifying for the Tourism New Zealand chief executive.

Total estimated visitor spending in New Zealand continues to grow and reached $9.7 billion for the year ending December 2015, up 31 per cent on the previous year.

One of Bowler's main jobs is to ensure they don't all arrive at the same time.

So he's digging into his digital bag of tricks to ensure they get here in big numbers, continue to spend lots but is guiding them to the shoulder season, rather than having them all turning up in summer.

Bowler's last job before joining the government agency was heading the Telecom-Yahoo venture, where he honed his digital marketing skills.

"With a lot of digital experience from Yahoo I was asked to come in and contemporise the approach to marketing," he says.

"It [Tourism NZ] was still one of New Zealand's great marketing organisations but it was erring in being a bit traditional, relying a lot on TV. One of the first things we thought about was who we were trying to reach and digital media could ensure we reached the people who were actively considering New Zealand."

The organisation has a budget of about $115 million a year - after a $30 million boost in 2012 - and now doesn't spend anything on promotion to attract tourists during summer when hotels are filled beyond capacity and some popular walking tracks are too crowded.

"We know we missed out on business over summer. We lost out because of availability and high prices. There's an urgent issue around hotel investment to cater for that peak opportunity."

Hamilton-raised Bowler went to Hillcrest High School and Waikato University, where he did a bachelor of management studies during the early 1980s.

His first job was in Wellington for Unilever in marketing roles and then for advertising firms in Auckland before a spell overseas where he worked for big baking conglomerate Rank Hovis International, similar to Goodman Fielder here, where he became a divisional general manager.

When he came back to New Zealand he worked for New Zealand Dairy Foods until 2003, when he joined Telecom.

Asked what appealed to him most about Tourism New Zealand, Bowler says it was "being able to do something that was really good for New Zealand, it was quite different from selling more cake or more milk or more mobile phones".

Bowler never thought he'd end up working in the public sector but it's grown on him. He has a reputation for speaking his mind.

"I'm pretty forthright. I'm also proud of the team we've built and we build consensus and we're quick to change if we've got it wrong. I think in the context of government I'm seen as being quite direct but in the context of private sector it's quite normal."

New Zealand gets about 0.26 per cent of international travel and that has shaped Tourism New Zealand's strategy.

"The whole argument is why would you want to talk to everyone who travels in any market when you're such a small player. You figure out who has New Zealand on the bucket list and what do you need to say to them to get them to book."

Marketing is tailored depending on whether potential visitors are dreaming, planning or buying.

Bowler joined the organisation when the travel industry was still in recovery after the global financial crisis, which damaged traditional British and US markets. The Christchurch earthquakes and then the Japanese disaster in 2011 also hurt the market.

But the Rugby World Cup that year and then the Hobbit movies acted as a catalyst for a turnaround. New campaigns are focused on promoting the variety of experiences within short distances here, luxury market promotions and most recently showing off New Zealand's cycle trails to Australians using Australian celebrity Megan Gale.

"You make the most of the hand that you're dealt and you look for opportunities. Even in some of the more difficult periods when our long-haul markets were doing it really tough we invested a lot in Australia and did really well out of there - you're constantly thinking about how you can be very agile."

He wins high praise from Christopher Luxon, the head of Air New Zealand, the country's biggest tourism business.

Luxon says he's known Bowler for four years and they are firm friends.

"He's done a sensational job for New Zealand tourism because he's got great skill of keeping things really simple, staying focused on things that really matter and communicating to the organisation and the partners.

"He's been a big part of the success of New Zealand tourism during the past three or four years and deserves a lot of credit for it," Luxon said.

The head of the Tourism Industry Association, Chris Roberts, used to work for Bowler and says his old boss doesn't hold back when he wants to make a point.

"Kevin has ruffled a few feathers and the 'K-bomb' has entered the tourism industry lexicon as a description of the provocative opinions Kevin has voiced on occasion. But you are never left wondering where Kevin stands on an issue."

Kevin Bowler

• Chief executive of Tourism NZ since 2010

• Aged 52

• Has 15- and 17-year old daughters

• Long-distance runner - has run some of NZ's great tracks

• Surfs, still has a short board

• Has a bachelor of management studies

• Marketing and business leadership experience spanning consumer packaged goods, technology and media brands in New Zealand and in Britain

• Lives in Mission Bay

- NZ Herald

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