Our People: Turning tourism into top earner

By Jill Nicholas, news@dailypost.co.nz

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On-trend operator who’s propelled local attraction into the tourism industry’s stratosphere.

HOST: Bruce Thomasen at Skyline's stargazing attraction. PHOTO/BEN FRASER
HOST: Bruce Thomasen at Skyline's stargazing attraction. PHOTO/BEN FRASER

PRESS BRUCE Thomasen's statistics button and he spits them out by the score.

Visitor numbers, visitor nights, visitor spending, the exponential growth the industry's experiencing; if anyone has a handle on this city's tourism sector he's your man.

It figures, he's Skyline Rotorua's general manager.

That's the company which won last year's Tourism Industry Association's supreme award and will be at the forefront when Rotorua stages national tourism showcase Trenz next week, with Bruce a keynote speaker.

It's the second year on the trot Rotorua's hosted it; an achievement speaking volumes for the city and the operators who've returned tourism to the top of our economic tree. Many, like Bruce, are home grown.

As a career choice tourism's full-on. Chatting with Bruce we wonder how he's found the time to slot us in. That he did reveals his hospitality side, honed in the hotel business.

We didn't just whiz in and out of his managerial headquarters, busy as he is he insisted we join him for lunch; who could say no?

The venue was Skyline's Stratosfare restaurant, yet another of the company's components that's become a major prizewinner under the Thomasen executive umbrella.

Where did it all begin? As a young fella he spent most weekends on a Ngakuru farm.

"I used to dream of being a farmer but in the end thought I'd do hotel management, I had an uncle who was a hotel manager."

Fresh out of a business studies course at what was then Waiariki Polytechnic, he joined the Tourist Hotel Corporation's International Hotel at Whakarewarewa as a trainee manager. For those as bewildered as Our People by Rotorua hotels' rapid name changes that's today's Holiday Inn.

Three years on he was in Queenstown, remaining two years before returning to become the Sheraton's food and beverage manager, then sales manager. There his entrepreneurial side emerged, he figured there were a host of places outside the hotel to host events.

The museum was first on his list; the hotel regularly catered for its Phantom of the Bath House evenings with big number guest lists served from portable kitchens.

"We were function pioneers in the Redwoods running Robin Hood breakfasts in the forest, sometimes we'd be doing them in the mornings, then Phantom the same night."

Another of his brainchilds was taking conferee delegates to the Agrodome in cattle trucks. "When they arrived we'd give them a shooter out of a drench gun."

On the more formal side, probably the most innovative place he's organised a full-scale dinner was on top of Mt Tarawera. "It was for 200 delegates at the BMG record label conference, they were helicoptered in, we had to take everything from tables to teaspoons up in 4-wheel drives."

BMW was another high-end client he helped secure for Rotorua's Sheraton, but not on home turf. "They were test driving the latest models at Whenuapai Air Force Base, we catered, commandeering the Sheraton Auckland's kitchens for about a week."

From the Sheraton he became Tourism Rotorua's domestic marketing manager, starting the same day as present Destination Rotorua general manager Oscar Nathan who Our People introduced in the lead-up to last year's Trenz (May 16, 2015).

"Tourism Rotorua was a one-stop shop for all local attractions, they worked really well together pitching for major events like the Golden Oldies Cricket Festival which drew thousands, the Telecom Sevens, local retail businesses came on board, those were very satisfying days."

In 2000 the chance to become Skyline's business development and marketing manager was too tempting to pass up. Initially a lot of time was spent offshore opening luge operations, firstly at Canada's Mt Tremblant ("it means trembling mountain") then on Singapore's Sentosa Island.

Home, he became the company's Rotorua-based international luge manager.

"I reckon I've done at least a quarter of a million air miles searching the globe for suitable locations, we're now in Calgary and Korea, looking at sites in Europe and Asia."

The Korean operation's being overseen by Bruce's predecessor, Nevil Nicholson, another lifetime local.

Before we leave the luge's international success story, Bruce slips in a further Rotorua plug. "All the conveyors, systems, hook-ups, luge carts are manufactured here. Globally they can't be beaten."

In 2012 Bruce segued into his present role.

Conscious we've heard a lot about his working life, we insist we want to know about his personal one.

He joins the ranks of those we've found reluctant to talk about themselves but we did glean he's been twice married, that his first marriage produced three sons, now adults, and he's step-dad to two teenage girls.

We prod some more and unearth his second wife's "the beautiful, wonderful Kellie". We're under starter's orders to use those exact words; to ensure we do he repeats them in a post-interview email.

They married within six months of meeting at the Fuse Bar a decade ago.

"Actually we knew each other before at Rotorua Intermediate."

Why doesn't it surprise us that they wed at Skyline? "It was on the helipad, Kiri Atkinson Crean (Our People, June 18, 2011) was assistant celebrant, we worked together at Tourism Rotorua."

Kellie's job is far removed from tourism - she's a district health board project manager.

Replete after our excellent lunch, we tell Bruce how much we've enjoyed it. We couldn't have pleased him more, not because we're being polite but that it's locals the restaurant's pitched at.

"Before we opened we knew if locals supported it it would be successful. Why? Because locals have a choice, they can go elsewhere."

'Staying local' is a Thomasen mantra. He insists it's local charities Skyline supports, the Ronald McDonald retreat and CanTeen included.


BRUCE THOMASEN

Born: Rotorua, 1969.

Education: Selwyn and Otonga Primaries, Rotorua Intermediate, Boys' High, Waiariki Polytechnic.

Family: Wife Kellie; three sons, two step-daughters.

Interests: Family, hunting "rabbits, ducks, deer", wake boarding, boating, "Rotorua's my favourite lake to get some great skiing in", "dabbing" in fishing (trout and sea); travel. "I'm just getting into mountain biking."

On Rotorua hosting Trenz: "It's a huge opportunity for the city, the timing couldn't be better, tourism's booming, everyone who comes is selling New Zealand to the world and it's Rotorua that benefits."

Personal philosophy: "Life ain't a practice run."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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