He Tangata: A chat with General Manager of Adventure South Mike Smith

Each week, Elisabeth Easther gets the story of people in the Kiwi tourism industry. Today, she talks to Mike Smith, General Manager of Adventure South.
Mike Smith took a risk on a skifield job - and is still in the business.
Mike Smith took a risk on a skifield job - and is still in the business.

I kind of fell into tourism. I graduated in 1989 with a marketing degree in the early stages of that being a thing. People used to look a little sideways about it back then but it was pretty interesting and it was all pre-digital. So I did the corporate thing for about 10 years but I was a bit of square peg in a round hole and, in my early 30s I saw a job advertised at Mt Ruapehu.

I decided I'd just do it for a year, then go back to having a proper job. I started in April and by September I realised I'd found a real job. I was in that role, as marketing manager for Whakapapa, for 12 years and when Turoa went into receivership we went through the process of convincing the Commerce Commission that one owner for two skifields would be a good thing.

It was quite risky and we needed to raise about six million bucks in a few weeks when one of the creatives came up with the idea of life passes, one pass for both fields. He asked, how many babies are born each day in New Zealand? It was about 70 so we gave a free pass to all the babies born on the day the Commerce Commission thing went through.

This is pre-digital, pre-social media, the end of 2000 and we made the front page of the Herald. One-hundred percent of the babies took up the offer and we raised the funds.

Growing up in the small town of Rangiora, even though Christchurch was just 25km away it was a big deal to go there. I never travelled overseas with my parents, but we travelled a lot locally as a family, my parents and my three younger sisters. We had a caravan, a Zephyr, all of us squished in, it used to take all day to get anywhere and we had quite a few adventures in that. The first time I left New Zealand was quite late, in my early 20s.

The first real overseas experience I had - seeing a completely different culture - was Bangkok. Arriving at two in the morning, you get out in the heat, and I remember thinking it's so hot, like someone put your head in an oven. The next day I'm wandering around with my Lonely Planet and my bum bag on, trying to look inconspicuous because you've heard it's so dangerous.
My favourite part of New Zealand is Central Otago although not specifically Queenstown, it's so busy although you still get your breath taken away. Dropping Ruby, my daughter, off at Arrowtown Primary one morning, it had just snowed on the Remarkables, the sun was coming up and I thought this school has the best view in world.

I love the Otago Central Rail Trail and learning about Ngai Tahu history with respect to the routes they took to go to the West Coast, trying to understand the magnitude of that travel to get greenstone, without horses. Then European history, how wool was the cornerstone and Dunedin the centre of commerce, then the discovery of gold and how that transformed that whole area. New Zealand was a pretty prosperous place. Fast-forward to the 2000s and if you look at a lot of these small towns, in terms of prospects, it wasn't looking too bright. First the shop closes, and God forbid the pub closes and the last person out of town please turn out the lights, but cycle tourism has really transformed these places. Look at somewhere like Clyde.

About 50 per cent of our customers are Australian and they love the experiences you can have in New Zealand in such a short space of geography. It's just a couple of hundred kilometres from Mt Cook to the Pacific Ocean, just a couple of hours by car at the most. Or you can ride it over five to six days. In contrast, you drive from Sydney to the Snowy Mountains, and it will take you six or seven hours, the road hardly has a turn and it's gum trees all the way.

New Zealand is really starting to be known internationally as a destination for cycling, it's the right time and the right place in respect of the baby boomers; they've got the finances, the time, they're fit and healthy and they want to ride bikes. We're really lucky to have this national network of off road cycle trails and, in 10 or 50 years time it's going to be seen as absolutely inspirational so my hope for the future is that we marry the quality of experience with the facilities.

Further information: see adventuresouth.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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