There's a well-known Cook Islands proverb — "kia pupuru o vaevae, kia mokorā ō kakī".
Translated literally, it means "to have legs that hold, and a neck like a duck". Interpreted, it speaks to having solid foundations, while being watchful and alert to changes in your surroundings.
Many Cook Islands businesses will have borne this saying in mind since the Covid-19 pandemic began, as they tried to keep their financial footing in a dramatically affected tourism market, while also looking for alternative revenue sources to tide them through.
The Cook Islands are a little under four hours' flight from Auckland, and for many Kiwis, it has been a well-loved holiday spot for decades. In 2019, 170,000 thousand people visited the country, which has a permanent population of just 17,000 — tourism is central to the Cook Islands' economy.
In March of 2020, that source of revenue was cut off completely.
According to economic data compiled by ANZ Research, the Cook Islands' GDP has fallen by a higher percentage during the pandemic — over 2020 and 2021, inclusive — than any other country.
The challenges of business owners there have been worsened by a widespread staff shortage, with more and more workers choosing to move overseas for better wages.
Some of these businesses have adapted to the challenge of Covid-19 by developing avenues like online sales, domestic accommodation and long-term stays.
One example, Cook Islands fashion designer Manini Wear, worked closely with ANZ to implement our eGate online payment solution, which has allowed them to sell their goods to overseas customers, despite the local tourist sales drying up.
Their successful pivot online underscores the role technology can play in creating business opportunities.
While there have been some positive outcomes, the overall feeling among business owners has been one of stress — coupled with a loss of control.
Their livelihoods, as well as those of their staff, are intrinsically tied to their business, and in many cases, the whole community relies on their success.
Someone recently asked me whether, in business, it is better to act quickly or to act carefully — and how do you find a balance between the two, in an urgent situation?
The banker in me — being naturally averse to risk — said it was better to act carefully, but sometimes acting carefully also means being prepared to act quickly and effectively, when required.
Covid-19 was and continues to be, a very difficult scenario to plan for.
With business parameters changing so quickly, sometimes daily, the last two years have reinforced the importance of owners focusing on what they can control today, considering what their priorities are, and re-assessing those priorities often, in line with current conditions.
We need to prepare staff for the likelihood of change, and make it as seamless as possible when it happens.
Both in our running of the bank in the Pacific, and from seeing how our customers have responded to Covid-19, we've seen how important it is to ensure staff understand your purpose and feel like part of a team.
People want to feel like they are part of something, are valued and can contribute to decision-making — especially in a scenario where they lose a bit of control, like a pandemic.
It is important to acknowledge, accept, and embrace the uncertainty that naturally comes with change.
What has been really encouraging throughout the pandemic is the overall feeling of community in the Cooks — which was already strong — being enhanced even further. There is a strong feeling of understanding and connection with each other because most people now realise that everyone has been affected in some way.
In early 2019, the outgoing New Zealand High Commissioner to the Cook Islands, Peter Marshall, warned that economies centred heavily around one sector, like tourism in the Cooks, urgently need to diversify, or risk an "Achilles heel" moment when a significant disaster strikes, severely compromising the country's ability to earn.
That moment came, just a year later — and Marshall was right. If the Cook Islands had a more diversified economy, the impacts of the pandemic would not have been nearly as severe.
The Cook Islands re-opened to tourists in mid-January, but resort occupancy remains on the low side, with most seeing about 20-40 per cent of their accommodation filled.
Bookings for April and May are looking a little better, but the recent confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country are leaving many businesses wondering what the future will hold.
But as they welcome visitors back, freed from the confinement of lockdowns and boredom of home isolation, tourism businesses have the opportunity to reinvent themselves.
Whether in New Zealand or the Cooks, business owners and directors across all industries, from tour operators to fashion designers like Manini Wear, would be wise to take steps ahead of time to ensure the foundations of their business are strong — and keep their heads held high enough to react quickly to the inevitability of change.
• Bernadette Shaw is ANZ Country Head, Cook Islands ANZ is a sponsor of the Dynamic Business Report