Strategy begun two decades ago is paying off for Rotorua's Agrodome

Putting out the welcome mat for Chinese tourists has set up Rotorua's Agrodome for what it hopes will be a record year of growth.

Chinese hold the number one spot for visitors to the 40-year-old agricultural attraction, says sales and marketing manager Dale McCourt, easily eclipsing tourists from North America, Britain and Australia.

As the global financial crisis and high dollar shrink visitor numbers from the tourist attraction's traditional markets, Asian visitors are taking up the slack, thanks to a strategy put in place nearly two decades ago.

"Something that has made us really, really unique is that we haven't noticed a huge difference in our business because, nearly 20 years ago now, we employed Asian sales and marketing managers who are basically from their own countries and they can go out and promote the Agrodome in China, Southeast Asia, in Japan, etcetera.


"So that business that we've lost within the American and European markets we've gained tenfold from the Asian market."

McCourt says the business is just tapping the Chinese market, which it could conceivably grow by 15 to 20 per cent.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment predicts the number of Chinese tourist to New Zealand will double by 2015, and go on to overtake the British and North American markets combined by the end of the decade.

It was former sales and marketing manager Warren Harford, son of Agrodome co-founder George Harford, who saw the Asian market's potential.

Agrodome was the first tourist attraction to employ people locally to target Asian tourists, says McCourt, and was promoting itself in China before even Tourism New Zealand had reps on the ground there.

The half-a-dozen Chinese sales and marketing staff based in Rotorua travel to China several times a year to visit wholesalers and maintain close relationships with in-bound tour operators here in New Zealand.

They're also used as interpreters for overseas visitors.

"It's all about relationships in the Asian market," says McCourt.

"If you're giving them a good product and good service, they will keep coming back to you.

"They can be very loyal, so our sales relationships are very important in that respect."

The Agrodome's live shows and farm tour particularly appeal to tourists from Asia's big and bustling cities, says McCourt.

"To come and experience feeding and touching animals on a farm in wide open spaces is just amazing for them."

What began as a simple demonstration of sheep breeds and shearing has evolved into an attraction showcasing all aspects of farming life, with a supporting cast of animals that includes alpacas, pigs, ducks, turkeys and ostriches, alongside sheep and cattle.

The Agrodome was created in the early 1970s by champion shearer Godfrey Bowen after a visit to Japan to demonstrate shearing at the World Trade Fair in Osaka.

Returning from Japan, he partnered up with local farmer George Harford to recreate the Osaka display on a piece of land just outside of Rotorua.

"We were the first tourist attraction in Rotorua that wasn't associated with Maori culture or geothermal activity but, at the time, wool and farming was the number one export over tourism," says McCourt.

While the target audience was originally domestic tourists, they quickly developed relationships with in-bound tour operators to bring overseas tourists to the show.

Four decades on, the Agrodome is a multi-million-dollar business employing 52 full-time staff, including third generation members of the Bowen and Harford families, and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world.

In 2011 the family-owned business sold a 75 per cent stake to Ngai Tahu, which has a portfolio of tourism investments including Shotover Jet, Dart River Jet Safaris, Huka Falls Jet, Hollyford Guided Walk, Franz Josef Glacier Guides and the neighbouring Rainbow Springs.

The investment provides some of the financial clout to continue developing the attraction, all the while keeping its offering unique and original, says McCourt.

As the Agrodome evolves, anything new has to be consistent with the farming theme.

"What we've got is working for us and we've just got to keep developing those relationships and keep building on that revenue."

McCourt's focus for the coming year is on developing Agrodome as a farm-themed conference venue catering to groups of up to 500.

Using the attraction's highly-trained huntaway dogs to herd conference-goers or sipping cocktails in a corrugated iron barn are among the options on offer.

"It's always keeping ahead of the game and looking for sources of income so that if the tourism industry does go through a quiet patch, we've got other sources of income that we can rely upon."