The tourism business showcase Trenz heads to Rotorua next year after tens of millions of dollars of business was done at the event in Auckland last week. Grant Bradley got a range of views on the state of the industry.
The consultant Lilly Choi-Lee started TravConsult in 2002, specialising in helping organisations in the aviation and tourism industries better understand and develop the key Asian markets of China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Korea. She spoke at an Auckland Airport Asian summit and at Trenz. Of the 83 million Chinese who travelled overseas last year, about 240,000 came here. The total number of Chinese travellers is forecast to reach 100 million by 2020, but she said it could come sooner. She said small tourism businesses were often intimidated by the size of the market and mystified about how to crack it. Operators needed to look at the market through "Asian lenses". The personal touch was important. "If I was to take away the word New Zealand and substitute Switzerland, how would I be able to tell the difference? You need to connect to the Asian person in the soul level, at the heart." With Chinese, the connection to food was important. Choi-Lee talked about serving fish whole, which represents bounty. "If you're a restaurant or hotel and you've got Chinese who have been out fishing, don't offer to chop it up and fillet it for them - steam it and serve it whole. Make them understand that this is what you're doing for them," she said. Countries with spectacular scenery, such as Switzerland, provided competition for the Chinese market, as did the United States since restrictions were eased five years ago. The hotel operator Garth Simmons, Accor's vice-president for New Zealand, Fiji and Japan, said the past 18 months had been strong for bookings. "We [the tourism industry] came from a tough place because New Zealand had been knocked around in 2008-9, there was a false jump up with the Rugby World Cup and [we] took a tumble in 2012." Since then the United States and British markets had recovered but the real "game changer" was the Chinese market, which had grown 25 per cent in the past two years. He said the recovery was attributable to recovery in the world economies, more successful promotion of New Zealand overseas and more collaboration between tourist groups. "New Zealand is a small market so any significant change is a big changer." Attracting more visitors during the low season was needed to encourage hotel building. He said bookings in the coming 12 months were strong. The economist ANZ chief economist Cameron Bagrie says the tourism industry has to concentrate on what it can influence. "Too often we get caught up in the macro-economic picture, the Chinese economy, the Australian economy, the currency, rather than the small things at our fingertips that we can control." The prospect of night flights to Queenstown was an example of a simple change that would have a significant impact in the town, which was already performing much better than what were, a decade ago, its economic equivalents - Taupo and Rotorua, Bagrie said. "Ten years later Queenstown and Central Otago leave them for dead ..." He is optimistic about tourism's future. "At no time in the last 50 years has New Zealand's future looked this solid. We are sitting on the winning lottery ticket whether it's selling goods or tourism or high-tech manufacturing. The only question I have is whether we've got the strategic foresight to unlock it ..." Of projections and spending targets released by the tourism industry this year he said: "You can have a target but having a goal is a small part of the story. As soon as someone puts a goal out in front of me the first thing I ask is, 'How are we going to get there?"' The travel buyer Kirk Demeter, president of travel firm Down Under Answers based near Seattle, has been selling tours to New Zealand for more than 20 years and warns the high kiwi dollar remains a problem. "At least it is not fluctuating - it's hit a high point and maintained that high point [but] if it was to go down to US65c you'd probably see a lot more tourists." New Zealand remained high on the bucket list for US travellers and demand was fastest growing from eastern parts of the country, such as Florida and New York, as well as Illinois. "New Zealand has been really high on the US aspirational list and we're starting to see conversions get better," Demeter said. The range and quality of tourist attractions had improved during the past few years, the travel firm boss said. "When we send people down here we feel confident," he said at the Trenz conference. Tourism New Zealand promotes strongly the link between The Hobbit movies and their location here. "I don't think people come down here because of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings but it enhances the knowledge. "Without question the movies have created a higher awareness of the destination."