The New Zealand economy is dominated by small firms and the Business Herald is putting the spotlight on some of them in a new regular feature. Today: Canopy Tours in Rotorua, co-founded by James Fitzgerald as a forest-based eco-tourism experience.

Canopy Tours is based in Rotorua and provides three-hour eco tourism adventures high in the canopy of ancient forests using ziplines and swingbridges along a 1.2 km tour route.

After opening in 2012 - when staff banged on the windows of campervans and didn't let tourists get away until they agreed to go ziplining - the business now employs 22 permanent staff and increases to 38 for the summer months. About 55 per cent of customers are from overseas.

What gave you the idea for the business?


Ziplines as a trend were booming overseas, particularly in North America. The theory was if we could find a piece of spectacular New Zealand wilderness that was otherwise inaccessible we could take people on an adventure mixing the ziplines with the environment. We knew it needed to be far more than simply a thrill ride to have longevity and remain relevant in the market.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Keeping the experience small and personal and maintaining the perceived value while the company grows around it. When we first started a busy day was 20 people and it was easy to love every single customer. Now busy days are 200 people but it is critical that with higher volumes still comes the special, personal experience.

What is the best thing you've done?

Focus on building a great team - we have a theory it's not about what the customer sees but about how we make them feel and that only comes from how well our staff interact and connect with the customers - after all, our guides spend three hours with every customer. Another good thing we have done is to restore the entire forest we operate in and remove every rat, possum and stoat. The results are proving phenomenal (we even have customers handfeeding wild native birds) and the customers are reacting - we have received tens of thousands of dollars in unsolicited donations over the past three years and by the end of this year will have spent around $250,000 restoring the forest so far.

How difficult is it finding staff?

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It is hard to find people through traditional means as everyone sees it as a "fun" industry. We have tried to create a workplace where qualified people will come through referrals from our current and former staff.

Where do they come from?

Rotorua - we try to recruit locally where people have roots firmly established.

What sort of career can you make in tourism?

As big as you can dream. The biggest challenge is being able to show and inspire young people that a prosperous career or businesses await them in the industry - and we need to show them the pathway. In my experience too many coming out of our training schools have short-term aspirations in the industry and not much thought to what a career could involve.

What advice would you give to other small business operators?

Focus on the big picture, make plenty of time for life outside business, trust your staff, constantly write plans of where the business is going and how it is going to get there. If you are too busy to do this, employ more people as you and the business will burn out!