Ryan Sanders was climbing the career ladder in a well-paid corporate job for the Royal Bank of Scotland when he realised something was missing.

The Christchurch man was putting his university training to work in the bank's recruitment department in the mid-2000s when he asked himself a question: "If I'm going to work for the rest of my life, what is my passion?"

His answer?

"It was snowboarding, travelling," he says.


"It [work] was going really well and was applicable to what I did at uni, but I really struggled with the corporate — so about a year into it, I started writing a business plan for what would become Haka Tours."

That business, established in 2007, has gone on to become what has been described as an inspirational tourism success story, which this year won the supreme spot in Tourism Industry Aotearoa's annual awards.

The business is growing at an average of 80 per cent year-on-year, with revenue for the next 12 months on track to exceed $17 million, the tourism body says.

Sanders was recognised for his "visionary and influential leadership", winning the individual industry champion award.

He's proud of the achievements of the company, which runs small group tours in this country, has a growing portfolio of hotels and a fast-growing special interest overseas tour operation.

''With such a culturally significant name I knew there would be a lot of eyes on us. It was great to get that recognition from the industry.''

With such a culturally significant name, I knew that there would be a lot of eyes on us. It was great to get that recognition from the industry

From small beginnings — a sole tour manager running tours in an old Mitsubishi Pajero — the business has overcome some tough breaks.

Sanders won't share too many details, but says he makes a good living out of the business, has a nice house in Auckland and can do what he loves most — travel — in style.

At 10 years old, Haka Tours' maturity is also giving him more space. He's about to hire a chief financial officer and can spend more of his time on strategy.

Haka Tours' runs trips throughout the country. Photo / Supplied
Haka Tours' runs trips throughout the country. Photo / Supplied

"I've always been excited about working for this company but now I am working with the stuff I love," says Sanders.

He's candid about the stuff he doesn't love so much.

"I know you shouldn't say this, but I don't enjoy people management and I don't enjoy being the go-to person within the business," he says.

"The biggest thing I struggle with is that people think that leaders should be great people managers, but for me and a lot of other people that I know it's totally not the reality."

Sanders grew up in North Beach, Christchurch, went to Shirley Boys' High and studied at the University of Canterbury, where he did postgraduate studies in industrial psychology.

As a promising rugby player in the Canterbury system, he was loaned to franchise provinces and played lock for Buller. It was rugby that took him to Scotland.

He returned home in 2008 — after starting Haka Tours a year earlier — and dedicated his life and £20,000 of savings to the business.

He saved up to buy the company's first property in Ferrymead, eastern Christchurch, which he bought just before the September, 2010 earthquake.

"It was pretty badly damaged," he says. "The worst thing about it, there was sewage coming up from the stormwater drains."

There was more damage in the catastrophic February quake.

''While I thought it was the worst timinig possible, at that point when we did open, because of the the lack of accommodation we were full from day one.''

While I thought it was the worst timing possible, at that point when we did open, because of the lack of accommodation we were full from day one

Since then Haka has opened properties in Queenstown, Auckland and the Bay of Islands, and started more adventure tours, snow and mountain bike tours.

In Auckland, Haka Hotel K Road Apartments has been built from the ground up and formally opens next month.

Educational tours are now the fastest growing brand, taking students, sportspeople and teachers to 10 countries, to attractions such as a Nasa space camp in Huntsville, Alabama and wildlife watching in Borneo.

Inspiration for inbound tours comes from close to home.

"I was designing products for people like myself," says Sanders. "That strategy has been laser-targeted brands, backed by what we call a shared service business model — it's really recruiting people like us."

"I think tourism has progressed to a point where it no longer is a really generic product satisfying the masses."

And given the company's name, there's a strong cultural element to all the tours.
Haka Tours says that to ensure it had the rights to use the name, it went through a lengthy intellectual property process and approached the Maori Advisory Committee on intellectual property, to ensure it had the rights to use both the word "Haka" and the kiwi logo.

The company now has both its brand and logo protected.

Haka Tours has been running for 10 years. Photo / Supplied
Haka Tours has been running for 10 years. Photo / Supplied

About 70 per cent of Haka Tours' 7000 to 8000 clients a year are solo travellers, mainly from Australia, Canada, Britain and Germany.

"We're starting to see more Chinese. We've been purposefully quite late to this market — they're travelling in much smaller groups."

The variety of tours has helped minimise the problem of seasonality: mountain biking and other adventure activities can complement snow sports.

Sanders says the wider industry is in good shape.

"It's great that we've got diversification of markets and I think the Tourism 2025 strategy [aiming for revenue of $41 billion a year] is a really clear blueprint and strategy for businesses to look to."

Like others in the industry, he's aware of the strain on infrastructure. That's a big reason why his firm is opening its own hotels.

But Sanders says having a large number of visitors is a good problem. "People would be complaining a lot more if we were barren. It's all part of the normal growing pains — it's unrealistic not to have these."

He's a big supporter of the 100% Pure New Zealand promotion, but would like to see more progress towards environmental goals.

"I definitely think we could be doing a lot more. It's such a compelling part of our tourism proposition to have clean air, clean waterways and swimmable lakes and rivers. I definitely think there needs to be a priority to clean it up."

Sanders would also like to see tourism as part of the NCEA framework and more emphasis on training.

"From my personal experience, I think I was ideally suited to tourism but I never considered it as an industry — I think it needs to be considered more as an aspirational industry in New Zealand."

While it's not the best paying industry initially, there are opportunities to advance to specialist roles.

His own entrepreneurial zeal came from a realisation that nobody was going to give him anything.

''It purely came about from thinking about how I wanted to live my life. For me to get fulfilment, I need to have ownership and autonomy."

Ryan Sanders
Age: 40
Job: Founder and head of Haka Tours
Lives: With a teenage step-daughter and partner Marco in Newmarket
Interests include: Snowboarding, heliboarding, travel
Last book read: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson — he's a big science fiction fan
Last overseas trip: To India and Nepal