Elisabeth Easther returns to Travel, checking in on NZ tourism operators to find out how they're faring as the pandemic continues. First, Ryan Sanders, founder of Haka Tourism Group.
Christchurch man Ryan Sanders is no stranger to unexpected events leading to changed plans - once upon a time his promising rugby career was thwarted by injury, so instead he took off to the UK to work for a global bank.
But after realising his true passion was travel, he founded Haka Tours, a company with humble beginnings that went from strength to strength. In 2019, Haka Tourism Group - which had grown to incorporate Haka Tours, Haka Lodges and Haka Educational Tours - was named New Zealand's fastest-growing tourism brand at the Deloitte Fast 50.
But then the pandemic hit and for Sanders, everything had to change once more.
He explains what life has been like as a Kiwi tourism operator since our borders closed in March 2020, and how he's feeling about the future.
How was Haka Tourism Group doing, before the pandemic struck?
We were on a massive growth journey. Business was made up of 95 per cent international and 5 per cent domestic and our market position was strong with new products and ventures including eight Haka Lodges - they're like upmarket backpackers - as well as an educational travel brand. It had been like a big game of chess to get to that point, with all these moving pieces, but we were ready to reap the benefits of all that hard work. We were firing on all cylinders and in 2019 we were named New Zealand's fastest-growing tourism brand at the Deloitte Fast 50.
What are your over-riding memories from the early days of the pandemic?
It was such a whirlwind. We had 40 tours out on the road with guests from all four corners of the Earth, and it quickly became apparent we had to adjust the routes and end the tours early, to get people home in case borders closed. By March we knew it was globally significant and things started changing so quickly. We didn't have a pandemic plan - we'd modelled what a major economic downtown would look like, and our worst-case scenario was for surviving a 50 per cent drop in revenue, but we were 95 per cent wiped out.
What was the hardest part for you?
Unfortunately, we had to let some of our amazing staff go. That was by the far the hardest thing.
What kept you going?
When you own a business, you've a lot of other people to worry about other than just yourself so, for a time, I parked my personal needs to focus on customers and staff. But, after a situation like that, you do crash and I eventually took some time out to rest. But I try to focus on the bigger picture, or on what 2024 will look like, then make incremental steps towards that vision. But it's also important to honour when you're feeling down, and process those feelings rather than brush them away, because it can become problematic if you don't honour when you're struggling.
How is business looking now?
We've re-structured the business to survive, retaining as much staff and intellectual capital as we could, and aiming for international guests returning from October 2022. We have eight tours on the road this February, all with a vaccine mandate. Normally we'd have 40 or 50 tours out. Because the guests are mainly Kiwis, we're also developing new product to satisfy that local market.
We're also working with a Māori women's initiative to house vulnerable wāhine in a whānau environment. It's called Te Whare, and it's a trauma-informed Kaupapa Māori therapeutic service. We also ran some domestic tours through Haka Tours, Haka Educational Tours and for Intrepid.
With the help of some new business associates, we looked at what sort of accommodation would be most likely to succeed in a post-covid world. We started by developing a new brand with global appeal, which we have named "Drifter" which will be our new accommodation model. We have a number of assets contracted across New Zealand and Australia, with a view to be Asia Pacific's leading high-end hostel operator.
Since international borders have closed, have you managed to go on any local holidays?
My husband and I bought a bach about four years ago, a 100-year-old weatherboard place, in Woolley's Bay in Northland. The house had originally been gifted to the local doctor and we bought it from his great-grandson. We surf and walk on the beach with the dogs and do lots of al-fresco dining. The place was on its last legs, so we did a really cool renovation while keeping the bachy vibe. There's also a great water park 45 minutes north called Adrenalin Adventure Park.
Did you manage to venture beyond your bach?
We decided to treat ourselves after a difficult couple of years, so we went to Blanket Bay just outside Queenstown for a ski trip last winter. It's the most beautiful luxury lodge on the shores of Lake Wakatipu with views of the Southern Alps and food to die for.
Any trips in the pipeline?
I'm off to the Chatham Islands at the end of February. It's a private trip with an entrepreneurial organisation I'm a member of and I'm really looking forward to that.
Where's your head at today?
The current outbreak is wounding, but we can hold on a bit longer. I've been speaking to the leadership team and we're confident things will start to improve around the end of this year. It's pretty brutal right now, and we're writing off this summer, but ultimately, you have to do what you're passionate about, which for me is tourism and entrepreneurship. I want to take an active role in rebuilding our tourism industry to its former glory.
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