Tourism businesses can no longer afford to ignore Kiwis
OPINION: I was fortunate enough to spend the last few days strolling the McKenzie Country and central Otago in my old Ford Capri.
The Capri hadn’t been angry for three months and the thermostat is a little punctured so it was running on the hot side. So besides keeping my eyes on the speed and rpm dials, the temperature gauge caught my attention as I headed south.
Christchurch to Queenstown was the main tourist route in the South Island. It was also a very ecumenical route, with tourists of most nationalities on the same route, whether by coach or self-driving car.
Fly to Christchurch, see the Garden City, then head south via Geraldine for the surreal colors of Tekapo, then the remarkable beauty of Queenstown.
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But the mother road has become much more blurry since we were hit by the pandemic maternal vein last year.
International visitors dried up overnight, to be replaced by national visitors like you and me. This was a wake-up call for the industry. No tourism-dependent business can afford to continue ignoring the Kiwis.
Unsurprisingly, locals have a different take on destinations and timing. While the tidal wave of global tourism of the past 10 years has been both seasonal and centralized around a handful of places, locals have a different dynamic.
We are much less seasonal and much more provincial. So places that are more off the beaten track are doing much better.
Just take a look at the Vulcan Tavern in St Bathans or the Lantern Motel in Reefton, which are teeming with domestic tourists and sometimes struggle to keep up with demand.
Locals are also happy to bypass the big global booking engines like Expedia and Booking.com, preferring to pick up the phone and talk to the owner instead, as I did at the excellent Landings Motel in Wanaka.
Direct transactions generate more money for the local economy and often a better deal for the consumer.
A lot of people say ‘this is brand new’ from a tourism marketing perspective. But they forget that Kiwis have always been the most important segment, accounting for almost 60% before Covid-19.
It’s just that we forgot about them. Or more precisely, adjusted them to the edges of world visitors.
Be careful, we have to be careful with terminology and tautologies here.
In particular, we need to break the ‘them and us’ mentality. The point is, we depend on both visitors and operators to make this work. The non-alignment of either is guaranteed to make things wobbly.
In the meantime, we must keep in mind that while we may be a visitor for a week, when we come home we are a host and must do our part to ensure that visitors enjoy our area.
We also need a lot more experiential products in the regions to attract and delight domestic visitors. These are experiences unique to the region, but also scalable and sustainable until the reopening of world roads.
Some areas are already doing this, as I saw in South Canterbury and its new “roam” tour route.
Roam (Rivers, Ocean, Astro, Mountains) is a hiking loop that goes from Timaru through the Waitaki Valley, then through the heart of the Mackenzie Omarama to Mt John and Tekapo, before passing the Killer Pies of the Fairlie Bakehouse and Opihi Basin to Timaru.
I also saw him in Wanaka talking to the people who are building the new Central Otago / Queenstown trail system. This will connect and expand the four “Big Hikes” comprising the Clutha Gold, Roxburgh Gorge, Otago Central Rail and Queenstown trails, creating a quality global network of visitor friendly trails.
And like the roaming loop, it will also feed the local businesses around it. Hopefully this will also help launch a more commissionable product, something we’re still too short on.
Agility is a buzzword that annoys me, but it’s what tour operators need right now. It’s like they have three big dials in front of them.
Dial one sets up product, price, location packages for domestic tourists and does so in a way that embraces the propensity of locals to be provincial and non-seasonal (and in particular to meet the appetite for “short stays” Kiwis).
Dial Two has access to a sufficient workforce to meet local demand, a development made more difficult by MIQ, overseas lockdowns and visa issues. It means being innovative about who you hit and how you train them. Immigration New Zealand should also be part of the party on this.
Dial three is the big picture for those who can afford it. This means keeping a residual profile in the global marketplace so that when it’s time to increase your global marketing spend, you don’t do it on a zero basis. Because we will not market in a vacuum.
Much like driving my old Capri, tour operators have to constantly watch the three dials to try and see what’s going on around the corner.
– Mike “MOD” O’Donnell is a director, screenwriter and professional advisor. His Twitter handle is @modsta and he is currently replacing the thermostat on his Capri. Mike O’Donnell is Director of Tourism New Zealand.