Timber Trail Lodge director Bruce Maunsell on its first five weeks of operation, the repercussions of the Tourism Growth Partnership being scrapped and the pressing infrastructure needs in the King Country and beyond.
The Timber Trail Lodge opened with 25 beds in April so it’s coming up five weeks now. The response has been phenomenal, it’s exceeded what we’d hoped for in terms of occupancy. We budgeted on around about 20% occupancy overall for this first period but we’re at 50% – twice where we thought we would be. We are really concentrating on the direct market and smaller agents who are specifically cycling orientated. We simply decided we don’t want to give away too much margin. 20% – 30% just leaves me cold so we are staying away from the wholesale markets, at least for the time being. The response has been a little bit overwhelming in respect of staffing. We employed two managers – which we thought would be enough – but we’ve had several capacity nights so the staffing requirement has been more than we anticipated. Staffing is going to be an on-going challenge because of the remoteness of the lodge. By the end of winter we will have staff accommodation plus the second wing of the lodge will be finished, giving us a total of 50 guest beds across 20 rooms. The seasonal market means we’re expecting a long cold quiet first winter so we are starting to plug mid-week riding through the off season, and we’ve just made a commitment to keep the lodge open and employ managers right through the winter. The Timber Trail is on Department of Conservation estate and some iwi land so DOC manages the trail. They have a limited budget – only about a third of what is required – but current policy means they cannot access any other trail maintenance funds available through MBIE and other entities. We want to improve the governance of the Timber Trail so we can access other funds. We’re having a hui at the Lodge next week with some people from Project Tongariro, an NGO that’s done a really good job of working with DOC to enhance and maintain the infrastructure within Tongariro National Park. We are interested in their model and would like to set up something similar that DOC supports through its budget but which can access other funds. We’ve also got customers asking how they can contribute to the upkeep of the trail and we want to be in a position to be able to facilitate that. We received $1.2m from the government’s Tourism Growth Partnership that has just been scrapped. We were bloody lucky with our timing and we appreciate that we were. At the time we thought it was possibly not sustainable for the government to be giving away that sort of money but on the other hand I am very optimistic about our operation and the benefit it is going to bring to the Timber Trail. The government spent close to $6m developing the trail, and we will be an important factor in that investment actually being realised. Our feeling is at the moment numbers are around 7,000-8,000 annually and we will take it to 10,000 or 12,000. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t come along, and we would not have gone ahead with our project – certainly not on the scale we have – without TGP assistance, it just wouldn’t have stacked up. We applied for $1.2m and at that stage our budget was about $2.7m. We’ve ended up spending $3.2m due to subsequent expansion so about 40% of our capital costs were covered by the grant. I’ve had two consultancy projects lined up that I thought would have a reasonable chance of qualifying and they’re just being canned. Those two projects will not go ahead now, so there is some negative effect from TGP being canned, but the infrastructure needs are urgent and should be prioritised over private investment. There is a real need for infrastructure on the DOC estate. The Tongariro Crossing, close to where we operate, is an extreme example of desperate need for organisation and structure as well as facilities. I think its ridiculous that so many people who have got no idea what they are doing are being let loose on a mountain without any guidance or control. And the lack of toilets is an insult to the environment. Similarly on the Timber Trail, to a lesser extent, there is certainly a need for toilets and the ones that are there are sometimes not being maintained adequately. When there are facilities people are really appreciative of them. We get comments from our guest saying how impressed they are with the signage, and the bridges and what toilets there are but they all say there needs to be more.
The $3.2m Timber Trail Lodge is located at Piropiro – the halfway point of the 85km two-day Timber Trail mountain bike ride through Pureora Forest Park.