An Operator’s View: Forgotten World Adventures’ Ian Balme

Ian Balme and Forgotten World hosted Tourism Minister Paula Bennett this week at Taumarunui. Credit: Forgotten World

Forgotten World Adventures founder and director Ian Balme on business collaboration, a big international push, the value of employing Taumarunui locals and how he went from selling golf cart rides to telling stories.

The truth is, I never envisaged that Forgotten World Adventures would be anything like it has actually turned out to be. There was no light-bulb moment – I just saw the railway line, my mate was importing some golf carts and I thought ‘you know what, I’ll throw some railway wheels on them and create a little tourism venture’.

Fortunately, former Tourism New Zealand head George Hickton was on our original board and he immediately saw that this little venture was a lot bigger than anything I could ever have imagined.

I thought I would be selling a golf cart trip down a railway line but George saw that what we were really selling was a ‘forgotten world’ story. Fortunately, we went down his path and now our whole focus is on selling that ‘forgotten world’ story.

Our tours are always evolving because it is unusual for one to happen without someone on a trip adding something to our story. The descendants of the settlers in this area have spread far and wide and when they come visit us they have family stories about why their ancestors were there and why they left.

Every day, we have something contributed so now our library of stories is huge – something we never had when we started in 2011.

Just as important as the story is the storyteller and our six guides – we have a total staff of 30 during the peak season – are not only professionally trained they are also real characters. Our customers just love them.

They are all local people, which is important for a small community like Taumarunui, and they have really helped us grow and, hopefully, we have been able to help them grow too. When you catch customers at the end of their trips give our guides big hugs, it is a very humbling thing to see.

We added jet boat and helicopter options to our tours last year and they have really opened up traditionally inaccessible areas. We have had outstanding reviews of those tours and we believe they are going to be a real area of growth for us, particularly with our domestic market.

Right now, we are busy selling for next season and are making a significant move to target the international market. That is really about working in collaboration with other tourism businesses and attractions in the area, such as Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL), Tourism Holding’s (THL) Waitomo Glowworms and Tongariro Crossing.

If those bigger players can bring people into the region then it is our job to target them with product which can really enrich their experience of area.

We currently receive about 6,500 customers per year of which 20%, around 1,300, are international visitors. For next year, we want to push that international number up to around 4,000 and the domestic market up to 6,000 for a total of around 10,000 visitors.

That will take a lot of work because I have learnt that when we approach the inbounders who have fed the traditional, well-travelled routes in the region, we have to have a complete game plan; how long it will take a visitor to go from A to B, what they are going to do here, where they are going to stay, where they are going to move on to, and so on.

Many inbounders are not that interested in going off their traditional routes so we have to make it incredibly easy for them to work with us and we are doing a lot of work updating maps and creating itineraries that they can easily slot into their bookings.

One issue I am pre-occupied with is understanding that although we do not have to be a big company like RAL or THL, how do we better leverage their weight to work for us also?

We have to learn how to work and collaborate better with these much bigger businesses who are bringing a lot of people into the central North Island region, people who we need to be able to pick up as well.

When I look at the collaboration that is happening in parts of the South Island, the relationships that, say, Ngāi Tahu is building across the industry down there, then I think we are lagging behind up here and I want us to catch up quickly.

The government’s focus on the dispersal of visitors to New Zealand could make a real difference to regional tourism but I do not think anyone has really got their head around the issue. We need to understand not only how we can achieve dispersal but also what it will really mean for the country and I am not sure anyone is doing that work.

In terms of financing, we have never had any problem funding growth and we have grown quite aggressively over the past five years. If the product is good and it feels right then we have never had a problem financing it.

We have explored setting up in other regions but we have never pursued those options, mainly because of the opportunities still available to us here. We have 24 tunnels and 98 bridges and we know the story here. We believe it is better to concentrate on adding to our experience here rather than spreading ourselves thinly across the country.

We have new carts coming in the summer, we have our jet boat and we believe there are enormous opportunities in the Whanganui River, including, possibly, canoeing day trips out of Taumarunui. And we have our big push coming to attract more visitors here.

So, we are very focused on what we are doing right now, right here at Forgotten World Adventures.

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