An Operator’s View: Hassle-free Tours’ Mark Gilbert

Hassle-free Tours’ double-decker classic buses. Image: Hassle-free Tours

Hassle-free Tours owner Mark Gilbert on how he and his wife Nikki began their Christchurch business, how it recovered from the 2011 earthquakes, and the company’s $2 million plan to launch in Queenstown and Auckland.

Mark Gilbert

I left school when I was 15, I’m dyslexic but I did not know that at the time. Even at that age, I remember thinking ‘wouldn’t it be cool to own your own business’ but I thought I would probably end up back on the family farm in Ashburton.

Later, while I was living in London, I was doing a lot of skiing and snowboarding in Europe with Nikki, whose brother was organising ski trips in France. I thought we could do the same in New Zealand. We could move back to Methven and organise ski holidays for customers coming to Mt Hutt. We would operate the business in winter and in the summer we would organise 4WD tours around the high country, which I have been going into since I was a boy.

We moved back to NZ and, not knowing anything about tourism, we set up Hassle-free Holidays in 2003. We operated the ski tour business from Methven that winter but by the summer we realised it would be difficult to make it work as a business. That summer we started the 4WD tours and The Lord of the Rings tour took off for us. By the end of the summer we had decided to concentrate solely on the tours so we moved to Christchurch and we became Hassle-free Tours.

Looking back now it may have been a bit easier for us if we understood how the tourism channels worked. I remember coming out of a meeting and thinking ‘what the heck is an RTO and an ITO?’. But there is something to be said for diving in, learning as you go, using your common sense, and never being afraid to ask questions.

Some things have never changed for us though: we have always wanted to deliver fantastic experiences, get people to places they would not have otherwise visited, and then, one day, be recognised up there with the other well-respected tourism operators in the country. Those were always our goals and they still are.

One of the biggest challenges we have faced is recovering from the Christchurch earthquakes. As soon as they hit we lost all of our business straight away and we could not operate for a number of weeks. When we did start again, for the first few months we were 80% down on the numbers we would normally have been carrying. We finished the first financial year following the earthquakes around 60-70% down on the previous period so it was very challenging.

We looked at the options after the earthquakes and they were closing the business down or winding it back, that is, mothballing tours and laying off staff. We did not want to do either of those so the third option was to look at the business to see if there was something we could do differently – could we ‘re-invent the wheel’ in some way?

Something we did see early was an opportunity with the cruise market, which we had never really worked with before. The earthquake damage in Lyttelton meant the cruise ships had moved to Akaroa and we realised they would need a different type of product to pick up their passengers from there. So, we went from not having cruise on our radar to it being around 25% of our total revenue today. That was a huge turnaround for us.

Our open-top buses came after the earthquakes and one thing we really wanted to share was the resilience of the city and the incredible community spirit that came out – honestly, it was the kind of reaction that made me proud to be a New Zealander.

People were determined to rebuild their homes and the city and we wanted to get that story across. Yes, people could see the devastation when they were on an open top tour but there was the flip side to that, the story of the recovery, the resilience, and the vision for a new city, which will be amazing when people come back and visit again next time they are in NZ. Our business today is quite a bit larger in size and passenger numbers and staff than it was pre-earthquake.

We have always taken a long-term view when looking at where Christchurch will be in the years ahead and that has given us a lot of confidence. As we get the CBD and the Square sorted out, more accommodation back online, cruise ships back to Lyttelton and the convention centre built, the future for Christchurch tourism looks incredibly exciting.

The city has been our home but I love Auckland and Queenstown so we are expanding our tours there and will begin operations in November.

This has been a long-term dream – to be a national operator – and our open top tours are all about storytelling and we think Auckland and Queenstown have fantastic stories to tell. It is the next stage in the Hassle-free story, branching out into other parts of New Zealand, and we are really excited about it.

Our Christchurch tour is becoming hop on hop off, which is what Auckland will be and we will incorporate our classic Routemaster buses there and in Queenstown for tours.

The $2 million expansion has been a long-term project for us. The three open top, purpose-built ANKAI buses we have bought for the new operations have been built overseas and there has been a huge amount of effort put into getting them right for New Zealand. We will need around 15 new staff to operate the tours so it is a big committment for us but we are confident about how the tours will go.

We are financing the expansion off our own balance sheet and with bank debt. Nikki and I are still the sole shareholders of the business but as it expands in the years ahead we may look at options such as bringing in other investors. However, at this stage we are happy with how things are set up.

I love the challenge of setting new things up – what will the next challenge be, what can we start building or start doing? So, we are always looking for new ideas and opportunities. With this expansion, it is going to be exciting to see what the years ahead bring.

Hassle-free Tours has been a great journey – a really exciting one for me and Nikki. When I think back to what we started out with 15 years ago, it has been challenging but it has been a huge amount of fun as well.

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