365 activities, 365 days: The takeaways from a year’s worth of NZ experiences

Dunes Trail NZ

Robin Gayraud and Laura Symonds, publishers of the BackpackerGuide.NZ, travelled New Zealand in a campervan to take on 365 activities in 365 days. Here’s their unique take on the NZ backpacker tourism market and the activities they enjoyed.

Back in 2014, after spending a few years in the tourism industry in New Zealand, we launched BackpackerGuide.NZ aiming at becoming the biggest guide to New Zealand. Not an easy task. We have now more than a thousand articles and are on track to serve 2.5 million unique readers this year.

To celebrate such an achievement we spent the last 12 month creating a brand new feature dubbed “New Zealand’s Biggest Gap Year” where we challenged ourselves to tackle 365 activities in 365 days. This took us all over the country from the most remote spots (yes, I am talking about Karamea) to the most popular ones likes Hobbiton or Milford Sound working with almost every RTO in the country, over 200 accommodation providers, and over 300 activity operators.

This incredible adventure gave us a unique perspective on the backpacker offerings in the country by experiencing it first-hand and intensively, day after day. As we recently got off the road, I thought I’d share 10 things that we think every tourism insider should know about the backpacker market in New Zealand as well as what we, at BackpackerGuide.NZ, do about it.

  1. Backpacking is a style of travel regardless of budget

Although the backpacker market is supposed to be a tiny “160k visitors per year” niche, the “backpacker” market is much bigger than that. The Tourism New Zealand Segmentation Data defines backpackers as 18-24 year-olds from only a handful of countries. In reality, “self-described backpackers”, as we like to call them, are adventurous individuals from all over the world, of all ages, and come to New Zealand with all kind of budgets. We’ve seen hostels packed with premium travellers and holiday parks full of luxurious rental RVs. Our platform is serving tens of millions of pages to now millions of travellers looking for unique off-the-beaten-track activities and simply a different take on the country. Because the word “backpacking” is not associated with hairy roaming hobos anymore but is becoming a style of travel and the antonym of “tourist”.

  1. New Zealand has much more to offer than we all think

When working on BackpackerGuide.NZ for the first few years we thought we had seen almost everything New Zealand had to offer being backpackers ourselves, so when approaching a 365 days: 365 activities challenge we kind of had an idea of what we will be able to achieve. Despite that, nothing prepared us but the reality check that we got when seeing that New Zealand had such a huge offering. It takes quite a bit of digging, but we can safely say that we could have spent another year on the road and find 365 extra activities to do. We truly think that New Zealand has the world’s wealthiest range of activities on offer in such an accessible way – everything is a short drive away. There is much more to find, promote and sell than the few hero products of each region and often even the travel agents in each region are unaware of it as well.

  1. It is incredibly hard to find “off the beaten track” activities online

If we have to have another discussion with an operators starting with “Why should I have a website?” we are going to lose it…

One of the biggest realisations when travelling around and spending time with operators was that we are not living in the same world anymore. We spent hours educating individuals about the benefits of having an online presence and the multiple tools to use (newzealand.com, websites, Facebook, RTOs…). We found great initiatives by some RTOs to reach out to operators and help them in that direction. In our opinion, this should be a focus of every RTO to engage with their operators and bring them into the digital world.

One of the key points for us was also to educate individuals on where their content should be, having a website with hundreds of pages is not as valuable as a great conversion-optimised landing page that is linked to by stories all across the web. After all the more a region has to offer online the more appealing it will be to travellers planning their trip. This can be the difference between a two- day and a four-day stay in the region and every operator in that region has something to gain out of that.

  1. Owned and operated businesses are stretched really thin

Coming back to the point above, one of the clearest thing that we noticed is that owners that are also operators are under increasing time pressure. Owning and operating a business is not about loving what you do anymore: it’s about turning a passion a profession. Let’s face it; a horse-lover starting a horse trek company is not going to be riding horses very much. Between the day-to-day of the business, maintenance and marketing, there is not much room for a free ride. Several international studies have concluded that small business owners should spend over 60% of their time and energy into marketing. It is awesome to have the best product out there but if nobody knows you have it, the operation is in jeopardy.

  1. The dispersion of travellers is not happening just yet

With all the recent talk about pushing dispersion throughout New Zealand we did expect to always find other travellers on our paths and find a few hero products much less crowded. However, we found that the off-the-beaten-track hikes and locations that we visited were absolutely empty, sometimes for days. Meanwhile, the heroes of each regions were heaving with travellers at times. This made for lower quality experiences and we heard regularly frustrated comments from travellers. Prices soar, infrastructure is pushed to its limits, and travellers feel it, especially during events.

  1. Most of the infrastructure issues talks are happening too late

One of the main issues with the lack of tourist dispersion is the toll that it takes on our infrastructure, from the Huka Falls car park being beyond its breaking point to a 30-minute queue to use the Rere Falls toilets or well you know, to the Milford Road. Some spots in the country are in dire need of some help and this has been the case for a years. We’d love to see New Zealand taking a proactive approach on this to solve those issues before they arise instead of after a few years of frustration.

  1. Some regions are on top of their games

Despite being constantly challenged by increasing numbers of visitors, the tourism sector is striving and some RTOs are leading the way by being incredibly proactive and keeping an open door policy discussing a wide range of topics with industry insiders like us. One of the examples that come to mind is the stellar West Coast campaign working so well at cashing in on its hero attraction like the Glaciers or the Pancake Rocks but pairing them with other gems like the Oparara Arches, often showcasing the arches in a much bigger and better position than the glacier. Clever and efficient! Other RTOs are doing amazing jobs with campaigns, famils or operator support but we can’t name them all.

  1. Kaikoura is the place to be

Boom! Who knew that a town could rise back up that fast after such a tragedy!? We loved our time in Kaikoura and found heaps of passionate operators offering world class activities. By January the accommodation offer was back up to over 60% of what it was before and tours were going out daily. We were stoked to be the first post earthquake tourism feature and loved every second of our time there.

  1. OTAs are here to stay

The much hated Online Travel Agents, from booking.com to Expedia or Airbnb trips are getting stronger every year and are not just a fad. They make it super easy for travellers to book (and cancel) trips and that is the very thing travellers like the most. Out of all the surveys that we are running regularly, “convenience” is always a main motivator. Until we get a multi language nationwide online travel agent we are better off embracing them. OTAs are also great at supporting publishers like us, it is safe to say that we could not run a website like ours without them despite knowing that it takes NZ revenues out of New Zealand. Double edge sword much…

  1. The most successful operators are the ones that succeed in clearly articulating their point of difference

If we can leave anything with operators or accommodation providers that made it through this whole essay (congratulations!) it would be this: sit down and think real hard about what your point of difference is.

This is the most critical aspect of your communication. Your customers need to know it so they can tell their friends and it needs to be in big bold letters on your website, Facebook page, billboards, flyers… Your point of difference is what makes you unique against every other jet boat, skydive, hike, kayaking trip, etc. and is the cornerstone of your communication. Believe it or not, your location only comes second.

  1. BONUS Shoulder and off season rocks and i-SITES aren’t dead and more…

All right, I really wanted to add a few more things to our findings but this is probably is the longest piece Tourism Ticker has ever received (it sure is! – ed.) so I’ll keep it short:

When articulating a unique selling point, think about the shoulder and off-season. We are reaching capacity in the high season, it is time to all work together in extending it into the shoulder and off season. We spent a year following the shoulder season everywhere we went and seriously loved it – our readers noticed!

After hearing about a thousand times that the i-SITE was a dead man walking we’d like to raise that the decline in bookings is only the result of dislike for face-to-face bookings. Young travellers still use i-SITES to get information and collect flyers to browse before jumping online to do more research and book. Flash up your brochures and bookings will increase.

Finally, you can follow our web series on our YouTube channel that will follow our 365 days: 365 activities adventure daily. There will be some fun stuff to share, we guarantee!

So, what do we at BackpackerGuide.NZ do about the points made above?

From the inclusion of premium activities into our content to daily updates of our website, we are working hard alongside RTOs and operators to support every part of the tourism industry here in New Zealand and promote even the most remote areas. We learn every day from the success of industry members and encourage the sharing of knowledge within the industry – this helps us grow alongside the industry and be ahead of the curve to grow BackpackerGuide.NZ even bigger.

Want to chat? Contact Robin & Laura

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