An Operator’s View: Rotorua Canopy Tours’ James Fitzgerald

Rotorua Canopy Tours won three New Zealand Tourism Awards last year. Image: Rotorua Canopy Tours

Rotorua Canopy Tours’ co-founder and general manager, James Fitzgerald, tells the Ticker how winning three gongs at last year’s New Zealand Tourism Awards, including the Supreme Award, led to an immediate impact on the business, an opportunity to explore abroad, and how it helped propel the company to its next phase of growth.

James Fitzgerald

The media exposure was massive and the impact on the business was immediate. The awards were on a Thursday and I got back to Rotorua on Saturday in the middle of the school holidays. Already, the business was booked out for three or four days in advance.

There were families just standing around. They had read about us winning the awards in the newspaper and had driven up from Taranaki or from the Hawke’s Bay to come and experience it. Unfortunately, they just could not get on the ride because we were so booked.

It carried on like that until February, right through the domestic high season. Interestingly, we had very slow international growth through the first part of the summer, until the capacity freed up about four months after the awards. It was amazing, it really flipped the business on its head.

Of course, we had not geared up for that sort of demand, we had not staffed for it, so we ended up having to say sorry to a lot of people

Aside from the media exposure and the brand building, there was also a real re-energising to take the business to the next level. Prior to that, we had gone through a bit of a four-year lull. We were a business that was doing well and we were probably a little bit complacent. Winning the awards made us think, ‘we are sitting on this massive opportunity and there is no better time to go into phase two of this business’. So, it gave us a bit of a mental rejuvenation to get on with the next phase of the business.

From a staffing point of view, we had a glorious run into summer last year. Tourism businesses can struggle with staffing and we need people who can build a relationship over three hours with small groups so it is really important we get recruitment right. After the awards, the right people just seemed to drop out of the sky. People who had come out of the outdoor schools, and had just the right amount of experience, were asking us if we had any jobs. That had never happened before.

The Air New Zealand prize – international air travel valued at $10,000 + GST –  enabled us to go up to the USA for nearly a month. We went to visit all of the most innovative adventure tourism and customer service focused visitor businesses. The zipline business is massive up there as well and I took a whole lot of learnings from what is happening there around service, adding value and other revenue streams. I would never have done that without the prize.

It has been a massive year. The interesting question will be in 2022/23 when you can ask, what did winning the awards in 2016 do for your business? That’s because the benefits and their outcomes are still in their infancy, they are still playing out. For example, our new attraction next year is a direct result of the awards but it is not open yet.

I think it is going to be a five-year burn although I just spoke to Dive! Tutukaka, who won the Supreme Award 11 years ago, and they said it just keeps going, people don’t forget.

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