Serial travel entrepreneur, Jerry Bridge, on setting up his New Zealand-centric venture 18 months ago, his plans to expand into Australia and the best way to tackle the American visitor market.
I have a long history in the travel sector having founded my first travel business, Bridge the World, in 1989 in London, selling worldwide flights and holidays. When I sold it in 2002 it had close to US$100m of annual turnover and employed 150 people.
In 2004, I launched my second travel company, Bridge and Wickers, this time specialising in tailor-made luxury holidays to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. I went on to sell it to the Ultimate Travel Company in 2012 and exited the business completely in June 2016.
I now live in Wellington and have teamed up with House of Travel co-founder Lindsay Barron to launch a new venture, New Zealand Vacations. We set it up around 18 months ago and specialise in selling NZ self-drive itineraries to the North American market.
Lindsay has a brilliant, comprehensive, travel background – different to my skills – so it made sense for us to work together. He is married to an American and now lives most of the year in Santa Barbara.
And, of course, there are more travel routes from the US to New Zealand now with Air New Zealand flying to Houston, plus United and American Airlines have opened up routes from California to New Zealand.
One look at Tourism New Zealand’s statistics shows a growing number of people from America wanting to travel to NZ and Australia. This has led to our decision to expand into Australia. We aim to launch Australian Vacations in December 2017, which is very exciting.
Our target market is not purely the luxury customer, they’re more the mid-to-top end. The average durations of our customer’s holidays are 10 days, because they don’t have long holidays in the US. Our clients might therefore request a few nights in a luxury lodge experience in NZ, but are also happy to book three and four-star boutique B&B or hotel accommodation.
We always ask our customers what their interests are. Food and wine for example or scenery, or is it a family vacation or for a special occasion. Perhaps it’s meeting local people and experiencing Māori culture.
Unlike Brits, who have long holidays and will make a conscious decision to just go to Australia or NZ, there is a proportion of Americans who will try to see both countries in one trip. This means they will do one country “properly” but then bolt-on a three to five-day stopover in Sydney or Auckland for example.
Educating Americans about travel time to NZ is a bit of a challenge. A lot of Americans don’t have passports, hardly know NZ, and haven’t a clue how long it takes to get here. Having said that, Americans on the West Coast would have an idea that it is a direct flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco or Vancouver and they would hazard a guess that flight is 15 or 16 hours, when it is actually less than that.
Those on the East Coast – New York and Florida – might be forgiven for thinking they need to go to London to get to NZ, so that’s an obstacle as well. And for them you have to bolt-on an internal flight, so for the whole trip with transfers, you’re looking at 20 hours. If they say, well isn’t that about the same as flying from London to Perth, the answer has to be ‘yes’.
However, NZ is regarded as a beautiful and safe destination. It’s high on the wish-list. It’s just that the percentage of the population that is travel savvy and knows a little bit about NZ and Australia is small.
But we’re trying to improve that. We work with both Tourism New Zealand and Tourism Australia and piggy-back off the back of their campaigns. And we work with New Zealand companies in California that are associated with wine distribution or the meat industry. Trying to tap into the databases of companies like that, with affluent people interested in our holidays, is all part of the marketing mix.
I’m from the old school of tour operating so I like the wine and food and luxury lodges of NZ. Lindsay, on the other hand, is much more into promoting the cycling trails and fantastic walks in Australia and NZ. So we are trying to push those products, but we have to bear in mind that most of the people from America haven’t been to NZ before so you can’t go too far down the line of weird and wonderful product as you might lose out on making the booking if you over-complicate the options.
It’s often just about hitting the high-profile spots and experiences like the Māori culture in Rotorua, Lord of the Rings tours, Hawkes Bay for wine and Queenstown and Milford Sound for scenery and adventure. A high percentage of our customers do both North and South Island, as it’s a long way to come so they want to do both.
We keep in touch with the market by attending trade show like TRENZ and the Australian Tourism Exchange We work with Inbound Tour Operators as well – having good lines of communication is essential.
Being able to make bookings for product without having to negotiate direct with every supplier is essential – we’re only a small business, although we’re growing, we need as much help as we can to book as many products as possible and you can’t do it all direct.
The trade shows are very important to cement existing relationships, and to forge new relationships with suppliers, although you can’t please everyone. But you do your best.