An Operator’s View: Heletranz’s Sofia Ambler

Sofia Ambler

Heletranz’s co-owner Sofia Ambler tells the Ticker how she went from trading stocks to selling dreams, her company’s recent expansion, and how its new Instrument Flight Rules service is helping inbound tour operators.

Auckland-based Heletranz reaches 30 years old next year and the business ranges from pre-purchased hours flying, shorter hops to locations like Waiheke Island for anniversaries or weddings, to $199 for individuals on sightseeing group flights. These are all very important for the business but our biggest focus in terms of growth at the moment is the high-end tourism market.

We recently launched our Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) service, which allows us to fly in about 95% of weather conditions including darkness, and that has been a great investment for us. Most of our really high net worth clients have had the IFR service internationally for a very long time but there has not been any availability here in the NZ tourism space. We here in NZ tend to think it is pretty special but of course many of our clients don’t see it as that, they just assume it is available.

However, it has not been cheap to implement. First of all, you have to get your pilots rated so they have to fly a number of hours IFR in the machine, which can cost several thousand dollars an hour to run, and then you have to keep your pilots up-to-date so they are training throughout the year.

It has been quite expensive but it is turning out to have been very worthwhile now especially with the poor weather we have had. It has been great for our customers of course but it is the inbound tour operators who work with us who have probably benefitted the most.

Before, we may have had clients planning to fly from Kauri Cliffs in Northland to Wharekauhau in Wellington but if the weather is bad, they would be facing a two-day road trip as opposed to a three-hour flight. All of sudden the whole itinerary becomes unfeasible and you have clients stuck in a location and inbound tour operators missing out. IFR gives us a much better chance at making that connection despite the weather, and it gives our customers some assurance that they will be able to do what they came here to do.

We believe the high net worth market is going to grow bigger and bigger and with the America’s Cup coming to Auckland we will see a lot more of that type of client visiting New Zealand in the years ahead.

When we took over the business in 2013 it had two helicopters and now it has six and we have only just completed our new hangar. Following that expansion, we want to focus on fine-tuning the business to ensure we know where the biggest opportunities lie for us.

I’m Swedish and I met my husband, NZ pilot John Ambler, in Hong Kong. We had lived 12 years in Hong Kong and three years in Stockholm but we ended up buying Heletranz off Tony and Julie Monk in 2013 and moving to NZ with our three daughters.

I had always been in banking so Heletranz and New Zealand was all very new. The learning curve has been very steep but it has also been a lot of fun. After all, it is such a fun product to sell when I compare it to selling stocks, which is what I used to do. And I just love New Zealand – it is such a great place to able to come up the ultimate dream holiday for clients, in conjunction with my inbound tour partners, which is basically my job now.

New Zealand has become a real bucket list destination for the very wealthy for a number of reasons. You can have a very tailored experience here that no-one else has had, which is possible because NZ has so much to offer. NZ is also perceived as a very safe country compared to other parts of the world at the moment. And, of course, that clean green ‘100% Pure’ image is a very big attraction and Tourism New Zealand is doing a great job at promoting the country as a premium destination.

Our clients want to have very authentic NZ experiences. They don’t come here to see golden door knobs and marble tops – they can get that in Dubai or Paris or London. They come to NZ for real experiences so although they might be spending relatively a lot of money, plenty of it will go to, say, a specialist trout fisherman. They are not only benefiting the providers of some higher end services, they are also benefiting those who are providing extraordinary, authentic NZ experiences, whether it is fishing, cycling, golf or food and wine.

Having said that, sometimes the very kiwi “she’ll be right” attitude rubs up against the very, very high end when maybe a bigger hunger for doing an excellent job could be there. To be fair, that can often be part of the charm of visiting NZ but you can get some rather demanding clients in this part of the market and our responses to their requirements could at times be a little more refined.

That could have something to do with the fact that the service sector is not seen as a career in NZ as it is in other parts of the world. I use a lot concierges who do a wonderful job but it is often seen as a stepping stone for people keen to move onto the front desk or into the marketing department. If you look at New York, London or Paris, that role is a career in itself and people are climbing that ladder and seeking to excel. There are just not as many options here in NZ, which presents a challenge.

Most of our high net worth clients are Americans, followed by Swiss and Germans. China is a growing market but we are yet got to the stage where we feel we need Mandarin-speaking staff but we are looking now at more collaboration and designing a proper strategy for that market.

One thing we could have possibly done a little differently when we started was not take as much on ourselves when it came to growing the business. Because we were new business owners we did not really understand what we could delegate and what we could concentrate on to be able to really add value. In hindsight, I would have liked to have put more of a structure or strategy in place for growth. Of course, I did not really understand the business well enough then to know what that structure or strategy would actually look like.

Also, don’t sweat the small stuff. When things do not go your way, big or small, you do not always have to take it personally. I am a lot better now at not taking things to heart and accepting that something has happened and next time I will respond differently.

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