Buy Side/Sell Side: Whale Watch’s Lisa Bond

Whale Watch Kaikoura’s marketing manager, Lisa Bond, on getting the business back on its feet following last year’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake, coping with a crippled marina for a year, and the company’s recovery strategy for the summer ahead.

Lisa Bond

After the earthquake struck the word from the top of the company was family first. There were also around 1,000 guests here in Kaikoura so the focus was also looking after them – making sure they were provided for, and getting them out. Once we knew everyone was safe, we started to consider the damage to the marina and the coastline rising, and what that meant for the business.

Phone and email communication was non-existent for the start and then patchy. After about four days we got access to email which meant two things – we saw all the messages from all our industry partners making sure we were ok which was overwhelming, and we were able to start conveying some kind of message back to industry and to customers.

Where we had customer details we would call or email them direct to let them know what had happened. Our reservations team worked some very long hours and there was a lot of paperwork managing this process, however we didn’t have to manage refunds for all the bookings as payment is often taken at the time of arrival not booking.

We were also working with our agents and Inbound Tour Operators who also had to manage this process – they lost hundreds of bookings – as did we.

In the meantime we were also trying to figure out what we could do operationally. We had been out around day five and discovered that the marine life was unharmed and had stayed in the water – this was such a joyous moment.

However our four boats, which we normally loaded in the water, were sitting on dry land and we could only use them at high tide. We had one trailer so the decision was to revert back to what we did in the early years at Whale Watch and load people onto the boat while it was on a trailer.

The business that used to operate four boats on up to four trips each a day – up to 800 people a day in summer – was reduced to one boat of 48 people. And even then it could only go out at high tide which, depending on the time, meant a maximum of three trips a day – although that was rare.

We took our first trip five weeks after the earthquake and operated like this for 11 months – running around 80% below capacity on a flexible schedule that changed with the tides. We would send out a monthly schedule to industry including iSites and tour operators, but it was always subject to change.

Communication has played a major role in trying to manage the business over this time. We also got great advice and support from Christchurch Airport and Christchurch NZ about what worked for them – and what didn’t – which helped us make some key decision early on.

We very quickly initiated a weekly update which I would write and put on all our social media platforms – and send to our database which included the likes of ITOs, RTOs, Tourism New Zealand and tour operators every Monday to let people know what was happening.

Everyone was so patient and so supportive – we can’t thank them enough. Operators from Christchurch such as Hassle Free Tours and Intercity and Canterbury Leisure Tours, for example, worked in with us which meant they had to move their timetable around all the time but they were so great at bringing guests to us which kept us going at times.

Tourism New Zealand was fantastic at communicating to all of the agents we work with overseas and keeping them informed about what was going on.

Another key decision was to double down on the domestic market. Given the lead-in time for overseas visitors to plan their trips and with us not able to give any long-term certainty around the dates roads would open and our trip schedule it made sense. Even when the road was open we couldn’t rely on getting 80% of our business from the international market like we are used to.

We also realised that come the summer people are going to be curious once those roads are open – people from Nelson, Marlborough, the West Coast and Canterbury – people are going to want to drive that new highway.

On November 1, we just launched a two-month digital campaign in Nelson, Marlborough, Wellington and Canterbury through Stuff. We’re also launching a four-week radio campaign and have billboards at Wellington and Christchurch airports through to April. We have collectively invested from $75,000 – $100,000 in the campaign – and had great support from the advertising and media companies – and are hoping people will come and stay and spend time with us.

Alongside this we have still been active in the international market making sure we communicate what is going on to every market that we could. We have gone to all the events we would normally attend and added more to the schedule – I have had one of the busiest travel years of my life.

My colleague and I have covered India, North America, South America, South East Asia and China and we have just finished doing visits to all the iSites and seeing ITOs in Auckland. We have wanted to share openly where we are at and what it looks like heading into summer.

We are also planning ahead to next year when we will go in-market to places we haven’t been for awhile – such as the UK and Europe. They are one of our biggest markets although we haven’t had to do much there lately, but now we are seeing the importance of face-to-face we will get out there.

Its only in the last few week that we have returned to a fixed schedule and we have got our other three boats back from being moored in Wellington. Now, with the marina opening, and having a date of 15 December for the opening of State Highway 1 to the north, we can look forward to summer with some certainty.

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