EcoZip Adventures’ managing director, Gavin Oliver, on building a sustainable business with conservation at its heart, making it easy for visitors to give back, and developing campaigns to attract more domestic travellers during the shoulder seasons.
EcoZip Adventures on Waiheke Island was born in 2012 when my business partner Chris Hollister and I came to New Zealand, fell in love with the place and felt that the natural beauty on Auckland’s doorstep was somewhat unappreciated. We set about trying to remedy that with a business opportunity.
Neither of us had former tourism industry experience and, initially, we had no idea how we were going to achieve this, but we were intent on developing a business that attracted a broad demographic, got people off the tour buses and into the bush, and most importantly, had conservation at its heart.
After much research and consideration, we decided on ziplines and embarked on developing EcoZip Adventures on Waiheke Island.
We have a team of approximately 30 people during the summer months and this reduces to around 12 in winter.
EcoZip Adventures offers nature lovers and adventurers a great fun experience with incredible views as they fly over a working vineyard and forest – with vistas across Waiheke Island out to the Hauraki Gulf and Auckland City. The experience offers state-of-the-art flying-fox ziplines and an eco-immersive forest walk.
It was our intention to attract a very broad age range: people from age 8 – 88. We exceeded in that and managed to attract people from 5 – 95 years. Our customers span all levels of physical ability.
We recently ensured that a woman diagnosed with MS was able to get out there and enjoy the ziplining experience with her walking frame when needed. We’re not about turning people away, we’re about empowering people.
We attract a lot of families and groups. We recently had 4 generations of one family celebrating their grandmother’s 85thbirthday.
As part of our conservation ethic and our commitment to being a truly sustainable business, we have partnered with the Waiheke Resources Trust to help plant native trees across the island.
We offer our customers the ability to donate towards purchasing the native trees when they make a booking with us. When we switched on the ability to donate, within hours visitors were buying trees. I was blown away by the response. Many visitors want to do their bit for the environment and contribute where they can – making it easy for them to do so is really paying off.
When we started the business, we were seeing 80% domestic and 20% international visitors, now we are seeing a 50/50 split.
Our main markets are Australia, North America, the UK and Northern Europe. We’re also seeing some growth in Chinese and Korean visitors.
There are challenges for us attracting more Asian visitors as Waiheke used to be considered primarily a wine-tourism destination; a perception that’s slowly changing. Also, a lot of Chinese visitors when they decide to visit New Zealand, target just the South Island. So that’s one of the challenges for our region, to attract more visitors from these markets.
Until a few years ago Waiheke Island was mostly vineyards and baches. As the tourism industry has developed there are a lot more operators offering activities and experiences, which has made a difference to the type of people that come here.
Our biggest challenge, as reflected in the wider industry, is seasonality. In the depths of winter, it is tough. We have a full-time team of staff we need to pay and that’s a challenge. Having said that, we’ve been very successful in strengthening the shoulder seasons through campaign work we’ve done, specifically targeting domestic travellers.
With 1.6 million Aucklanders residing 17 km away, some of which have never been out into the Hauraki Gulf, the domestic market is very important to us. Our campaign work helped us break records for our business with what have traditionally been ‘cost recovery months’ becoming profitable. We’re continuing to invest in these campaigns and are seeing encouraging results.
We are very fortunate that 65% of our business comes direct. The OTA market has been growing at a rapid rate, and whilst we’ve seen some of the traditional channels – the likes of wholesalers and retail partners – holding firm, we’ve also seen exponential growth in the OTA sector. That comes at a cost because they demand high commission rates, but with a strong digital strategy, the CTA comes down.
OTA’s bring significant reach and when you’re a small business like us with a relatively modest marketing budget, there’s a limited amount we can do in our own right.
We’ve partnered with Viator and they enable reach we could never achieve on your own. We were fortunate that they took a chance on us on as a supplier when we were a very new business. We do a lot with them and have a brilliant relationship.
The same is true with Booking.com who are moving more into the activity space. They’re responsive, move quickly, get things done and do what they say they’re going to do – so I’m not against paying their commissions.
The business has seen huge growth over the last few years and winning the TECNZ Small Business Operator of the Year award in 2018 gave us a great deal of visibility that possibly we hadn’t had before.
About 5 or 6 years ago, we spoke to an ITO and explained that we’d been trying to work with them and not getting a huge amount of traction. They responded saying they were inundated with new product and wanted to see evidence of our business longevity before working with us. It was a case of having to prove ourselves before establishing ITO working relationships and took a long time.
So now, when people say ‘look at what you’ve achieved – you’ve done so well,’ I remind them that it has taken years and years to become an overnight success.
Gavin Oliver spoke to Jane King for this column. If you’d like to contribute to our An Operator’s View column, contact email@example.com.
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