The Lowdown on the Lockdown brings you a regular take from a tourism professional exploring new ways of working, sharing what life now looks like for them and just how much Covid-19 has changed what they do.
The Big Foody tour company founder Elle Armon-Jones, who also runs Vineyard Cottage in Auckland, on shutting up shop in a weekend, grieving for what was and changing mindsets.
How have the last few weeks been for you? What was business like heading into lockdown?
We’d had the biggest year for The Big Foody to date. We had tours running in the Bay of Islands, Napier, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin and great teams around the country doing an incredible job of promoting the culinary scene in NZ and then it just stopped.
As well as The Big Foody, my husband and I have a hospitality business in Auckland called Vineyard Cottages and our late summer and autumn was full with bookings for weddings and events, which all cancelled in one weekend.
And how have you been settling into lockdown life?
The first couple of weeks were hard. Having spent all summer in full-blown operational mode, it always takes a couple of days to switch off but it took a couple of weeks before I stopped waking up thinking, “must do this”.
Now, to be honest I’m loving it. I’ve had some time to write, think and plan. There was a bit of grieving for what was but now I’m seeing the opportunities and looking towards them.
What are the priorities that you are focusing on right now?
Adapting the companies. We’ve been internationally focused for a long time and we’ve got lots to offer locals, so there is a mindset switch around the opportunities to be more diverse.
Auckland’s Kumeu wine region has some great offerings and bringing them all together as a one-stop-shop for people wanting a weekend away, once lockdown is relaxed, is really important. Our winter focus at Vineyard Cottages had traditionally been meetings and conferences, so we’re thinking of other ways of bringing people to us, using the time to survey our previous guests and finding out what are the bits to really focus on. I’m also on a mission for the perfect cookie recipe!
How are you communicating with your team? Do you have regular conference calls, video chats?
Those around the country, we’re chatting regularly and having the odd virtual coffee. Most are contractors who had other jobs too so there is lots to talk about. What has been lovely is the support they have all provided back. There is a real love for what we do and the people we work with, so it’s important to believe that will carry us through.
And how are you keeping up morale through this difficult time?
Am I allowed to say Chardonnay? I’ve finally got that “We’re all in this together” High School Musical song out of my head, so that’s been a huge relief for the seven of us here. There are lots of laughs and we’re all working on different projects.
All the things that get put into the ‘jobs for winter’ category have been done and I’m spending some time each week looking at new technology opportunities and how to streamline systems. We’re planning events for Vineyard Cottages and giving some of our Big Foody tours a much-needed reboot.
Can you tell us a bit about your bubble? What do you get up to in order to keep spirits up?
My parents are here from the UK and I have three team members living with us at Vineyard Cottages, so there are seven of us living in our bubble. Everyone has been worried about their families in France, the USA and the UK, so it’s been important that we had something to focus on.
We started a virtual tour of the country on my aged exercise bike. Everyone does kms a day and we’re blogging on our social media and websites. Lots of people from around the world are joining in which is great fun. Luckily my husband has worked from home for much of his career so he commandeered the lodge office and locks himself away daily. I’m switching between a cottage, the house and the conference room depending on the day – we’re lucky to have a lot of land to move around and exercise in.
Have you got any personal goals that you are hoping to achieve while in lockdown?
Learn to relax a bit. Summer is always so nuts, so just winding down and enjoying some compulsory downtime. I think people have said it before but it’s been such a blur that I’ve only now found some routine.
I did start making bread daily, then starting eating half of it daily too. That all stopped pretty quickly. I’m a great lecturer in the benefits of eating right, meditating, giving yourself some time every day – so now I’m finally doing it!
What will business look like for you once restrictions lift?
To be honest I’m not sure. We can reboot pretty much instantly, but without guests we’ll hibernate for a month or so and then look at The Big Foody tours for late winter. I’ve looked back over my notebooks from 10 years ago when I first started and the dream was always to show New Zeland off through people’s tastebuds. That is still the number one long term goal.
My priority now is to get Vineyard Cottages buzzing. It’s an easy place to fill and fall in love with so I’m looking forward to seeing our guests coming out when they can. I’m working with some other operators to get some packages ready, so there is some turnkey product ready to sell.
Have you got any messages of support for the industry that you would like to share?
As an import, I stayed in New Zealand because of the Kiwi can-do attitude and that’s what will shine through. It’s time to rally around each other, be a community – not competition, and be ready to fling those doors open to the world at the right time.
If you’d like to contribute to our Lowdown on the Lockdown series, contact the Ticker’s Shannon Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.