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An adventure in social media

New Zealand is sold as an adventure destination but too often delivers a party-bus result. Ryan Sanders stops the gap, and does it using ICT and social media.

In October, Sanders won the 2010 PATA Young Tourism Entrepreneur award for his company Haka Tours, which takes small groups on adventure tours around New Zealand (think skiing, snowboarding, surfing, sky diving, diving, bungy jumping ... ). With an annual turnover of about $1.5 million, Haka Tours’ main markets are the UK and Australia, where Sanders says the name is instantly recognisable. “Everyone knows what a haka is, and it’s synonymous with New Zealand.”

Sanders created Haka Tours with no experience in the tourism industry. In fact, he started out playing professional rugby overseas, but a snapped Achilles tendon put paid to any sporting ambitions. The subsequent desk job soon palled, so to get the adrenalin pumping again, Sanders set up a New Zealand adventure tourism company on the side.

That meant clocking up 90-plus hours a week as he ran Haka Tours remotely from the UK for 16 months, slowly expanding the operation until it was profitable enough for him to return home in 2008. The tours attract 25- to 35-year-olds who enjoy the company of likeminded adventurers but are anxious to avoid party-bus-style travel (some 70 percent are solo travellers).

“They’re a highly active bunch of people and that’s where I see the gap in the market,” says Sanders. “They’re sick of the party booze-bus mentality. These are very much exploratory tours with jam-packed itineraries.”

Sanders sees quite a future for “instructional tourism” where visitors learn new skills such as skiing, snowboarding or surfing. “The great thing about the snow version is that it reduces the seasonality of our adventure tourism product, which is quite key for us.”

The company’s Rugby World Cup tours combine adventure tourism with a selection of pool games and it looks as if the rugby-themed trips will have a shelf life well past 2011. A 30-strong group of American rugby players unable to come during the World Cup have booked to attend the tri-nations competition instead. A deal to bring South African school rugby teams to tour New Zealand is on the cards, and there’s a growing demand for adventure tours for school groups from the US, Australia and South East Asia.

Corporate work is trickling in, too. In 2009, Haka Tours hosted award-winning Asian action show Dare Devils. Over the course of a month contestants and crew visited 12 locations, and Sanders is hopeful the show will return. Another lucrative contract was the Quiksilver brand, which had Haka Tours create a customised snow tour so it could photograph ten top professional European snowboarders for the next season’s product range.

Virtually all of this success was achieved without any promotion through travel agencies, wholesalers or print media advertising.

Clever online promotions have been a feature of the company’s business strategy from the getgo: for example, Haka Tours was launched the in the UK with a YouTube-based search for Britain’s craziest student, in a bid to feed off the popularity of the madcap Jackass TV series and movies. The promo was highly successful, responsible for about 50 percent of the British customers who booked with Haka Tours during its first six months, and garnering positive media coverage.

Haka Tours is also very active on Facebook, where it runs promos such as the photography competition with a free snow tour as first prize. Entrants had to upload their best snowboard or ski picture and get as many likes as possible. “The winner had 600 friends who liked his picture, which meant the news feed on Facebook was showing Haka Tours to all his friends—and all their associated friends.”

Sanders and his guides friend clients on Facebook, a personal touch he says is important. “A lot of customers follow my private Twitter group accounts as well. I definitely see that’s where tourism is going, people transacting with people. Everything we do has an online focus and is socialmedia driven.”

Last year Sanders opened Haka Lodge in Christchurch, the first of at least three smaller boutique-style backpacker lodges catering for his tours. To publicise the venture, he posted walk-through videos of the lodge on Facebook and invited past clients to suggest names for the guest rooms.

Just before Christmas, Haka Tours invested $60,000 in a new website, which handles 90 percent of bookings, and Sanders is proud of the fact that only five percent of customers make phone contact. He says the live chat function on the website allows potential clients to directly question staff and believes people accustomed to texting and emailing feel more comfortable communicating that way, plus there is the advantage of being able to send them links they can bring up on screen.

A unique feature of the online booking system is that clients can pre-book and pre-pay for activities prior to departure, earning a five percent discount.

“Normally you have to pre-book with the activity supplier or book on the road when you are on tour, but we want to give our customers the option of better budget control and the ability to manage their holiday themselves. We find the average customer is pre-booking and paying for 7.8 activities before departing on their tour.”

Early on in the business, Sanders was mentored by Susan Basterfield, former managing director of bungy pioneers AJ Hackett International, who says Sanders taught her as much she taught him.

“Ryan’s use of ICT and specifically social media has set a benchmark. I’m not aware of any other tour company that uses these tools with such relevance and currency. I’ve used the Haka Tours model with other clients as an example of how to utilise these Web 2.0 tools as a viable marketing strategy.”

Amanda Cropp is a Christchurch-based writer