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Bringing the world south: meet the teams taking part in the first-ever Lightning Lab Tourism in Christchurch

There seems to be more sector-specific start-up accelerators these days than there are flavours of ice cream. We’re not just talking about your run-of-the-mill tech programmes. We’re talking FinTech. GovTech. Energy. The list could go on for quite some time, if we’re being honest.

At the same time, tourism generates about $107 million for the New Zealand economy per day, according to Tourism Industry Aotearoa figures from Stats NZ – that adds up to nearly $40 billion ($39.1 billion if you want to be more precise) per year. No matter how you look at it, that’s an enormous amount of money – money which doesn’t just have to be limited to ginormous mega-corporations or entities that might not have New Zealand’s, and the environment’s, best interests at heart.

So what happens when you marry an innovative accelerator programme with the massive New Zealand tourism industry, along with the give-it-a-go, No. 8 wire spirit of innovation we’re famous for? Why, something like Lightning Lab Tourism, of course.

At least, that’s part of the thinking behind it. Run as other Lightning Lab programmes are by Creative HQ – and supported by Callaghan Innovation, Christchurch International Airport, Tourism Industry Aotearoa, Air New Zealand, Centrality, ChristchurchNZ, the Department of Conservation, Data Ventures, MYOB, Qrious, Amadeus, AWS, Deloitte and Simmonds Stewart – applications for the three-month accelerator programme opened up back in January. Hosted by Christchurch International Airport, the programme itself runs until August.

Out of nearly 70 applications received, six separate teams will be taking part, each doing something innovative in the tourism space in the Land of the Long White Cloud. The teams are: Road Guru (connecting local drivers and guides with visitors), PowerTrip (integrating electric vehicles into the tourism industry), Stay Native (sharing authentic indigenous experiences), Hidden Gems (an A to Z catalogue of spots that make Christchurch such a unique place to visit), AirGuides (a marketplace where travellers can book trips, curated by vetted writers, bloggers and local experts), CHU NZ (explores the use of sustainable facilities for road-trippers), Tourism Ticker (media, data and analysis service providing insights to the tourism industry). 

These six start-ups will also be joined by two industry project teams: SOUTH Project (supported by Christchurch International Airport and Air New Zealand, focusing on bringing better visitor flow insights to regional tourism offices and operators) and the Voluntourism project (supported by the Ministry of Business, Employment and Innovation, and which develops volunteer-oriented tourism opportunities that could change the face of tourism in Aotearoa).

For the programme itself, the participating teams will work directly with tourism industry partners and practise market validation and product development methods used by companies like Google, IDEO and Tesla. They’ll also be provided with full wrap-around support from start-up coaches, business leaders, advisors and mentors to help validate and grow their businesses.

Then, in August, each team will have the opportunity to pitch to their supporters and the broader tourism sector in a Demo Day event that’s slated to take place at the new Christchurch Town Hall. Teams seeking investment will also get to present to some of the top angel investors and early-stage venture funds in the country in a separate investor-only event.

Naturally, Jeffrey Ling, Lightning Lab Tourism’s programme director, has high hopes for what could come out of the first iteration of the programme – and is especially excited that it’s taking place in Christchurch.

“Tourism is one of NZ’s biggest industries and tourism operators are some of the most innovative, adventurous people in NZ,” says Ling. “I’m excited to come back to Christchurch – my former home of ten years – to help this very capable cohort test, validate, and ultimately grow their businesses.”

Callaghan Innovation, New Zealand’s innovation agency, is a foundation partner of the tourism accelerator. Max Thompson who oversees its start-up programmes, says there is a pressing need for tourism businesses in New Zealand to transform and adapt. “What the average traveller demands is changing at speed, while disruptive technologies are turning old models upside down.”

Thompson says more.

“Lightning Lab Tourism will help the industry thrive with a stronger pipeline of start-ups that bring innovative solutions to market. There is also a real opportunity to re-engage both tourists and Kiwis with some of our often-overlooked places with rich history.” With New Zealand continuing to remain a bucket-list destination for countless people around the world, it would seem the opportunities are nearly as limitless as there are trees in Fiordland… or cheeky keas about to run off with bits of the rubber frames of automobile windows. 

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