Catherine Beard traces the origins of Haka Tours and discovers a tourism business forged on digital marketing.
When Ryan Sanders found himself in a well-paid corporate job that he did not enjoy, instead of putting up with it he turned his passion for travel into what is now a thriving, award-winning export business.
“I decided to start my own business as I was really struggling with the lack of autonomy and accountability in my corporate role in the UK,” says Ryan. “I have always been a keen traveller, and I’d done a mixture of self-guided trips and guided tours.
“My biggest frustration about guided tours was that you paid one fixed price and did everything everyone else was doing. You may only like two or three of the inclusions and not be happy about the others, but you’ve paid for them – they didn’t really cater for your needs.
“So when I set up Haka Tours I was aiming to solve that frustration by offering a flexible, pick-and-mix type model where you choose a base tour that includes transport, accommodation, breakfast and tour guide – then you can pick and choose activities that you can bolt on. This is a world first and includes a lot of variables, so the first thing I had to do was build my own booking software from scratch.”
Ryan bootstrapped the start-up with an investment of £20,000 from his savings.
“After devising a business plan and hiring a company to set up the website, I flew back to New Zealand, bought a small tour bus and hired a tour manager, then flew back to the UK and did all the customer service and operational stuff remotely. Even to this day we have an online customer service model.”
He supported the business remotely until he had the confidence to relocate back to New Zealand in May 2008 and work on Haka Tours full-time.
“It’s definitely true that the biggest risk with a new business is cashflow. Setting up Haka Tours cost so much more than I thought, so I kept my job with the Royal Bank of Scotland for the first year.”
Today, Haka Tours has 80 employees. The company is now integrating with an upmarket hostel brand called Haka Lodge, with several locations across New Zealand and plans to open another five. They have also just entered some big brand partnerships, such as the ones with Nitro Snowboards and Torpedo7.
“The biggest lesson was in taking an integrated approach,” says Ryan. “It’s not just about leveraging the power of digital marketing, but also combining that with some brand partnerships and local representation. We’re placing business development managers in locations around the world. So we’re taking a multi-pronged approach – digital, on-the-ground representation and major brand partnerships.
“Our pick-and-mix marketing model is quite tricky to communicate so to overcome that challenge we really leverage the power of video.
“We perceive ourselves as much a digital marketing company as a tourism company.”
They are obviously succeeding in both respects – in the 2016 NZ Innovation Awards Haka Tours was judged best marketing and communications company. Haka Tours was also a finalist in the Best Emerging Business and Excellence in Marketing categories in this year’s NZ International Business Awards.
Catherine Beard is executive director of ExportNZ.