Before it was used as the location for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, New Zealand was an unknown quantity for many North American travelers. The destination is hoping the The Hobbit, now being shot in New Zealand, will garner the same kind of exposure the trilogy did.
Despite greater awareness, the long-haul destination is “not an easy sell,” according to Gregg Anderson, general manager of Western long-haul markets (North America and Europe) for Tourism New Zealand. Anderson spoke with Travel Market Report about how travel agents can overcome client concerns and what they need to know to sell the destination.
What new tourism developments in New Zealand should travel agents know about?
Anderson: In the last few years we haven’t seen a lot of new development, particularly through the recession, but we’re coming out of that now. The news includes Minaret Station, New Zealand’s first luxury tented camp located at the head of a glacial valley in the Southern Alps. The Te Araroa Trail, a national walking track travels the length of New Zealand. Also new, the New Zealand Cycle Trail, or Nga Haerenga, is designed to showcase the best of the country. Three of 19 proposed trails are now open.
Set to open March 1, the Rendezvous Hotel is the first of Christchurch’s central city hotels to reopen following last February’s earthquake. These are all positive signs, combined with additional air service. United has announced a new direct flight from Houston to Auckland to start in late 2012.
How can agents capitalize on these developments to sell New Zealand?
Anderson: The new range of products are a good opportunity for agents to sell – and upsell – New Zealand. Agents want to be able to tell clients what’s new and what’s different, particularly in the upper end and luxury segment which is performing well for us.
In November  the Society of American Travel Writers held its annual convention in Wellington. The exposure from articles that grow out of that event represents opportunities for agents. They can be ready when clients see those stories with new and different New Zealand products.
How can agents make the best use of New Zealand’s new website?
Anderson: Our consumer web site, www.newzealand.com, was re-launched late last June. It has changed from being a very traditional site – just about information and listings – to an interactive format. It’s sort of like a Wikipedia site; people can upload articles, make comments, add contacts. Agents can post an article about New Zealand, for instance, and tag it back to their website. That’s a great opportunity for agents to see some of that interest come back to them.
Agents can also get involved with the site by becoming a Kiwi Specialist – that will get them a listing on the site – and by working with us in putting special offers on the site.
What markets should agents target for New Zealand?
Anderson: Upscale/luxury travelers, cruise clients and several special interest niches including fly fishing and walking, are all doing all right. There are still plenty of people out there with money. This year we’re also seeing a lot more interest from cruise lines due to their desire to increase their portfolios with new destinations and to the strength of the Australian/New Zealand market.
Young travelers are a large part of our market. Thirty-five percent of our U.S. visitors are under 35 and 18% are under 24. The education market is also important. These visitors spend a semester in New Zealand. Probably a lot of these young travelers book online. However, we’re seeing a multi-generational aspect in this market as their parents often come to New Zealand to visit them.
What is New Zealand’s appeal for U.S. travelers?
Anderson: New Zealand is all about scenery and the natural environment first. It’s also a relatively safe, English-speaking and American-friendly place.
How should agents address concerns about price and distance?
Anderson: Flights to New Zealand from the West Coast leave at night; you get onboard, eat something, and wake up in New Zealand the next day. But because you’re crossing the international dateline, people don’t realize it’s about the same flight time to Europe. The East Coast to New Zealand is a bit longer but I recommend to agents that clients stop in Fiji, Tahiti or the Cook Islands to break up the trip.
Airfares to New Zealand generally will probably always be higher than to Europe; that’s the effect of competition with so many more carriers to Europe. But the important thing is comparing apples to apples when you look at the total cost of a New Zealand itinerary versus one for Europe. Agents need to compare the cost, say, for a 10-day New Zealand vacation with airfare and accommodation versus the same 10 days to Europe. The prices come out similar and, in many cases, lower for New Zealand.
What advice do you have for agents selling New Zealand?
Anderson: The first thing is for agents to overcome objections based on distance and cost. Agents should look at ways to add value. There are a lot of products in New Zealand that involve passes for different times of the year. Once you really work on this issue, you can find ways to deal with cost.
Agents also need to study the destination and work with a good wholesaler, a specialist or inbound operator with good advice on putting together an itinerary. It’s not an easy sell, but do your homework and work with the experts. The first-time visitor to New Zealand is an experienced international traveler, so agents should look at clients they’ve sent to Europe and then suggest New Zealand. Fifty percent of our visitors also travel to Australia. If you have clients going to Australia, suggest visiting New Zealand on the way home.
How has the slow U.S. economy affected travel to New Zealand?
Anderson: U.S. arrivals are down for the year from November 2010 to November 2011 by 4%, from a total of nearly 192,000 visitors in 2010 to nearly 185,000 visitors in 2011.
We have a range of partnership programs with retail, wholesale and airline partners throughout 2012 to address this combined with the enhanced promotional profile from the Society of American Travel Writers and The Hobbit.