David Gatwood-Ferguson, Managing Director, Nomad Safaris
How did you come to do what you do today, David?
I've done a variety of jobs. I left school at 16 and studied sociology and politics at a further education college but didn't go to uni. I worked in a pub for many years, before swapping to the wine trade. Then I went back to college to study computers and became a programmer. Did that for a few years before I became a business analyst.
Then I took a senior position at Philips Electronics, where I was part of a wave of new hires tasked with transforming the business and saving it from bankruptcy. I was there for a couple of years before I decided it would be easier to make the rain go upwards than to transform Philips.
So, I started looking for a new job, and in June 1992, there was an advertisement in The Sunday Times, saying New Zealand needs more migrants. So, my girlfriend and I went along to a talk in New Zealand House and decided to apply.
We arrived here in August 1993. We hired a camper van in Auckland and drove around the country, and when we got to Queenstown we thought, oh, this looks fun. Let's stop and do some holiday jobs for few months. Six months later, we started Nomad Safaris.
How did Nomad Safaris become the adventure powerhouse it is today?
For years we were a tiny company. I did all the driving. My wife Amanda did all the reservations and made rock cakes for our trips. The thing that transformed us was Lord of the Rings.
When we arrived in Queenstown, we went on a Skippers Canyon trip, and I was so impressed with the dramatic landscape. It was everything I'd dreamed of as a troubled youth reading Lord of the Rings. When I took people on tours, I'd stop at this lookout on Skippers Canyon Road and say: “Has anyone read Lord of the Rings? Doesn't this look like the road to Mordor?"
When they were filming Lord of The Rings, I queued up for a casting call, and got a role as an extra. And when the movie came out in 2001, and we saw all these spots around Queenstown featured, I knew it was going to be huge. So, we put a trip together that went to the film locations and launched it as a Lord of the Rings tour. It just took off. And that tour was still going strong until the borders closed last year.
Much of our diversification has been slightly accidental. Like the time a local farmer, who owns a wonderful block called Queenstown Hill that’s useless at growing sheep, but has great views, phoned us up to see whether we wanted to operate on his land. At the time we had a young Canadian working for us who knew quad bikes, and he said the hill was ideal for them. So, we set the quad bike side of the business up.
Every year we’d go into hibernation for winter. But we were finding it harder and harder to get staff in spring. So, we bought a shuttle company that did good winter business taking people to Cardrona. That allowed us to keep staff over winter. Now we run shuttle services for NZ Ski, which is busy when Australian skiers and backpackers are here in the winter. And in the summer, we take people to the walking tracks. We have about 50 full and part-time staff.
The Managing Director at a place I used to work said a company is like a surfer. You must keep catching waves. You don't need to catch every wave. In fact, you can't catch every single one. But you must catch some. So, we've been cautious as we've grown, but we've kept catching waves. And the waves we look for are ones that really fit with what we do.
What makes your business event offering special?
Our specialty is entertaining groups of people. Whether it’s a group who already know each other, or a group of independent tourists, we’re all about fun group activities. So, we’re a great fit with the conference and incentive market.
Our tours are affordable and they’re a great experience. They have an element of adventure because you’re driving rough gold mining roads through beautiful scenery. People love driving in rivers because it’s something new. On our Macetown trip to an abandoned gold miners' settlement you cross the river 30 times.
The tours are interesting. People who attend conferences or incentive tours are usually inquisitive and enthusiastic. They like to know about the history and the local community.
And the tours are good for team building because people are encouraged to talk. We don't have microphones in our vehicles. The drivers tell stories and ask questions, and everyone starts chatting. Strangers meet on our tours and go out to dinner with each other all the time. It’s a bonding experience.
What gives Queenstown its edge over other business event destinations?
Queenstown is an aspirational destination. It’s the best resort in the world for adventure, and the diversity of experiences on offer here is second to none. And of course, Queenstown is drop-dead gorgeous, so it's easy to wow people as they fly in.
It’s like the difference between Land Rover and Toyota. We've used Land-Rovers for years. When they didn't make them the same way and we swapped to using Toyotas, we spent an extra $7,000 making each vehicle look like a Land Rover and repainting it British Racing Green, because people don't aspire to go in a Toyota.
Now the other thing is that all the operators work really well with each other. We stick to our area of expertise and we refer our clients to other operators. We're not trying to take other people's cake. That gives event organisers flexibility to deliver some great wow experiences.
Jan Hunt, who's a hotelier and director of Skyline, coined the phrase ‘coopetition’. That really stuck with me as a marvelous collective way of looking at how we work in Queenstown. We are in competition because the thing that's in shortest supply for all visitors is time. There's no way they can do all the activities or eat at all the wonderful restaurants. So, we're absolutely in competition for share of attention. But that doesn't make us cutthroat. In fact, the opposite.
The final reason why Queenstown's such a joy for business events is that you don't have to travel miles to do all the activities. Everything’s in proximity and that really helps when you're organizing an event. And there’s an international airport in the middle of town, which is handy.
What are your top tips for someone planning a business event in Queenstown?
I’ve got three tips for you if you’re organizing an event in Queenstown.
- Start by having a chat with the Queenstown Convention Bureau. They know everyone, they’re unbiased, they can help you get a feel for your options for your budget, and they’ll save you time when it comes to gathering estimates.
- I also recommend using a local destination management company to coordinate your event. They’ll make your life so much easier. They’ll be able to curate totally unique experiences for your team, and they’ll make sure everything is wonderful, even if the weather plays up.
- Do a site inspection. Because that way you can get the feel for the different destinations, activities, places to stay and eat that fit your company ethos and culture. And of course, you get a trip to Queenstown, so it’s a win-win.
Oh, and I’ve one more bonus tip. Make sure you include Nomad Safaris on your must-do list. It’s a guaranteed great time.
Start planning your Business Event in Queenstown today!