The Brand of the Long White Cloud

Published Sunday Telegraph Escape – 6 May 2007 – © Roderick Eime [PDF]

“New Zealand. Show me one good thing about it,” asked a cynical Peter FitzSimons in Tourism NZ’s highly successful 2004 TV campaign. His artificial rhetoric has come home and our Kiwi cousins are basking in tourism success.

Of course, catalysts like Lord of the Rings and even Zena, Warrior Princess catapulted New Zealand’s spectacular scenery and landscapes onto the world stage. Almost at once, Middle Earth and 100% Pure New Zealand were indistinguishable.

I’ve made three trips across the Tasman in as many years and one thing that sticks with me is the Kiwis’ consummate expertise in service excellence. And not just the five star hotels and resorts in which they excel, but right down to the little corner shop. Regular folks, it seems, are ready to go the extra mile for visitors, something I’m sure we don’t manage here at home. “Youse right there?” I still get from staff at large retailers here when I attempt to interrupt their leisure time behind the counter.

Eco-tourism, adventure tourism, adrenalin jumps, luxury lodges and indigenous tourism are all putting a swagger into the step of the New Zealand tourism industry as they command world attention and premium pricing for their products.

“The fact is, times are good and high-end American travellers generally remain unflustered by the lofty rates,” asserts de luxe maestro, Andrew Harper, editor of the salubrious Hideaway Report.

But for just how long can they keep it up?

The luxury sector for example, is a wriggly one and hard to define. What is luxury exactly and who exactly is buying it? For some clues on this I consulted a panel of of acknowledged luxury experts:

“First of all you must define just what luxury is. Luxury isn’t just a commodity. It is a rare quality that isn’t available in abundance,” explains Welf J Ebeling, Executive Vice President and COO of The Leading Hotels of the World (LHW).

“The upscale traveller wants authenticity and individuality when he travels, especially for leisure. They are looking for an experience that matches the destination and the cultural and natural environment. And of course, the human touch, service.”

And New Zealand has produced some eye-popping examples of blockbuster locations for their lodges. Take Huka, Grasmere, Peppers on the Point and Blanket Bay to name just a few. Ebeling was in this part of the world for a good reason. He was having a darned good look at these properties for his company which already has nearly 500 elite establishments in its portfolio. Just not enough down here.

And they’re getting the asking price, for now. All-inclusive tariffs for the Kiwi properties listed above start at $1000 per couple per night. No tyre-kickers here thank you.

So what does this mean?

For this one I asked Richard Rosebery, executive director, Select Hotels and Resorts International. The NZ “super lodges”, as he calls them, have earned their prestige, position and pricing, but concedes there is downward pressure on tariffs generally.

“Australia’s problem,” he proclaims with gusto, “is that we are underpriced! Traditionally our (marketing) reaction has been to discount in the event of crisis. We seem to be forever trying to recover our tariffs, not grow them. And even though our friends the Kiwi’s may have to moderate only slightly, their lower dollar keeps them attractive.”

In pulling this rationale together, Richard views the problem as more on our side of the “ditch.

“So, in effect, we have the best value up-market lodges here, but the danger is that they become potentially unprofitable.

To illustrate his point, an equivalent all-inclusive package at the glorious Cape Lodge on WA’s Margaret River is roughly half of the NZ rate.

Across the street, Lynn Ireland, regional director, Asia Pacific, Small Luxury Hotels of the World says the luxury travel market is extremely resilient and New Zealand, in particular, has demonstrated stalwart “year-on-year” growth.

“Pricing may sometimes be adjusted due to seasonality, events or trends in the market; however these have not been significant, remaining at a maximum (negative swing) of 7 per cent on average rate over the toughest times,” says Lynn.

“Australians are actually the second largest market for New Zealand SLH properties and the third largest worldwide. How about that?”

So despite our convict upbringing and propensity for underarm deliveries, we are waking up to luxury products and falling in line with international luxury buyers.

As a person intimately in touch with the luxury travel mindset, Claudia Rossi Hudson, managing director, Mary Rossi Travel is quick to acknowledge the growing sophistication of the discerning Australian clientele.

“New Zealand was once the preferred budget blue rinse destination but, to the credit of Tourism NZ, it has completely turned around,” says Claudia, “clients are often surprised at the range of superb properties across the Tasman.”

And what about Australia’s perception in the luxury destination market compared to New Zealand?

”I don’t think Australia’s international marketing is doing any favours for our best properties. Shrimps on barbies and ‘bloody hells’ are not raising our profile in this segment,” concludes Claudia with thinly disguised understatement.

And the luxury market is changing all over the world as countries like China, India and Russia soar headfirst into the rarefied atmosphere of the high flyers.

Robb Report’s Chief Luxury Officer, Carol Brodie, says “The whole face of luxury is changing. Even though luxury consumers across different cultural backgrounds have one thing in common, namely wealth, their desires, passions and interests are very different. They are attracted to luxury brands, but they want different things from each brand.”

So how is this forever shifting landscape going to affect us? Will we entice the nouveau luxophiles from China and the sub-continent, growing at a rate of 15 per cent per annum according to BNP Paribas’s World Luxury Index, or will our barbies and bikini bottoms send them scurrying for the Kiwi alternative? Watch this space.

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