Paddy Gillooly thought he was on easy street when he bought a monopoly tourism business. Then, along came competition.
||Paddy Gillooly, Managing Director
||Farewell Spit Tours, trading as Collingwood Safari Tours Ltd
||Eco tour operator
||1946 (as Collingwood Motors)
||Collingwood, Golden Bay, New Zealand
||+64 3 524 8257
Key Learning Points
Unique selling point
Pinpoint what differentiates your business from the competition. Eco tourists usually want genuine local knowledge and a real experience of the natural environment.
They must be enthusiastic about what they are doing, relate well with people, and be confident in their own abilities.
Marketing and networks
What geographic area should you be selling to: local, regional or international? In tourism, small businesses may find that it is cost-effective to market their region using marketing networks and associations. However, this strategy can take time to produce results.
The Farewell Spit Tours Story
In 1986, a 27-year-old motor mechanic, Paddy Gillooly, joined a partnership to take over Collingwood Safari Tours at Golden Bay on the far north-west corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Despite a lack of training or experience, Gillooly became the managing director. It didn’t seem to matter at the time: for forty years, the Collingwood bus-tour business had enjoyed a monopoly on taking visitors to a unique area that was protected by government regulation.
The area is Farewell Spit, a 35-kilometre stretch of sand dunes. It is the world’s longest natural sandbar and is home to more than 100 species of seabirds, seals and an historic New Zealand icon - the Farewell Spit Lighthouse and its keepers’ cottages.
The New Zealand department of conservation administers the area. The Spit has been a declared nature reserve since the 1930s and has a status that is more highly protected than a national park. In 1946, access to the Spit was restricted to the one authorised tour operator and approved scientific groups. Even fishermen needed a special permit to cast their lines from its beaches.
In 1990, everything changed. The department of conservation decided that competing tour operators would be able to operate on the Spit, providing they did not affect the environment. Gillooly’s friend and next-door neighbour, a regular bus operator, became his competitor with the department’s blessing. Gillooly says: “I hadn’t a clue about competing for customers because people who wanted to go to the Spit would just come and see us and we would take them.”
The pressure of competition forced Gillooly to pinpoint what differentiated him from his competitor. He says: “When the rival company started, we decided to label ourselves ‘the original Farewell Spit Safari’. A lot of customers hear the word ‘original’ and think ‘there must be another one, but these guys started it all - so we’ll support them’. There is a lot of that out there. That was something people said we were clever to do."
Gillooly also decided to describe his 30- and 40-year-old Bedford buses as ‘character vehicles’ that were robust and comfortable, in which travellers can open the windows, enjoy the sea breeze, sit back and experience, according to Gillooly. His competitor’s modern air-conditioned 4WDs kept their windows shut, keeping the sea smells and wind from visitors’ faces.
Gillooly also advertised his local connections - he is a seventh generation Collingwood family. He promoted himself and his hand-picked local guides as the ones who could provide the best-quality commentary. He says: “You learn a heck of a lot by osmosis as you are growing up. We have excellent staff who relate well to people. We pride ourselves on our commentary. People always get off the bus and say they learnt a lot.”
In 1996, his rival was marketing to wealthy overseas visitors. Gillooly responded by expanding his industry connections from local and regional marketing networks to a group of tourism operators who wanted to market the Spit region internationally.
The international marketing group linked with several regions adjacent to Farewell Spit, including Cook Strait, to form the first macro tourist region in New Zealand. It was called Centre Stage. The New Zealand Tourism Board supported the macro-region concept and the Spit area became better known overseas.
Gillooly says that this has been a long-term strategy. “When we started, we were getting a few international visitors, but they weren’t flowing in and they weren’t booking from overseas. They could still come to Collingwood and get on the wrong bus. We have tried to get them to buy their tickets at home so they come and get on this bus and that’s working. We’ re seeing the results of it now.”