Founder of Haka Tours: How Covid has affected business and life

Haka Tourism managing director Ryan Sanders says the impact of Covid has been incredibly hard on his business, but he is looking to the future. Photo / Nick Roseau

Elisabeth Easther returns to Travel, checking in on New Zealand tour operators to find out how they are doing as the pandemic continues. First, Ryan Sanders, founder of Haka Tourism Group.

Christchurch man Ryan Sanders is no stranger to unexpected events that led to changes of plans – once upon a time his promising rugby career was thwarted by injury so he left for the UK United to work for a world bank.

But after realizing his true passion was travel, he founded Haka Tours, a company from humble beginnings that has gone from strength to strength. In 2019, Haka Tourism Group – which had grown to incorporate Haka Tours, Haka Lodges and Haka Educational Tours – was named New Zealand’s fastest growing tourism brand in the Deloitte Fast 50.

But then the pandemic hit and for Sanders everything had to change once again.

He explains what life has been like for a Kiwi tour operator since our borders closed in March 2020 and what he thinks about the future.

Ryan Sanders, founder of Haka Tours.  Photo / Provided
Ryan Sanders, founder of Haka Tours. Photo / Provided

How was Haka Tourism Group doing before the pandemic hit?

We were on a massive growth journey. Business was 95% international and 5% domestic and our market position was strong with new products and new businesses including eight Haka Lodges – they are like premium backpackers – as well as an educational travel brand . It had been like a big game of chess to get here, with all those moving pieces, but we were ready to reap the rewards of all that hard work. We fired on all cylinders and in 2019 we were named New Zealand’s fastest growing tourism brand in the Deloitte Fast 50.

What are your most vivid memories of the early days of the pandemic?

It was such a whirlwind. We had 40 tours on the road with guests from all corners of the Earth, and it quickly became apparent that we needed to adjust itineraries and end tours earlier, to get people home in case the borders were closed. In March, we knew it was important globally and things started to change so quickly. We didn’t have a pandemic plan – we had modeled what a major economic downtown would look like, and our worst-case scenario was to survive a 50% revenue drop, but we were 95% wiped out.

What was the hardest part for you?

Unfortunately, we had to let go of some of our amazing employees. It was by far the hardest thing.

What made you move forward?

When you’re a business owner, you have to worry about a lot of people other than yourself, so for a while I parked my personal needs to focus on customers and staff. But, after a situation like this, you crumble and I finally took some time to rest. But I try to focus on the big picture, or what 2024 will look like, and then take incremental steps towards that vision. But it’s also important to honor when you’re feeling down and process those feelings rather than brush them off, because it can become problematic if you don’t honor when you’re struggling.

How is business now?

We have restructured the business to survive, retaining as much staff and intellectual capital as possible, and targeting returning international guests from October 2022. We have eight tours on the road in February, all with a mandate of vaccination. Normally we would have 40 or 50 rounds. Because the customers are mainly Kiwis, we are also developing new products to satisfy this local market.

We also work with a Maori women’s initiative to house vulnerable wāhine in a whānau environment. It’s called Te Whare, and it’s a trauma-informed Kaupapa Māori therapy service. We have also organized national tours through Haka Tours, Haka Educational Tours and for Intrepid.

With the help of new associates, we looked at what type of hosting would be most likely to succeed in a post-covid world. We started by developing a new global brand, which we named “Drifter” which will be our new hosting model. We have a number of assets under contract in New Zealand and Australia, with the aim of being the leading premium hostel operator in Asia Pacific.

Since the closure of international borders, have you managed to take a local vacation?

My husband and I bought a bach about four years ago, a century old place, in Woolley’s Bay, Northland. The house was originally given to the local doctor and we bought it for his great-grandson. We surf and walk the beach with the dogs and do lots of outdoor dining. The place was breathless so we did a really cool renovation while keeping the bachy vibe. There is also a large water park 45 minutes north called Adrenalin Adventure Park.

Haka Tourism Group founder and CEO Ryan Sanders, right, with his husband at their Northland bach.  Photo / Provided
Haka Tourism Group founder and CEO Ryan Sanders, right, with his husband at their Northland bach. Photo / Provided

After navigating the challenges of running a tourism business during a pandemic, Ryan Sanders of Haka Tourism took a well-deserved break at Blanket Bay Lodge in Queenstown.  Photo / Provided
After navigating the challenges of running a tourism business during a pandemic, Ryan Sanders of Haka Tourism took a well-deserved break at Blanket Bay Lodge in Queenstown. Photo / Provided

Have you managed to venture beyond your bachelor’s degree?

We decided to treat ourselves after a tough few years so went to Blanket Bay just outside Queenstown for a ski trip last winter. This is the finest luxury lodge on the shores of Lake Wakatipu with views of the Southern Alps and food to die for.

Pipeline trips?

I’m going to the Chatham Islands at the end of February. It’s a private trip with an entrepreneurial organization that I’m a member of and I’m really looking forward to it.

Where is your head going today?

The current epidemic is hurtful, but we can hold on a little longer. I have spoken to the management team and we are confident that things will start to improve towards the end of this year. It’s pretty brutal right now, and we’re erasing this summer, but in the end, you have to do what you’re passionate about, which for me is tourism and entrepreneurship. I want to play an active role in rebuilding our tourism industry to its former glory.

hakatourismgroup.com

For more travel inspiration, head over to newzealand.com/nz.

Check traffic light settings and Department of Health advice before traveling at covid19.govt.nz

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