Heidi Farren is the General Manager and Owner Operator of Altitude Tours. Together with Business Partner Nigel Hobbs, they co-founded the business in 2017. Altitude Tours offers premium small group wine tours, wine and craft beer tours, sightseeing tours, Milford Sound tours and private travel experiences around Queenstown, Glenorchy, Milford Sound, New Zealand’s Central Otago and the wider South Island.
Business Type: Travel and Tourism and Luxury Adventure Experiences
Number of Employees: 10 – Pre-Covid 20
Current Business Situation: Tailoring travel experiences to a domestic market while restructuring the business post-COVID-19
The Icehouse Business Coach: Ken Leeming
‘Working with Heidi is a breath of fresh air. I like to work hard and at pace creating meaningful positive results for the business, our staff and our customers. I find Heidi works in a similar way to me and because of this we are able to achieve a lot in a short period of time. I often think of what I was doing at her age and all I can say is if I had half of the skills and motivation that she possess at her age I would be in the 0.1% club. As in the 0.1% of over achievers and next generation of business leaders. Working alongside Heidi is fantastic!’ Nigel Hobbs, Business Partner
Tell us about yourself and why you decided to become an entrepreneur?
Previously I had a bike rental business, and that was my first taste of being an owner-operator. I really enjoyed that, but after successfully exiting that business was looking for my next challenge. I studied Adventure Tourism Management at Queenstown Resort College in 2013 and 2014 but have no other formal education.
Why did you choose your type of business?
I’ve always had a real passion for the travel and tourism sector. I did my market research and was scrolling through Trade Me a few times a week looking for businesses to buy. The idea of a wine tour stuck, I was introduced to Nigel through a mutual friend and we went from there.
How were things going before COVID-19?
We were growing incredibly quickly and were on an amazing growth trajectory. Pre-COVID, we started off with one daily wine tour in August 2017, growing to seven daily departure tours within two years including a business acquisition. Within these two years we’d gone from two vehicles to eight, and two staff to 20. 96% of our adventure tour customers were from the international market largely Australia, North America and UK. Domestic tourism accounted for 15% of our wine tours, we were heavily focused on the overseas visitor.
How have you and your business been impacted by COVID-19?
Two weeks prior to lockdown (in early March) we were having strategy sessions around our goals, finalising our budgets for the next two to five years and so on. We were on a clear growth trajectory, and then that was halted overnight. We went from forecasting some exciting numbers to sitting in an office with Nigel all day Sunday (the day after the first announcement by Jacinda Ardern) discussing how we were going to save the business.
The cancellations came thick and fast, understandably. I refunded around $120,000 in three days and we had to work out how we were going to stop hemorrhaging cash. The first two weeks were all about negotiating with out bank manager and landlord, cost reduction plans and going through every part of our P&L – working out what we could strip out of that straightway to minimize our losses.
What are currently your biggest challenges?
If there was a silver lining, it’s that we went into lockdown very quickly. Everybody was in the same position and it forced us to move quickly so there was nothing protracted about our new strategy. At the time, our Asia visitor market share was still growing, so we weren’t affected by the loss of Chinese tourists and, were still trading strongly in February and early March.
Many of our competitors were really hit by this. Then the whole ‘support local’ initiatives came into play and that was incredible. We received so much support from the local community and the domestic market so we’re slowly coming out of the other side.
We created some new packages – targeting the domestic market under our BLACK brand, under a philosophy of providing ‘business class experiences at economy prices’ – giving Kiwis the opportunity to experience luxury in their own backyard that previously they couldn't justify spending the money on.
As soon as we could, we reopened operations. Our attitude was: let’s ‘get the wheels turning’, and do whatever we could to make that happen. The whole team has been fantastic, we developed a ‘say yes to everything’ mentality and we're actually trading better than we anticipated.
What kind of support have you received from The Icehouse and are you looking to keep working with them?
I was on a sales trip to Auckland in February and had a meeting with Gareth Bayliss, customer growth partner, at The Icehouse. I was looking to do the Owner Manager Programme and was waiting for approval from our advisory board in a March board meeting. COVID hit, and suddenly we weren’t in a position to do that.
Gareth reached out to me and explained that there was a chance I could get RBP funding for Icehouse business coaching. Gareth set up a phone call, and we went from there. I wanted to work with someone who could offer a lot of value. Ken Leeming is my coach and he’s been fantastic. Ken and I started weekly zoom sessions in week two of lockdown and now we've secured more funding so we can continue working together.
How have things changed since working with The Icehouse?
I would have struggled with that whole scaling process if I didn’t have Ken as a mentor, because I really want to do everything we could to ensure our business survived covid, and do right by my staff as well.
Obviously, with international borders closed we’re still significantly down, but we were initially forecasting for 15% of last year’s month on month, and we’re operating at around 50%. Ken’s a great sounding board, challenges my strategy and offers me different perspectives. He has so much experience and knowledge of businesses across all sectors. I’m 26 and don’t have many peers in my situation, so having great people around me, like a fantastic business partner, great advisory board, and Ken, is really important.
Even when things are going well, it’s easy to lose sight of the positives, so having Ken around has been invaluable. He asked a lot of questions early on and had a good understanding of the overall performance and financial standing of the business. He took a real holistic approach – looking at things as a whole and then diving deep into specifics. I’ve learnt so much from him – particularly around staff management and restructuring. There are ways you can go about it which minimize pain for all involved parties and ensuring that you do things properly.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are struggling/looking for help?
Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and reach out because ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. There are always people out there who have different experience and perspective and can offer advice as well as have compassion and empathy to help you through.
For more information about Altitude Tours, their scenic, wine and private sightseeing packages, follow this link.