Colin Lindsay – Gannet Beach Adventures – CEO Business Marketing Interview 36

Colin talks about how Gannet Beach Adventures initially came about, through to carrying over 11,000 passengers per year today and what you can expect on one of Hawke’s Bay’s most iconic attractions.

Colin also shares the importance of collecting customer feedback, how online booking has contributed to the business and how the business benefits from offering locals multi-trip discounts.

PLUS Colin looks to the future to seeing more work for the Gannet Beach Adventures team by getting more ‘bums on seats’ this season.

Give us your feedback in the comments below!

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Colin Lindsay
This is the Ryan Marketing Show (RYAN) and you’re listening to episode 36 of 100. Today I’m with Colin Lindsay from Gannet Beach Adventures and Cape Kidnappers of Hawke’s Bay, and we’re talking about one of Hawke’s Bay’s most iconic tourism attractions. Tell us about it, Colin. How did this come about? How did you get into the business of taking people out on a tractor to see a colony of birds?
Colin: Goes back a few away now. Not only do we sort of classify us as an iconic experience, but we’re one of the longer running tourism operators in New Zealand. Gannet Beach was formed over sixty years ago. A couple of brothers, the Bearden brothers, visited Cape Kidnappers like a lot of people do. The former transport was old wrecked cars, old buggies as they called them, cut down and not purpose built, but just really suitable for the beach environment. From that stemmed picking up people and bringing them home to actually taking them out there, receiving a donation and realising you could make a living out of this. And so it just grew into where we are today which is running daily trips through the summer, carrying sort of around 11,000 passengers annually. Yeah, from small beginnings and we’re looking now to keep those numbers climbing.
RYAN: So that’s a huge number of people and obviously taking cars or buggies out there isn’t going to cut it in 2016. How has the experience evolved?
Colin: So the experience it’s evolved just in a learning way, something that doesn’t work, it goes by the board, and we try something else, so it’s a good old bit of Kiwi ingenuity and how do you get along a beach, or in this case the Cape Kidnappers coastline, which is pretty rough at times and hard on your gear, what’s gonna work, what doesn’t, so here we are 60 years later we’re running 1949 Minneapolis Moline tractors which are vintage, towing behind them two trailers and around a 30-person or 30-adult capacity on each tractor. We love our tractors and so do our passengers. That’s just one of the little sort of parts of the tour, when they sign up to join us, it’s one of the extras they don’t sort of expect to encounter. You know, every other tour around the country will involve getting on a boat or a plane or a bus, here we are on vintage tractors, traveling along a beach.
RYAN: From the framed photo you’ve got there, they are certainly iconic. They do look like they could need a lot of maintenance, though. Is that the case? or are they workhorses?
Colin: They, yeah, well they do require a lot of work, or maintenance, keeping them up to a standard for public transport so we run them for annual CRF checks, and we operate here for six months, almost seven months nowadays, and we spend the winter getting into the maintenance. Which salt water and sand takes it’s toll on anything mechanical or electrical. But the tractors, we stuck by them just because we honestly don’t believe a modern machine would cope out there in this sort of environment for any length of time.
RYAN: So if you’re a tourist, and this may be your first time going out to see the gannets, talk us through what that first 30 minute trip and then getting on to one of these tractors, how does that all go, to set up the journey for the day?
Colin: Obviously on some of our busier days running up to 200 people and loading them all at the same time, we’ve got a pretty good system and a pretty good crew, lot of our staff have been around for many years, and it’s just another day in the office for them. The excitement starts as soon as we load. It’s kind of fun climbing on the back of an old trailer and choosing your seat and throwing your bag in the middle. Once you settle down, obviously nowadays safety briefing’s the most important part of our tour, then the fun begins. Going onto the beach, the excitement just starts as soon as we get those waves rolling under the trailers and having to lift their feet up, and then of course, what side do they sit on. You can see the decisions and do we look at the cliffs, do we look at the water, but we turn around and come home the other way so we always say to them “You can…
RYAN: You get both sides. So that must be a first-time experience for Kiwis as well as tourists because not many of us have taken a car down to the beach and driven it for half an hour or an hour there’s not many places you can do that. Is it first time for everyone or the kind of excitement starts as soon as you get going?
Colin: Yeah, like it is a first time. We thrive on feedback. We get a lot of feedback over the period of a season, and one of the best feedbacks is people that have traveled through the country and done other experiences and one of the classic ones that everyone knows of and most people have done is 90 Mile Beach. And they come off our tour saying that was way better than 90 Mile Beach and I think it’s the effect of our scenery-our scenery is stunning but so is it up north, so it’s the mode of transport. You’re just not gonna do this anywhere else. Travel on a beach on a trailer, feet dangling over the edge. Young or old that just puts a smile on the face.
RYAN: There’s something nostalgic about that, I think, invokes those memories of childhood, or if you’re a child, getting that memory for the first time.
Colin: Yeah, that’s one of the feat-you know, people will finish the tour and say “wow, you know I haven’t been on a tractor since I was a kid” and then of course they haven’t actually been on a tractor, they’ve been on the trailer, but it’s that experience, but it’s that experience and that’s what they talk about, the tractor ride to the gannets.
RYAN: So we’re quite fortunate in Hawke’s Bay to have these 20,000 or so gannets who have decided to call this part of Hawke’s Bay home. Have they always been nesting there? Has that always been their home or did they turn up somewhere else first and then one year decided to come here?
Colin: Yeah, the gannets their species are found throughout the world. The ones we visit out here are the Australasian gannet and they didn’t choose Hawke’s Bay to nest until late 1800s. Obviously, yeah, our climate predator numbers, food supply, everything sort of is aligned and they breed out there successfully and the numbers continually grow year by year, so the colonies are getting bigger. Everything must be just right.
RYAN: And for tourists looking at this colony, how does the colony then react to the tourists.
Colin: Probably the first thing is we travel on the beach. We get to the first colony which is Black Reef and these birds are just nesting right on the rocks, right down on the beach, and we can pull up right beside them and the neatest thing as a driver is just looking back and seeing those expressions that our passengers have and they’re just amazed, you know, like how these birds are sitting, preening. They almost don’t pay us any attention at all, they’re not phased by humans getting close. And obviously we don’t want to encourage people getting too close, just a respect thing, but let them do their thing and they – it just makes for wonderful photo opportunities, versus having to sneak around in long grass and trying to get a little spot of them here we are within aRyan reach and that just…Yeah, it’s not like they even acknowledge us. They just go about their preening, or nest building or feeding their young.
RYAN: That’s a phenomenal thing to have access to, because you see those programs on TV with David Attenborough and he’s in the Antarctic and there’s penguins there and he’s out with the penguins and amongst them and they’re paying him no attention. And you think maybe that’s because it’s in the Antarctic but here we are, we’ve got something similar with gannets in New Zealand where anyone can do exactly that.
Colin: Literally it is, and we’re very lucky, and I think the passengers go away appreciating that. They sort of board-especially you see some of the ones that carry a lot of photography gear and have got their long lenses because they’re gonna hopefully spot some gannets, and of course they don’t need their long lenses when they get out there and you know, they really do, when you talk to the afterwards or even during the tour, they’re like “wow, I really didn’t think I was going to get that close”. And of course it makes the viewing experience that much better. Yeah. Even as a driver, you know, you just everyday look at them and go “Wow”. They’re an amazing bird and you’re not sort of spying on them you’re just standing with them in their environment. That’s really special.
RYAN: Seeing what they get up to, do you see variations every day in what they’re getting up to or is it just a massive colony of the gannets?
Colin: Yeah, um, and that’s a real cool thing with doing out on an almost daily basis with our guests. From the early season when you’ve got males, females just rebuilding that relationship and getting back generally with the same partner from last year, so they’ve got a bit of winter to catch up on, build that nest, and throughout the season we see them sitting on the eggs, the first young to hatch, which is always a special occasion and we always like to sort of record that, document it. That’s always neat to see, if they’re on track this year compared with last year or the year before. And then going right through to the late stage when the young chicks when they hit the four month, or sixteen week stage, adult size, they’re big, they’re grey and gangly, and to actually catch them doing that first flight, which is – yeah – it’s a neat thing to be part of or be able to experience. Makes the job pretty special.
RYAN: So moving on from there and looking at the business itself – how is tourism going in New Zealand? We hear that these numbers are going up. Are you seeing that same type of year on year growth with Gannet Beach Adventures?
Colin: We’ve seen-we see from year to year the change in the demographics of who we carry, different nationalities, and it reflects on their economic climate. If our dollar’s pretty high and we’re not that great a value to visit, we see different makeup in the foreign visitors, yeah, we see a change in that. Our numbers – they are slowly climbing and we’re working, we want to see that growth, of course. We’re a weather-related and tide-related and seasonal activity. So we’ve almost got everything staked against us, and Mother Nature can throw some pretty mean curve balls at times, and a good example is the environment we travel in. Nothing more spectacular than the big sea crashing in on the night before, but it makes traveling to the gannets almost impossible. So we do lose the occasional day and Mother Nature seems to choose the day that you’re busy.
RYAN: I guess if you’ve got that narrow window to get in and out you have to change your times everyday, but better to be safe for the trip than to cut it too fine.
Colin: Yes. Yeah. Passenger safety is one of our more important things now. It’s right up there with having fun and we are, we’re tide-reliant and if we decide the sea is just a little bit too rough, we can’t so much delay the tour time because we’ve got to be back before the incoming tide as well. So that also brings the other side of it that makes the job not repetitive. We change from day to day the time of the day from early mornings and catching sunrises to returning on some trips to the sun setting and the beautiful colors. And we always sort of say to the passengers, you know they jump on board, pretty much don’t have the camera in the hand they put it in the bag because they’re going to get it out when they hit the colonie. Not realizing pretty much as soon as we hit the beach out comes the camera and it doesn’t go away until we get back four hours later. Great now with digital, but in the early days people would run out of film before the trip was over.They don’t expect so many photographic opportunities.
RYAN: We’ve got a saying in our family which is if someone’s taking too many photos of a family gathering we call it “Doing the Gannet” as my grandfather did exactly that going out. He was just blown away by the whole experience, that he took rolls and rolls of film and finished everything, and I’ve got them all developed and it was dozens and dozens of photos of gannets.
Colin: Brilliant!! Doing the Gannet. There’s always something like that pops up.
RYAN: Do you find now, with social media, with like Instagrams and the Facebook that people are posting to those places of the tour?
Colin: Yeah. Yeah, we– social media is a huge and just the whole online presence is huge now, and growing, we’ve seen that really come on. We watch those passengers taking those selfies and then of course obviously sending it off to someone on the other side of the world. Not just are they bragging that they’re at the largest mainland breeding colony in the world, but they’re also bragging about Hawke’s Bay weather. You know, that’s generally, if their friends are on the other side of the world, normally experience winter while they’re lucky here in the summer, summer holiday.
RYAN: You know, it’s like I see online that you also offer online booking and is that-does that make up the majority of where your bookings come from or do they come from other sites and hotels or do people just call you up on the phone and book in.
Colin: Yeah, we were a company that lived by the phone; that’s our next customer with the next phone call so you’ve got to answer it. And with technology that’s really giving our office staff a bit more of a life. You know that you can go out now because you can divert the phone calls and you’re not stuck at home by the old-fashioned phone. Online bookings has really as people are more acceptable with doing transactions online, which a few years ago no one wanted to do that, that wasn’t – “Oh dear!” but now it’s well acceptable and they were actually asking for that service before we started providing it. As soon as we provided it, yeah, we look back now and thinking “yep, good move”. That’s one of those things that were done or changed over the years.
RYAN: I see on your site as well you’ve got a video of what the adventure looks like. Has that helped not only to sell the experience but allay fears for some people about what the day is going to be about?
Colin: Yeah, yeah! The main focus of the video was to give people an idea of what to expect and the reason we wanted that was the gannets, we always say they put bums on our seats, but they also keep bums off the seats because not everybody out there is a bird lover. Once they visit the colony of course, they’re might not be bird lovers but they’re gannet lovers by that time because it’s just spectacular, see that many birds just all nesting, like I said you know, just getting in amongst them. It’s a great experience. But yeah, you used to get someone book on and then they’d sort of say “my husband would love this”, you know, he’s a photographer. But he wasn’t a bird person. By watching the video now they realize the trip itself is as much of what the day out it’s a whole experience. It’s four hours of learning.
RYAN: I think I noticed that on one of your-there’s a Trip Adviser review and one person from the UK said he wasn’t particularly interested in the gannet but it was a brilliant trip because of the views, the whole experience of going on this trip and actually to hike up to see the gannets. That whole part in itself was just-that blew him away.
Colin: Yeah. And when people step off at the end the neat thing is they don’t want to rush off back to their accommodation or to a meal. They do take the time to check and tell us how much they enjoyed the experience, and that gives us a really good feel and good feedback as well, that we’re doing things right out there. That said, they just say by the time the trip’s done and dusted, the gannets were just one part of the experience and they didn’t expect to be seeing earthquake fault lines. Pretty much a lot of people have, before they join the tour, they haven’t seen that, and by the time go home it was just an amazing sites along the way, there’s nothing more amazing to see where the earth’s fractured and moved, you know, up to 11 meters. There’s some huge geological features out there.
RYAN: That probably provides a lot of context for maybe what they were in the Art Deco tour in Napier. How does your tourism operation fit into the Hawke’s Bay eco-system, because there are other things that people can do such as Splash Planet or go up to the top of Tomato Peak. How does yours fit into the trips that people make to Hawke’s Bay?
Colin: It was never set up to be part of the jigsaw, or a piece of the jigsaw, but as it is, we’re a real big or important part of that jigsaw. First off they come to Hawke’s Bay for the weather so outdoor activities are high on their list. Hawke’s Bay’s well and truly on the map with the Art Deco or the earthquake history and people arrive here, they know about it, they don’t understand it. And then of course a trip along the beach, they start to see that we’ve got the strata layers all angled upwards through tectonic plate movement, and they start to ask questions around that whereas they jumped onboard to come and see some gannets. And suddenly they’re wanting to know all about it. And it just fills in that- maybe they covered when they were at school but that was a long time ago, and for some of the younger ones, I’m pretty sure when they get back, when they do get onto that topic with their teacher, they’ll say “yeah, you know, I know. I’ve done that!” you know? So it is, it’s the whole thing. One of the neater things is Hawke’s Bay is a big wine growing region, we’re well known for famous wines. As we travel on the beach we start to see the strata layers and people get understanding of just when they’re walking around a vineyard, what’s beneath them and what makes Hawke’s Bay so good that we see the river shingles and the winemakers will always talk about the river gravels. We’ve got it all out there on display.
RYAN: So it really is a trip that’s not just for the colony of the gannets. It’s for those who are nature lovers or landscape or photographers or art deco, or just for a brilliant day out in the sun, being able to dangle your feet over the edge into the sea, and something which is a unique experience in a unique part of the world.
Colin: Yeah. Yeah. And that said, some of them will come out, for whatever reason they’ve chosen to do it, and they’ll suddenly realize, “hey, this would be-you know we’ve got Auntie Millie visiting from England next year, she’ll love this!” and those are the customers you know where we now run a regular users type card and you know some of these passengers have been up visiting over 14 visits. They just bring every visitor, they want to show their visitors a truly Hawke’s Bay or a truly New Zealand experience.
RYAN: So for local residents, there is a multiple use card that they can use to introduce their family or friends or anyone visiting to the experience.
Colin: Yeah! And that just came about – we quite often get commented on, we’re one of the cheaper activities to do while they’re traveling, which puts even more of a smile on their face. And we’ve found that it would only be through conversation that someone would say, “I was out earlier in the year.” We’re like “gee, did you get a discount?” And they’re like “well, I never asked.” We sort of jumped on that and put together our frequent user. And it just encourages them to come out, but it’s almost like they didn’t need that encouragement in the first place. They were quite happy to jump on and just purely, and they’ll say it again and again, every day, every time they come, there’s something different.
RYAN: I think that’s the beauty if you’ve got a business where the locals will refer you and you make it attractive for them to do that, that’s building loyalty with them, and that kind of reduces your direct marketing costs because they’re your best sales people because they can explain exactly what to expect on the tour.
Colin: And that goes from all the front people at the visitor information centers, the front people in accommodation at B&B’s, motels, a lot of the ones that are out there and they’re actually singing our praises for us. It’s a really neat business that people will do that for us. Literally for the most case, for no reward. It’s just…
RYAN: Well they want the people staying with them to have a great experience and come back as well.
Colin: Yeah, they definitely have us, want to send them our way, because they know the people are gonna go home and say “Thanks for that suggestion, that was a wonderful day out.”
RYAN: So one last question here, Colin, before we finish up. What’s plan for the future for Gannet Beach Adventures?
Colin: For Gannet Beach Adventures obviously we want to see the growth. For us as an employer, we want to see a bit more work going at our employees’ way, so the harder we work to get more bums on seats, the more work for staff. It’s a win-win for the Bay, and it makes us quite proud of operating in this business. We want to see people come to Hawke’s Bay, we want them to talk about the experiences when they leave Hawke’s Bay and Hawke’s Bay will just well and truly stay on the tourist map. One of the things that people always say to us is “Wow, what an experience and you couldn’t do this in our home country,” just with health and safety rules and so we’re continually working with our staff. We’ve got really cool team members, we talk about what could happen, what has happened, or what we can improve, and keeping it just a really safe operation for families or any age visitor, and I say we just want them to go home, whether it be the other side of the world or the other end of the country, and say “Wow, our visit to Hawke’s Bay was really awesome.” That’s one of the more rewarding jobs that I know of.
RYAN: It’s great that you’ve got that mindset, because the way of life and the way we do things as Kiwis is something that, internationally, is kind of revered in a way, and I think part of the Gannet Beach Adventure’s trip, for me at least growing up here, personifies it. It’s a great part of our Hawke’s Bay’s history and also a key part of its future in the tourism industry so I wish you all the best of luck in the future.
Colin: Excellent, Ryan. It’s been great talking to you, and we’ll get you out again, eh?
RYAN: We should do that, yeah.
Colin: Maybe driving the tractor one day.
RYAN: Yeah, maybe this season. I’ve gotta get some time off over Christmas-New Year’s.
Colin: It’s a great job that’s not too-funny enough, the drivers, I say they’re an awesome team, you hear them joking with the passengers occasionally, the passengers say “What a great job you’ve got” and they’ll say “I’d even do it if I wasn’t paid.” But I haven’t tried that on them yet.
RYAN: Proofs in the pudding.
Colin: Yeah. That’s it. Awesome, Ryan.
RYAN: Thanks very much for your time.
Colin: Great stuff. Thank you.