One of New Zealand’s showcase tourism enterprises remains in family ownership after humble beginnings 65 years ago.
Words Gaynor Stanley
Captain Cook was uncertain its waters would prove navigable so he sailed by without entering the inlet he named Doubtful Harbour in 1770. Whalers would later mistakenly rename what we now know to be a fjord as Doubtful Sound.
What is certain is that one of the most remote parts of New Zealand remained virtually unexplored for nearly 200 years until 1954, when idealistic young couple Les and Olive Hutchins cast aside any doubts they harboured to follow their dream of sharing the spectacular wilderness they loved with visitors.
“Les faced what many have described to me as ‘almost impossible odds’ when he set up our first tourism venture in remote Doubtful Sound – with our guests walking six to eight hours across the alpine pass for their boat cruise,” recalls Olive, now Lady Hutchins, of those pioneering days.
Regular transport services were non-existent, there was no power and the nearest supplies were hundreds of kilometres away. Then, the construction of the Manapouri Power Station put a halt to tour operations and the company began instead ferrying workers to the hydro-power project.
Undeterred, the couple persevered with their fledging tourism business, resuming Doubtful Sound excursions in the mid-1960s. By 1970 their Manapouri-Doubtful Sound Tourist Company had done well enough to acquire the Te Anau Glowworm Cave tours and Lake Te Anau launch transfers, the TSS Earnslaw steamship operating on Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, and begin operating Milford Sound cruises after successfully challenging the government monopoly on tourism there, operating under the new trading name of Fiordland Travel Ltd.
“I would never have visualised, 65 years ago, the company would have grown to be the market leader in tourism that it is today,” Lady Hutchins says of the multi-awarding company that has mirrored brand New Zealand’s extraordinary tourism achievements. It has been crowned Operator of the Year by the Tourism Export Council (NZ) more times than any other company.
“I am very proud of our five children; their contributions to their communities, ongoing interest in the business and the examples they set to my grandchildren and great grandchildren, and I am hopeful that the business will always remain family owned,” she adds.
Bryan Hutchins succeeded his father as general manager in 1978 and, over the next 28 years, expanded the company’s Queenstown and Fiordland tour operations to Walter Peak Sheep Station, overnight cruises on Milford and Doubtful Sound, flightseeing, rafting and more.
In 2002, Fiordland Travel Ltd rebranded to Real Journeys to better reflect its operational scope and Les Hutchins was named a Distinguished Companion of the NZ Order of Merit (a modern-day knighthood) in recognition of his services to conservation and tourism (adding to the OBE he was awarded in 1998). He passed away the following year, aged 79.
While the company remains wholly in family ownership, its past two chief executives have been recruited from outside the Hutchins ranks; first Dave Hawkey and, since 2012, Richard Lauder. Formerly the CEO for City Care in Christchurch, Lauder brought fresh perspective on what he terms “tourism’s most difficult year for a generation” as the double whammy of first the global financial crisis and then the Christchurch earthquakes impacted Real Journey’s lower South Island heartland. His solution was not to slash costs, but to grow revenue through product improvement and strategic acquisitions to diversify its seasonal and geographic offerings.
Over the past six years, the company has been on an aggressive buying spree that saw it nab even more of New Zealand’s tourism icons, like Christchurch’s International Antarctic Centre where Real Journeys is refreshing the whole attraction. It purchased Walter Peak, that it had formerly been leasing, to develop the product more quickly than it could as a landlord. “To have a ski area was attractive from a seasonal perspective, and offered cash flow and job-sharing benefits,” so Real Journeys bought Cardrona from Australia’s Vealls family back into New Zealand ownership and last year announced plans to turn it into New Zealand’s largest alpine resort, adding a six-seater chairlift and Soho Basin Ski Area to evolve to more of a European ski experience with expanded summer visitor options. It also fitted with Lauder’s strategy to balance the company’s passive, premium portfolio with a more active component, which was boosted further by its launch of Go Orange targeted squarely at young adventurers with kayaking, jetboating, rafting and fun overnight cruises for backpackers on the groovily refitted Milford Haven.
“I’m particularly proud of the way the firm has continued to be run along the lines of Les’s visionary values and dedication to conservation,” says Lady Hutchins.
“Conservation is still in our hearts as an organisation,” agrees Richard Lauder, adding people want to work for Real Journeys because of the founding values that perpetuate within the group, and that many staff share Les and Olive’s lifelong passion to protect New Zealand’s remarkable environment.
After being a leader of the momentous Save Manapouri Campaign to fight the proposed raising of Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri for power generation, in 1973 Les was named one of the founding Guardians of the Lakes and held that position for 26 years. He was also a founding patron of the New Zealand National Parks and Conservation Foundation.
“Conservation is good for tourism and tourism can be good for conservation. We are now doing more conservation work than ever before,” says Lady Hutchins.
The Leslie Hutchins Conservation Foundation, set up in 1994, contributes more than $50,000 a year to dolphin research, endangered birds protection programmes, track and interpretation signage, outdoor education camps and wilding pine eradication. Additionally, Real Journeys reinvests profits into a flagship project with the Department of Conservation to eradicate predators on Cooper Island in Dusky Sound and is working on a large-scale land restoration project at Walter Peak. It is actively reducing its environmental impact and carbon footprint (“We just got rid of 300,000 takeaway coffee cups,” says Lauder), has begun investing in an electric vehicle fleet and is encouraging the development of a local hydrogen supplier to fuel its coaches and ships within, hopefully, 10 years.
Lauder believes more tourism operators will step up to take a leading role in protecting what effectively is their golden goose as visitor numbers head towards five million a year.
How would Sir Les feel about those numbers, which must have been inconceivable in 1954 when international visitor arrivals tallied a mere 100,000? Lady Hutchins refers to a famous 1998 quote of his: "Today I am more convinced than ever before that conservation is the real cornerstone of New Zealand's tourism industry. Tourism and conservation need each other for mutual survival and the right direction to go is to take more notice of conservation issues not less."