The owner of Nomad Safaris has taken 26 years to develop his four-wheel drive tourism business. In less than 26 days, it was destroyed by Covid-19.
Five months ago, profits skyrocketed and bookings were consecutive for tourism operator David Gatward-Ferguson, whose Queenstown-based company takes tourists on off-road adventures. He had bought Glenorchy Journeys several months earlier, and the business was going “super cannons”.
The company started experiencing difficulties in early February when storm closed Milford and Routeburn lanes, then New Zealand prohibited non-residents from entering the country via mainland China as the Covid-19 pandemic set in.
“February ended down less than 10%, but the year was still promising. As border restrictions increased and people became more concerned with travel, the company began to make more refunds than reservations.
“March was a catastrophic month … we haven’t won a single dollar since … we had tears. It was as dark as possible.”
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Gatward-Ferguson began sending layoff notices to its 43 employees this week, but suspended it after Thursday’s budget announcement that the wage subsidy would be extended by eight weeks.
“We won’t have as many watchdog faces looking at us for another two months.
“It will keep our spirits up and keep us going until the ski season … but it only postpones the death of tourism.”
An unemployment “tsunami” would still strike when the wage subsidy was exhausted, and the only thing that would save tourism would be the reopening of the borders, he said.
“The government continues to tease us with the Trans-Tasmanian bubble and say that there will be no normalcy for two or three years.
“This is the most important thing – if there is no free travel before 2021, a lot of companies will fall back.
Gatward-Ferguson planned to hire staff on casual contracts after the wage subsidy ended, and would call on them shortly as business resumes.
“We celebrated 26 years of activity last Wednesday. We spent 26 years building a business and it didn’t take [more than] 26 days to destroy it. “
He had spent the past eight weeks developing a business plan.
“You have to look at the worst case scenario you can think of, and then go back from there.
“We thought the worst case was that the Treasury had declared that there would be no international visitors for 12 months. This was extended exponentially enough by Ngāi Tahu announcing the closure of large companies like Dart [River] Jet for 18 to 24 months. ”
Domestic travel, allowed at level 2, would make “little difference” to companies trying to stay afloat, he said.
“Domestic travel will take time to gain momentum; and in winter Queenstown does not generate much business outside of the ski fields and bars. It’s just history. “
He was optimistic about the resumption of activities in July, but did not know if there would be enough customers.
“How many people will be comfortable traveling, how many will come just for skiing and nothing else … will that be enough to cover our cash expenses, which should drop to $ 1,000 a day?”
The company would offer 20% discounts, or customers could choose to pay the full price and put the 20% discount in a wellness pool for its employees on work visas.