Timing right for rural offering

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A lightbulb moment while watching an episode of Country Calendar is reaping dividends for a Waikato business under Covid-19.

As Kiwis are urged to explore their own backyard with borders effectively closed for tourism, a farm-stay website is primed to meet the demand.

Domestic travellers can book in for rural breaks throughout New Zealand using Off the Beaten Track, a website started 18 months ago by Classic Events director Michele Connell and her dairy farmer husband Roy.

Their timing has proved impeccable as New Zealanders look to shrug off Covid-19 cabin fever.

Roy and Michele Connell

Lockdown became a time of development for Connell and her team as events were cancelled or postponed. A truncated Balloons over Waikato sneaked in under the wire as lockdown was looming, but the Great NZ Food Show had to be cancelled and the Christchurch Motorhome Caravan and Leisure Show has been put back till October, with the Mystery Creek version due to go ahead in September.

They used the time to work on the website, and contacting all those they currently work with as well going back to potential landowners, which Connell says resulted in more than 80 more listings.

It has seen them emerge with an offering ripe for the times, 18 months after the Qualmark-accredited business started trading.

Connell remembers clearly when she and husband Roy had the idea, watching an episode of Country Calendar featuring a stunning Canterbury farm with a river and beautiful bush.

At the time, dairying was facing a difficult couple of years, and they thought about how different farming sectors can struggle at different times.

“That got us thinking: we wonder how many other landowners or farmers own these beautiful pieces of paradise that they could share and diversify their income?”

At the end of 2017 they began researching the idea, getting feedback from both landowners and holidaymakers including via a Facebook marketing campaign.

The results were encouraging. “That gave us the courage to push the go button.”

They have gone through Soda Inc’s Lift and Boost programmes, and Connell sings their praises. “That has been really beneficial because it opened us up to a lot of opportunities, with really good advice.”

They now have more than 200 rural properties on their books, offering a wide range of rural stays, many of them including extras such as horse treks, fishing or farm tours.

A visitor could stay in a “quirky little treehouse” or two families could holiday together in more expansive accommodation. Prices vary accordingly, from $20 to $1200 a night, with Off the Beaten Track getting 10 percent of the gross booking fee.

The point is in the name, off the beaten track, which sometimes means taking a very long and winding road to reach the farm, but sometimes involves just a short drive from the nearest town.

Connell thinks some New Zealanders are looking for something different in a holiday, away from the madding crowds at the likes of Whangamata.

She says another strong driver for her has been the spreading of tourism dollars into smaller communities far from the major drawcards.

“A lot of landowners we have found are really happy to share the land they love and the lifestyle they love. It’s a very welcoming environment.”

Pre-pandemic, Connell had begun looking at the Australian market, with the international free and independent traveller (FIT) market very much in her sights long term.

“We hope that the international traveller on their way through New Zealand will be able to take a couple of stops at Off the Beaten Track properties, just to have a really great Kiwi experience.”

Connell believes they are the only business in New Zealand offering such an experience.

“We thought about it for a long time, and we mulled it over and talked about it, In the end, we just thought, you know, let’s just have a go. Because if we don’t, someone else will and we’ll kick ourselves that we didn’t. We just had a bit of a leap of faith really.”

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