The man selling NZ to the world: Tourism NZ boss Rene de Monchy

At least New Zealand’s top tourism marketer knew where was starting from when he took the job: pretty much zero.

New Tourism NZ boss Rene de Monchy is at the forefront of the drive to sell a redesigned and rebuilt industry that was once New Zealand’s biggest export earner and a major employer. But with many businesses wiped out by Covid-19, it’s estimated that four out of every 10 tourism jobs have been lost.

The $17 billion-a-year international visitor industry has been on hold for 13 brutal months, with just a trickle of Australian tourists now returning.

“This is the most unique situation any chief executive is ever going to step into – with international tourism effectively zero, we’re starting to rebuild,” says de Monchy.

The tourism boss, who is at the industry’s big Trenz event in Christchurch this week, at least knew what he was in for. He is an internal appointment, having served on Tourism NZ’s executive for the past five years as commercial director before moving into the top job last month after acting in an interim role following the departure of Stephen England-Hall.

“It’s such a unique moment in time here, so I’m delighted to have the opportunity,” says de Monchy, aged 48.

Before Covid, Tourism NZ – a government agency with an $111 million annual budget – was focused on selling this country to overseas tourists. With the border closed, that focus changed to encouraging Kiwis to “do something new New Zealand” – while still trying to keep the lights on in overseas markets, to avoid the long, costly process of having to reboot tourism marketing from scratch.

The organisation has been particularly active in Australia, where it is today launching a new campaign to try to persuade window-shopping Aussies to take the next step and book a trip to this country.

Appropriately for the country’s mega-marketer, de Monchy’s background is in marketing, mostly in fast-moving consumer goods, at NZ Dairy Foods and then for Heineken.

For the Dutch beer giant he worked first in New Zealand at DB Breweries, then in the global Heineken brand team in Amsterdam.

There was a brief stint back here again during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, where Heineken was a major sponsor, then four years as marketing director in Singapore.

Tourism NZ appealed for a number of reasons, he says. “There’s a couple of things that have always driven me in my career. One is an international focus, which is partly what kept me in Heineken for so long, and the other is being in a brand-led environment.”

The formidable power of Tourism NZ’s brand was a draw to come back to this country, to which he had emigrated from the Netherlands with his parents when he was eight.

“That’s what I loved about it; Heineken, you’re building a brand, and there’s arguably no greater campaign than 100% Pure New Zealand, so that was part of what enticed me.”

Are there any similarities between selling a country and selling a beer? “A brand is important. Having a brand that has longevity – and while New Zealand’s the brand, we’ve got 100% Pure as the campaign.”

The campaign has had its critics, for implying that this country’s environment is unspoilt.Tourism NZ has long countered that it promotes the experience of visiting New Zealand, and under de Monchy, the campaign doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.

The slogan is “22 years young”, he says, and has great consistency and value. “That’s certainly something that stepping into this role, I want to keep building on that brand – there is a lot to be said for big strong brands around the world that are consistently built over time.”

New Zealand’s successful response to Covid so far could help, but won’t be part of any marketing.

“It will never be at the front of the campaign to promote New Zealand because it’s not what the key motivator is for travel, and it’s risky territory because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Research done by Tourism NZ shows health and safety has leapt to the top of the list for pretty much every target group as a potential barrier to travel.

“The health infrastructure, capability of track and tracing and all those things now become factors in reasons to not choose a destination. So we’re in a pretty good state,” says de Monchy.

Over the next four years his goal is ensuring there is a bridge from today, to a tourism sector that “truly enriches Aotearoa and the people that live here …” Tourism New Zealand’s approach will be via three key areas:

Build “extraordinary” value in New Zealand’s destination brand as the country faces more intense competition than ever.

“And we’re starting to see that a little bit already,” says de Monchy. “We’ve only got us and Australia, but even Australia is promoting over here, the individual states are promoting over here, the states are promoting within Australia.

“So that brand building and building desire for New Zealand is going to be even more important than it was pre-Covid.”

Eastern and central European countries would be desperate to attract tourists when borders reopen, and Canada had already doubled its government spending that goes directly into tourism.

Before the pandemic New Zealand attracted less than 0.3 per cent of global tourists and about 0.8 per cent of global travel spending.

“We were a premium destination but pretty damn niche on the global scale.”

Accelerate tourism’s recovery and transition

De Monchy says the pandemic’s impact has been uneven across the industry.
There are operators who have gone broke, and those that have done quite well.

“I was in Clyde last week where my family rode the Otago Rail Trail. It was unbelievable; that town is having the busiest year they’ve ever had.

“Then if you go to a place like Rotorua, you’ve got some operators in there that are doing really well and some that have gone bankrupt.”

And then there are whole regions like Te Anau or Queenstown that have been heavily hit.

The overall impact from the lack of internationals has left a $12.9 billion hole.

Tourism NZ extensively researches overseas market, and de Monchy says the onus is to share its insights into what travellers were looking for, what their expectations were, new touring destinations and what are the new target groups who are more or less likely to travel.

“Some of this stuff is going to happen without us but do we make an incremental impact.”

Shape demand to maximise the contribution of international and domestic visitors.

Beyond the domestic – which is still far and away the biggest category of tourism – there are three big international markets for New Zealand: Australia, China and the US. But Tourism NZ is also looking beyond those markets for the portfolio of countries it wants to target.

“We’re doing some work now getting a much deeper understanding of what high quality visitors look like and what their motivations are.”

Before Covid struck, nearly 4 million visitors a year were putting pressure on infrastructure and trying the patience of locals. Tourism Minister Stuart Nash attracted attention soon after taking over the portfolio for re-stating what has been a long-standing focus: attracting fewer but bigger-spending visitors.

De Monchy says his organisation is completely aligned with that thinking.

“Our research and insights is about targeting high value visitors. We talk about them now more as high quality visitors … and this is the research we’re doing now, to try and get a much deeper understanding of what motivates those people.”

The financial benefits are only part of that equation.

“We also want people that are interested in our culture, in our society, in nature, so that we can get a much deeper kind of contribution to New Zealand, beyond just economic.”

Domestic tourism was worth $24b in the year to March 2019, and outside of lockdowns it has recovered to a degree, if unevenly.

Last May Tourism NZ switched its focus from decades of promoting the country to a global audience, to getting Kiwis out and about.

De Monchy says that focus won’t change. There’s a new campaign underway to get travellers who aren’t bound by school holiday dates to see more of New Zealand.

“For the next kind of 12 to 18 months, the only thing we know today is that we have domestic visitors, and some Australians, but beyond that we don’t yet have visibility of who and when they’re going to arrive, so we’ll continue to do quite a strong domestic push.

“There’s plenty of life in the market, but it’s not enough to fill the hole, let’s be clear.”

He says deep immersion in promoting the home market will help Tourism NZ sell this country more expertly overseas when more borders open.

“We were solely focused on international previously, and with 60 per cent scale and value of the sector domestic, it’s been fascinating for us to get a better understanding of that and then build that platform.”

He says he was stoked to get the top job but is fully aware of the enormous responsibility of getting it right.

There were about 750 people at the Trenz event and after an incredibly tough year the industry was unbelievably optimistic. In spite of parts of the industry being crushed, he expected those at the Christchurch gathering to be optimistically looking to build a better future.

“So there’s a real opportunity for us as Tourism New Zealand to corral that energy, to help it come out better on the other side.”

Advance school holiday and ski vacation bookings from Australia are building after a cautious start to quarantine-free travel. “I do think with the Australian opening, what you’re now starting to see is a kind of a silver of ray of sunshine on the horizon – a bit more hope.”

Rene de Monchy:

• Chief executive, Tourism NZ
• Moved to NZ when he was eight because his parents were looking for more space and freedom
• Attended Rosehill College in Papakura, where he met his future wife, Kirsten
• Lives in Sandringham
• The couple have three children aged 12 to 17
• Favourite NZ holiday spot? That’s a tricky one for the boss of agency promoting the whole country. Had a great holiday in April in Queenstown and Central Otago, but loves the Coromandel beaches with friends.

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