• Business Spotlight -Balloons Over Waikato

Business Spotlight

I’ve got a question for you? Have you ever heard of events Round Bridges or the New Zealand Motorhome and Caravan Leisure show, or even Balloons over Waikato? Now if you’ve heard of any of these events, then you probably would have crossed paths with this business owner that we’re interviewing today. But I’m going to throw one more piece into the mix, because while she’s been doing all of those events, she also decided back in 2018, to start a rural holiday home platform, which is growing in strength and strength.

 

Tracey 

I am excited to introduce you to Michele Connoll from Classic Events and Off the Beaten Track. Michelle, Hello, how are you?

Michele  

Hi, Tracey. I’m good. Thank you.

Tracey 

Now it’s been an interesting 18 months and before we go into your business story and the fact that you’ve got these two businesses, I would love to hear your backstory, where you’ve come from, because you know, I’ve done the research already. And I was blown away with what you what you’ve done up until now. So could you please share with us a little bit about how you got to where you are now and where it all started?

Michele 

Well, I suppose I’ve always since my mid 20s, really, I have been in business for myself and opened my first business with a friend. Back then we opened a retail store called Country Bumpkins, which was a homewares Gift Store, which we loved. And I guess I was always opening businesses in my life that were probably appealing to me for the stage that I was at in my life.

So we enjoy that and we were fortunate that that we had won a business award with it and we we got featured in a magazine.  That sort of gave us the impetus to sell it and we were both at the stage where we were sort of newly married and ready to move on to the next stage. So we were living on the farm and living in a little cottage and after I sold that first business I just went about actually moving a big old home from Danniverke. For probably three or four months, renovated the home with the intent of starting a family and three sons later and then the second business idea came. That was really born out of having three boys who wouldn’t sit still and to get their haircut was a nightmare. So I opened Cool Hair Cut  it was called it was a kid’s hair salon. It had TVs all along the front. They weren’t playing TV,  they had  either videos where little ones could watch their favourite video or they had Playstations where those kids that were a bit older could sit there and play Playstation. There was also a cafe that was joining it.

Tracey 

That must have been one of the coolest places in town?

Michele 

Well, it was, my youngest was about two and a half when I opened it. So sometimes I was thinking what am I doing? Because you know, I guess it was a really good business. The kids really enjoyed it. The the kids really enjoyed being part of it.  It was just you know, we tried to do things a bit differently and involve ourselves with schools and align ourselves with those sorts of things. And and so it got to the stage. I wasn’t a hairdresser in the hairdressing industry, that was quite challenging when you’re not a hairdresser, you just can’t step in and take over, they wouldn’t want me taking over .

We were fortunate, that again we won a business award for our second business as well.  It was at those awards dinner that I ended up meeting the chief judge, who was telling me that she owned a recruitment company. So I didn’t sort of think anything of it, but it was probably four or five months later, I’d said to my husband that, I think I might exit the hairdressing industry, and just get something that was just 15 hours a week still have plenty of time for the kids and I thought I would give her a ring and thought, “I will just see if she had anything” to take my name and see if there was something that might crop up for 15 hours a week. She actually said to me, what are you doing now? Come on in. She was also the chief woman for Balloons over Waikato, which is a massive event here in Hamilton/ Waikato. So I went in, and she, she said, why don’t you come and work for us. So my, my role was to grow the event. So, you know,  there was a number of initiatives, looked at creating, and it was 15 hours a week, and it was great.

I then found myself in a situation, it was October and the event is in March and come the end of the year, the the Event Manager left an I was just left in the hot seat.  It was a baptism of fire! I had never run events before, nor did I  know anything about hot air balloons. I remember at one stage someone saying to me about this time that we need to provide a PowerPoint presentation to our sponsors .  I didn’t even know what PowerPoint was.

It was quite a baptism of fire but it was. So we managed to get through and I think the thing that held it all together was it was a beautiful week of weather, no one sort of realised the chaos that was going on behind the scenes. So I thought to myself, it would be fantastic. Actually, after that all wrapped up and in the exhaustion that you got through, I thought it would be quite nice to have the luxury of having a whole year to pull that event together and I’m still doing it. I’m still running. So that was 2005.

Tracey 

Yeah, so not only one event, you’ve got multiple events now.

Michele 

Yes. So in 2010. My husband and I were just looking at perhaps what we might move on to or do something else and we decided, we were just looking at options. It came to our notice that there was an event company that was for sale. So we actually bought that event company that was Classic Events.  At that stage, we were running the  New Zealand motorhome, caravan and leisure show  in Hamilton, the North Island,  and one in the South Island, in Christchurch. We’ve sort of come and gone with a few other events in our portfolio over that time. And we’ve settled really on our four probably favourite and best events that we run now. Which is great. Yeah.

Tracey 

So tell us what else you then decided to add to the portfolio?

Michele 

It was a decision that wasn’t a conscious decision. It was just an idea that came to us when Roy and I were actually watching an episode of country calendar. They were showing a  farm, it was a Canterbury farm and it had rivers, it had bush and it was beautiful.  The only people who were getting to enjoy that farm with a family of four that that lived on it and at that stage, the milk price wasn’t that great.  We were thinking, you know, there must be a lot of other farmers out there who’ve got beautiful pieces of paradise that they take for granted, or they just live with and they that they could actually monetize. Because we knew that every rural industry, be it sheep, beef and deer in dairy, they all have peaks and troughs or tough times and in good times. So we thought look, this might be a real opportunity to actually appeal to holiday makers so they could be staying at places in New Zealand they never knew existed. So that’s were off the beaten track came from. That’s the germ of an idea was formed and and we sort of went from there.

Tracey 

Wow. And I love the fact that you’ve got an another business that is is kind of aligned but not necessarily all your eggs in one basket. So holiday homes to events. Now, I know the most inspiring thing about you is that  this is just you, you just keep changing and evolving and you keep chasing and you keep coming up with ideas. So a real entrepreneurial brain, Michele, and I love that that’s what I love about you because you just  don’t see an obstacle, you just keep going. But over all of all this time, what has really been the driver for you to be that, that business owner and, and push yourself forward?

Michele 

My kids would say that it’s because I don’t like being told what to do. But I do, like, I guess I’ve always wanted to be in charge of my own time in my own day. You know, having the three boys you know, both Roy and I, in it, we were fortunate that you know, Roy was a dairy farmer, but being part of the lives while working was a big driver for me. And I still wanted to, you know, still wanted to go on camp with them still wanted to meet, you know, manage sports team and still wanted to be be very much present with their lives and it’s still happening as I sit down here in New Plymouth with Taylor setting up his first business. So that was probably a big driver for me,  that flexibility and, I still actually make sure that for my staff, it works that we have a very flexible working environment, majority of them are mums, and it’s really important. So that’s probably my own destiny and being able to be a big part of my my family’s life still.

Tracey 

Yeah, and it’s an amazing driver for people when it’s  family, that is a massive driver and you know, to think what you’ve achieved all that while still bringing up a family at the same time.

So you’ve got the events company, you’ve got a holiday home company which is going full gas.  So let’s go back to March 2020. I feel that it’s  always important to share these stories because it just shows the strength of exactly who you are Michele as  an entrepreneur and as a leader. Because we’re now here today still able to say that you know, you’re moving forward and the businesses moving forward but March 2020 COVID hits. Talk me through those first couple of months for you.

Michele 

You know, having a tourism business  and an event business with mass gatherings was not good with COVID. And so when COVID hit last year, we were on the cusp of lockdown. That was the lockdown that was to come with Balloons over Waikato. So for some context balloons hit is over a five day event for those who don’t know it, about approximately 5000 People come down every morning, and then the the Zuru Night glow, which is our big, big night. There’s around 80 odd 1000 People come to that night.

So as we were drawing close, things were happening, cases were happening and we knew when the government at that stage, cancelled the then Christchurch Memorial event, it was really a catalyst for us in terms of what we were doing moving forward with balloon so we had to change on the hop that whole event things were happening through that week. From where you know how many we had, we had to cancel all public facing events.  We decided as we had all our international pilots here. We had all the balloons here. Everyone was there. And so we thought okay, let’s not run the public facing events, but we’ll still do the flying component. So we structured it so that the balloons lifted off according to the breeze that would enable them to fly across the city and enough as many people as possible see the balloon so and you know, through that week, things were changing and we’ve got head about 150 crew and then suddenly it became you could only have 100 people in one place at one time. And so it was here you know we had pilots trying to get back to the States or Australia and having flights changing on them and it was really interesting. And I guess, then we went we finished we wrapped up balloons and we went straight into lockdown.

So we had  a couple of days to sort of tidy up In the office, I mean, we were straight into lockdown. So that gave us the ability then to, I suppose, have a good look at how things might appear moving forward, we actually activated everyone in my team onto Off the Beaten Track. Yes. And so we managed to reach out to a lot of potential landowners, and it was probably a good thing for that we were just dipping our toe in the Aussie market off the beaten track, so we had to turn that tape off. And, gone back and reviewed the domestic offering and how that was gonna look like. If you remember, back in those early days, and lockdown, there was so much information coming through and and it was really a challenging time. I think that was a  good thing. It kept you engaged with your industry and what was happening and we were all in this unknown territory, and just muddling our way through it.

Tracey 

Yeah, totally and  just talking and hearing another person talking about it, it takes you back to that time, it was exactly right, there was so much information and the hardest thing that we found, we went into crisis mode. So we personally lost 90% of our business and we turned to supporting the RTO here.  It was about taking that information and putting it into a single piece and pulling out what was important because there was a lot of noise, so much noise. We then created support groups, and it was all virtual.  I think for many, the support groups made the biggest difference because you could sit in a small group and share your knowledge and ask questions. Have you dealt with that cancellation? How have you dealt with, you know, that client or you chasing money here and unfortunately, there was a lot of people chasing money after after lockdown.

So with, with off the beaten track. And I don’t think people really understand the extent of when you say we put all our energy into off the beaten track how you grew that portfolio of holiday homes, exponentially?

Michele 

We did. We got another 80 listings from that period and we haven’t got a very big team, there’s only seven of us, including me. And, you know, we still had to go through the process at that time to of cancelling to events, and all of the refunds and all of the the whole business that goes with it.  Then we could focus a little bit more on on off the beaten track and how and, you know, it gave us some independent assessments of it too. And I guess that was important. So it was really good for us from  a landowner acquisition perspective.  But of course, people couldn’t travel. So they weren’t and there  weren’t the bookings, everyone was just sitting not knowing what was happening. So again, it was a tough time.  We never actually thought it when we got to the end of 2020 that I’d be sitting here. And just last week having to cancel another event and a postponed other event that we were over it and that just keeps rearing, its it’s the gift that keeps giving we say

Tracey 

It does. I think for a lot of people, they think that events just can turn off and be refunded and turned back on. But it’s actually a big beast and it moves slow. And when the momentum gets started, it’s really hard to turn it off. When you’re in full momentum.

Michele 

It is and you know, I guess what people need to know too is the flow on effect on all those people that rely on the event for the livelihoods too.  You’ve got all those contractors and suppliers that you know, essentially just the work especially when last year and everyone was catering, they just had everything the tap turned off on everything immediately and lost 10s and 10s of 1000s of dollars overnight. No one was certain how events would look like when they came back. I mean when we did come back. It was brilliant. The people were keen to get out and they were you know,  they were really well patronised. But in this time just feels a little different. We feel you know, it’s just been hard. Yeah, because I think we know, we felt we did it, and we got through and we now doing it all again.

Tracey 

Yeah,  I think you’re right, on all accounts. When we talk to people here and when we talk to people outside and one on one, this lockdown has definitely had a different vibe to it than any other.  This year, I think it’s, it’s harder and we know what to expect, but at the same time, it just feels harder. And and I think we have to put a lot of that to the fact that we’ve all worked so hard in the last 12 months. People are tired and emotionally drained and then you throw in another lockdown and you just thinking do I have enough to keep going?

So with that I want to ask you, the last 18 months have been extremely difficult and events have really been hit. I mean, tourism has been hit, but so has events. And what do you feel that you’ve learnt from the last 18 months? Like what’s something that you feel that you’ve, you know, gained? from it? I know, we’ve lost a lot, but what have you gain from it?

Michele 

I think what we’ve learnt, and with our team anyway, is flexibility, you know, we’ve it is that nimbleness to have to be changing and also, resilience, you know, we’ve had to make some really hard decisions, especially these last couple of months.  You know, one of them in particular, it was soul destroying, actually having to cancel that big show that was really an important show for our company. But I think, it is that resilience, and I think the, the team, I think it’s being surrounding yourself with good people and supportive people. I’m very, very lucky with the girls who work for me, and, again, you know, connecting with other groups, but I think it’s very important to surround yourself with good people in the sort of people. We’ve got a saying we’ve got at work and it is ‘tough times don’t last but tough people do’.  I think that’s quite true.  It’s pretty easy to just, I think go home and curl into into a ball and think that, you know, I can go to all of this  just please go away. But,  it’s not that easy and you just have to keep going and put one foot in front of another, we often think we seem to be going forward three steps and back two.  It just seems that resilience is probably a big part of it in this game. And we have got no other option but to keep going you’ve just got to keep playing.

‘Tough times don’t last but tough people do’

Tracey 

Yeah, and you sure right you know, this is the thing about business owners such as yourself Michele, is that when it is being your life and your passion and you don’t want anyone else to tell you what or how to do it, or how to suck eggs, you you dust yourself off, don’t you, you know you just dust yourself off and go “I’ve got to keep taking the steps forward and whilst I keep taking the steps forward, my my team will keep taking the steps forward with me and that’s true testament to your leadership in your role that are all in your business. The fact that you’ve got a great team that they’re growing with you and I think that this is the thing that you’re doing with these businesses, it’s just you’ve grown them and then all of a sudden, you might be down now but you won’t be down for long.

What was really interesting to me is I had heard about the New Zealand motorhome and Caravan leisure show, I didn’t really know much about it, but you had this event at a time that motorhomes were selling like hotcakes. I have a connection down here and Marlborough with a motorhome provider and they were waiting to be able to take their motorhomes up to Hamilton to go to the show just so they could display them because it was such a big thing and I think you even mentioned in passing once that  these  manufacturers wanted to show the new vehicles at your show and just wanted this event to go ahead because it’s just such  a pinnacle event for these motorhome companies.

Michele 

Yeah, I know it is,  especially these exhibitors come from Nationwide so you get to see everything all the new products and all in one place,  you know and that’s for some for such big things like motorhomes and caravans. It’s quite unusual really to be able to see them without having to travel for and what we’re finding is that our partner the NZMCA, they hold an event park and stay so we have over 1500 or so motorhomes make a weekend of it, they come down they stay. Have a fantastic time to catch up with, you know, friends.  So we actually take over the whole of mystery creek and wow, it’s a it’s a great venue for it to be in.

Tracey 

15,000 motor homes.

Michele 

No 1500

Tracey 

Okay, I got the numbers wrong, but still 1500 That’s okay, that’s a lot. That’s big. That is big. If anyone that’s watching this right now that doesn’t like motorhomes, I’m really sorry that this woman is a mover and shaker. And she’s obviously got the motor homes coming your way. So I want to go back to Off the Beaten Track. Because, you know, the events have been pretty well cemented into people’s calendars, and they’ve been around for some time. But off the beaten track is the new baby. It’s the new toy that you’ve got in your collection. And we just mentioned before how quickly it had grown. But I guess I wanted to get an understanding from you. Where do you see this platform going? Like, what’s the vision for off the beaten track?

Michele 

I guess the vision for us has to be the go to place that people look for our catch cry a unique rural Kiwi experience. So we want to be that first point of call that people who want to go experience the best part, you know, part of rural New Zealand, they’ll click on off the beaten track. And, then we thought big picture would be taking off the beaten track International. So you know, to other countries who also had that opportunity to be getting off the beaten track in their own country’s. That’s the big vision. But, you know, like any startup, it’s hit its end, you know, I, again, I was going into an industry I knew nothing about you know, I had no idea how to open an online business and that has also been interesting. You know, when your website is your everything, we’ve had two website builds, rebuilds and in the challenging challenges that go with that. So there’s still plenty, there’s still plenty to be done. And there’s plenty we want to do,  we want to call it our tribe of kiwi lovers of New Zealand, really so we want to foster that, that tribe and make it really worthwhile to belong to off the beaten track and I guess we do want to engage more with our with landowners.

Find ways to let them know that you know, that cost them nothing to list with us. So if you know, they might just have somewhere that they could just pack a motorhome or pitch a tent even. I mean, there’s one example of a farm and Canterbury that I went to and it’s lovely then they’ve got a big beef and a sheep station  they’ve got room by the river to park a motorhome then they’ve converted the Sheerers quarters to this gorgeous little one bedroom cottage. There’s another cottage at the back of the farm they  sleep about five or six. So they’ve really taken this and you know, is it a great example of using what they already had.

There are a lot of these landowners in quite remote areas, this is a way  that they at least engage with other people.  We were also quite conscious about spreading that tourism dollar too. So at the time we opened, or we created off the beaten track, we thought you know, your money went to Queenstown and Auckland.  This is when we had tourists who paid for experiences,  you know, these rural regions and small rural towns, could reap some of the benefits of the money coming through. Tourist staying in these regions have to buy the bread and milk from somewhere and we thought this would be a way to spread that tourists dollar into these small towns and regions as well. So that’s again another goal is too is to be making it more attractive for tourists to be actually not just doing the three stops or the two stops when they finally do come back.

Tracey 

I really love that idea because it creates a real authentic Kiwi experience because they’re going excuse the pun off the beaten track. But the dispersal of funds being not just going into those hotspots have actually been distributed into those regional areas where not only are they paying to stay with someone, there’s possibly going to be food purchased, petrol purchase and shopping done. It actually has a big economic impact on some of those regions that you’re sending them too. Which is great.  I think RTOS must love you, because you’re helping disperse people out into those smaller regions, which they really do need right now. And we have such a beautiful country here.

Michele 

Oh, I know, why wouldn’t we and I, quite often, when I used to go on a plane, sometimes I’d  look down and think oh gosh, there’s a lot of off the beaten track properties down there and lots of  opportunities, you know.

The next step for us is to have the experiences to add on, you know, some of them will have bikes to hire or swimming or farm tours, all sorts of things, too. So, some are quite entrepreneurial and the thinking around what they have to offer as well, which is great.

Tracey 

That’s also what we will do at the end of this, I will also drop the web address for off the beaten track, because I think it’s quite interesting for anyone that wants to have a little sticky peek around, you’re not you’re not an Airbnb, you know, not a book abach your your, about rural stays, and authentic rural states, which is, which is quite, you know, it’s quite beautiful about the product is that they’re one offs. But I do have a question for you, where are you in that space for  working with trade? Or are you open for working with trade?

Michele 

We’re open for anything. We have a small margin. We don’t charge a lot to our landowners and holidaymakers in terms of staying so there hasn’t been much to work with in the past, however, you know, we have just opened up and looking at working with some of these select little regional operators as well.  We’ve just started to do that but, you know, certainly, there’s lots of different ways, I think, and we’ve been exploring that, I suppose more in this last month, around how we can work together with other operators. I think there’s more than one way to skin the cat  you know.

Tracey 

If anyone hasn’t had a chance to look at your website, there are some amazing properties on there. Now, I have one cheeky little question before we wrap up Michele you know, you’ve obviously shown that you can handle the bright lights of being a business owner and selling and for many people. And one goal of mine is also about being able to sell a business that you have created. So it’s kind of a goal for me, and you’ve already done that tick, but what kind of advice would you give to other tourism and event businesses that are trying to navigate through these times?

 

Off the Beaten Track

Michele 

I think we’re all in this. As I said before, it’s like uncharted territory, really, although it’s getting a little bit more charted since last year, but probably my advice would be that it does sometimes feel like you’re battling this alone or with your own team.  It would probably be reiterating that, you know, join a group. You know, there’s lots of I don’t know how many webinars that I’ve been on in this last year. But there is lots and lots of opportunities to either, you know, learn more, develop, use the opportunity to develop probably your skills  in your area, which again, we decided to take that opportunity from some of those initiatives there to upskill some of the staff with what they wanted to, and I think just talking, talking with others in your industry, because you know, that problem shared rationale has actually never been truer than now. Definitely. And I suppose we’ve just got to, I think the light is coming at the end of the tunnel. We probably have a bit of a roadmap, the government telling us around what we  actually can do with the roadmap now. So I think, we can see that things are gonna be returning but we just have to hang in there.

Tracey 

We have to look forward. I’m a big believer of just looking forward and not getting caught up with what was behind you? Michele, thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed the chat today you know, we only have such a short amount of time and I had made some notes and I would have loved to have dug a little deeper but you just filled us with lots of lots of information and lots of goodies there. So I will invite you back at some stage but thank you so much for taking  time out of your day and good luck with helping with the the new business. Will you be adding it to your repertoire or for it to someone else’s repertoire.

Michele 

It’s definitely his

Speakers: Michele Connell – Owner Classic Events & Off The Beaten Track

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December 30, 2021
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