[Karioi Lodge (Raglan)]
We All Come To Do Something Different ...
I remember sitting at a tourism conference listening to our Minister of Tourism give a keynote address. Our newly elected Prime Minister, John Key, was extolling the virtues of the pre-packaged tourism market of the over 65's and how it was saving New Zealand tourism. Apparently they were the ones funding the drive in growth which my chosen industry was experiencing after the decline from the wear of the Lord of the Rings phenomenon of a few years before.
“Bullshit” I muttered under my breath, to the delight of a few colleagues. This keynote address was coming on the back of an article in the NZ Herald about the pitfalls of the backpacker sector in the industry. Apparently, according to this journalist, backpackers who came to New Zealand only spent their money in the bars and pubs and the major city centres in this country. This journalist had definitely met a different breed of backpacker than I had at any time in the past six years.
I had this point of view because I was in the thick of the backpacker tourism industry: an industry which was seeing millions of dollars in turnover annually,; an industry built on the disposable income of 18-25 year old travellers seeking an escape from the doldrums life of their respective homes. They were spending up large here, directly into Kiwi coffers, on tours, activities, accommodation and well, yes, booze as well. But my point is that these young travellers spend more money in NZ than your average grey tour ever will. There's a lot of money to be made of these travellers and for six years of my life my job was to get as much out of them as I possibly could by any means necessary.
What I'm about to tell you is a tale of adventure, lust, greed and deceit. It's up to you to decide how much of it you want to believe. As I look back on the events that made up a significant part of the last 10 years of my life I sometimes find it hard to believe as well. What I can assure you is that the stories recounted are as accurate as I can remember them (or lack of memory as it sometimes played out). For the sake of many friends I still have in this industry I'm about to speak of, names and locations have been changed. I have also condensed the majority of events I'm about to describe from 10 years down to 10 days.
I chose 10 days as that was the average length a tour around the North Island of New Zealand would take. This was a tour I would do often and a tour that showed me a lot about humanity as it did about the countryside of this country I now call home. I'm about to drag you through the world of backpacker tourism in New Zealand. This is not, however, a tale about bungy jumps, hikes and skydives. This is a tale of how the industry fights for every dollar arriving on those inbound planes and the back alley deals which keeps the industry pumping.
My story is this. I was a tour guide for six years with a company we're going to call NZ Tours Inc. It catered to the backpacker market of young adults aged between 18 and 25 mostly. These travellers were from all over the world. I remember a quote we had scrawled across the head office that I would read every time I came back to Auckland; “We all want to do something different.... But we all end up doing the same thing.”
This pretty much summed up our tours. Every thirty days I would set off from Auckland with a bus load of young adults all looking to escape the boredom of their everyday lives. For most of them they had 28 days to experience the time of their lives before heading back to their home country and the tedium of their everyday reality. But before they did they were going to have one hell of a blow out. They came with a large amount of disposable cash they planned to blow on bungy jumps, skydives booze and as much sex as they could fit in to that month they were away.
When on tour people change. I noticed this during my time as a driver. Maybe it has something to do with the anonymity created by being in a foreign country. I've watched several meek and mild mannered backpackers quietly step aboard my bus and leave having experienced a multitude of orgies that they would never talk about later with their friends back home but would remember for the rest of their lives. For many of these backpackers these were the experiences which mattered as much, if not more to them, as capturing the scenic backdrops of New Zealand or throwing themselves off of some bridge in Queenstown. And I was their guide. I was the one in charge of showing them around and facilitating this behaviour.
I remember one experience in particular. A boy and a girl on my bus had fallen in lust by the time our tour had crossed the Cook Straight and were hot and heavy with each other through two night stop over in Abel Tasman. The next stop was a nowhere town on the West Coast known as Baz Vegas. On a map it was referenced as Barrytown. A small, quiet town tucked away on the rugged West Coast with a standing population of about 46 until our big bus rolled in. It was always a big night in Baz Vegas as there really was little else to do but get wasted. It had been a big night with all of the passengers getting into fancy dress and doing copious amounts of shots that would have even made Keith Moon shudder. The party carried on heavy into the night. For me the novelty of such indulgence had worn off long ago so I had escaped.
The next morning, while I was grabbing a coffee, I witnessed the end of the short lived romance of my two in lust in the laundry room. The girl had, at arms length, her sleeping bag and was screaming at her dopey eyed accomplice; “I can't believe this” she said in her heavy German accented English. “You are disgusting. I hope you are going to pay me back for this.” I watched with amusement as the English boy tried to piece it all together just what she was going on about. Turns out he had filled up his bladder with booze the night before and while dreaming of Mother England in the night had lost his control flooding the bunk the two had found themselves for the night. I laughed into my coffee. This poor kid was getting an earful of it before it was even 7:30. He was in for a long day.
Events like this were common and led to my eventual boredom with the job. It was like Groundhog Day every 30 days. I'd pick up a bus with my manifest for the trip, collect all of the angst-ridden travellers all setting out to enact their independence, and then show them the same things I had shown a thousand people before. Don't get me wrong, the job did have its perks. I had no one to answer to but the groups on my bus. As long as I could show them big trees, scenic walks, and the cheapest places to buy their booze then they were kept more than happy!
It was at this point that I moved into sales for NZ Tours Inc. Sales in this industry was a lose term in that you were to get them any way you could. I would run events in the bar and play MC, trying to portray this air of coolness that would fit into the ethos of the backpackers. My job was to be the guy all the guys in the bar wanted to hang out with and all the girls in the bar wanted to get with.
For a twenty-something that wasn't a bad job description. Opportunities came in abundance and I was quickly living the life of a local rock star. I would be given free booze at the bars I ran promotions because I encouraged others to party with me and then free adrenalin activities for the products I promoted at these gigs. I think the last time I counted I had amassed over 150 bungy jumps. I never stopped to think about the company money I was spending on bar tabs but it never seemed to be an issue. I was getting the results and that was all that seemed to matter. And for me the perks of free booze, sex and adrenaline activities were a huge bonus.
It began to hit me, the ethics and the money that really passed hands in this industry, one time early on when I met a guy writing for a well known travel guide book. He was sitting in a pub I had been running a promo night in and we began chatting. After a few beers he let slip what he was in the country to do and all of the perks he experienced as a result. It turns out that the majority of the places and attractions he was writing about he had never actually visited himself. He would talk to tour operators and take backhanders to write glorious reviews of their products.
You see, to any tour operator in the country, once you're listed in Lonely Planet it equates to having your own license to print money. There will inevitably be an endless stream of people willing to part with their cash to take part in what you have to offer. A few hundred dollars off the books is nothing compared to the benefits they might reap. And reap they did, along with this morally bankrupt individual. I realised that this series of books he was writing was basically one giant advert. I was gob smacked. I would have stayed to tell him so but I was interrupted by a young blonde Swedish backpacker who wanted to “talk” to me about a potential prize she could win. I had to go.
As time went on I thought it might be time to grow up. I was growing tired of the constant partying and my liver was beginning to pay the price. I had moved up in NZ Tours Inc. and was now starting to deal with travel agents. While my clientele had changed from backpackers somehow the tactics hadn't. I would often take these agents from various companies out on what we called “famils”. The idea was that we would show them a snippet of what our tours were like.
Of course we skewed the events so that they would have a chance to do everything on the company dime and have a six day bender in the process. The true goal was to show these travel agents a great time so that when they went to recommend a tour for a client they would remember us as those “good bastards who got me completely fucked up that one time”. It's funny the little difference between travel agents and backpackers really!
So this was my new job. I had graduated from the backpacker bars to the open road once again with this new set of passengers. I had high hopes though; that for some reason these agents would be into the tours for the purity of the business. I had it in my mind that they were to experience what we had to offer so they could relate it back to their clients. How wrong I was. They were there for a piss up on wheels. And if it meant that I would get their endorsement then that was what I was going to give them.
So here starts the tour. A ten day trip around the North Island of New Zealand with a bus load of travel agents ranging a wide variety of rank from rookies in the industry to their managers. We set off in a 28 seater bus with a trailer that was just as much for the booze I needed to take as it was for their over packed luggage. For all the advice these guys give on travelling light you think they would have been a little more informed on the graces of light travel themselves. But this is just one of the many myths that were to be challenged and dispelled about these people who could make or break the company I worked for.
On the first leg of our tour we made tracks for the winterless north and the Bay of Islands. We took off around 9:00 am and already there were calls for the beers to be cracked open from these agents of mine. It’s funny how a distinguished and respected group of travel agents turn into monsters as soon as they step on the bus. But hey, if that's what they wanted who was I to stop them.
How it worked is that my mate Andy would drive the bus and give the commentary. I had my hands full with keeping the agents happy. I was given a budget of $8,000 for this trip. That might not sound like a lot to take a group of 12 people on a tour for ten days but when you consider we weren't paying for fuel, accommodation, or any of the activities we would be doing along the way then that's a lot of money to be spent on... well booze.
The scenic stops didn't seem to matter to any on board unless there was a toilet near by. This made the Hunterwasser Toilets the highlight of the trip! By the time we reached Paihia all bets were off and it was all go. One of the agents was the rep for the hostel we were staying at and she just opened the bar to us. I remember looking around at one point in the evening and there we were: the majority of us buck naked in the hot tub, with one of the agents giving Andy the driver a blowjob behind the rubbish bins. Two of the more quiet lads had drunk their weight in Jaager and had snuck off to some remote corner of the building, and I found my leg being felt up in the darkness of the pool later on that evening. Not much had changed from my days on the road, just the type of passenger. Nobody was interested in pacing themselves. The tone had been set for the trip and it was going to be fast, loose and heavy.
In the morning, sore heads were the norm. I started handing out the stash of Panadol to ease the pain. These guys were all having a great time in the name of NZ Tours Inc. and that was all my bosses cared about. It was going to be a long day to the Coromandel and Hot Water Beach and I needed to get everyone fed and moving.
The first problem was trying to track down my driver and hoping he was sober enough to drive the bus. The rest were all walking around like zombies trying to shake the pain incurred from actions the night before. While I was a little dumbstruck at the actions of these respected agents (lets be honest, they weren't exactly 18 year olds. The average age on this agent famil was 30) I simply put it down to first day/ night excitement. I reckoned they had it out of their systems and that we would be back on track from here. But that was not what they wanted.
I found Andy and as I piled the lot on to the bus the first call for “hair of the dog” was shouted from the back. They were back on it in stunning form. Eyes were being made from one of my agents to the driver, and the two lads who had found discreet embrace in each other's arms the night before now sat at opposite ends of the bus avoiding each other's eye contact. I just sat back, cracked a beer myself and settled in for a long day.
By day three not much had changed. I had already topped up the supplies in the back of the trailer for the drive from the Coromandel through to Raglan and was now trying to secure requests for “other” forms of enlightenment for the next leg of the journey. It was during this time, now that the agents had started to settle, that I began my sales work on some of the key agents I had brought along on this trip. For the sake of this story we'll call the one I was most trying to entertain Cindy.
Cindy was the head inbound buyer for a very large international travel company. Cindy held the gateway to an unprecedented opportunity to increase our annual sales and it was my job to impress her. She was in her mid thirties and had obviously been behind a desk for a considerable amount of time. In other words she was fat. For the first couple of legs of the tour she had taken part in the group but had remained fairly conserved with the company around. She would often just smile at the antics of a couple of her younger staff who had come along for the ride.
The conversation was awkward as we had little in common. “Enjoying the trip” I asked hesitantly, not too sure about the answer I would receive. She smiled politely and said it had been interesting to see what went on in a backpacker tour. She had “heard stories”. I laughed it off and tried to convince her that this wasn't a normal trip! She said it had been a great experience so far and that she was genuinely enjoying herself. I decided to leave it at that. At the moment her company had an exclusive distribution deal with our competitors. It was very clear from those that paid my wages that I needed to secure this contract and fast.
Once in Raglan everyone settled in. We were staying at an eco retreat the tour company used. It was set on 140 acres of native bush overlooking Whale Bay. I had a colleague of mine meet us there with the “extra” supplies and help me out with the entertaining of this crew. I found myself wondering if this was possibly the first time any of these guys had been out on a tour before but this was the norm. They were treated like this, and behaved like this, on numerous trips put on by various operators.
They were pros at this and apparently showing me the way. They knew what they wanted, weren't afraid to ask me for it, and made no apologies for their actions along the way. As long as I would keep them plied with booze and on a trip where they could remain anonyms in their antics then they would reciprocate this with sales.
This was how the tourism machine worked at this level. No back alley bribes, but bribes right out in the open. If I made it so they had a great time, regardless of what it was my company actually offered the buying public, they would sell my product. In this moment of clarity I resigned myself to the fact that I really wasn't much better than that travel guide writer I had run into some years before in the backpacker bar. I was dealing out these good time “bribes” for endorsements of my company. Well, shit, I thought, I'm in it this deep I might as well go the whole way.
The rest of the night turned into something quite magic as the result of an accident. Charlie, the owner of the bush retreat, had planned a big “Drum n' Bass” party in his shed on the other side of the valley. The benefit of having a place on 140 acres is that your nearest neighbours are far from a place they can make a noise complaint. Everyone on the tour was pilled up and feeling euphoric and ready for a night to kick off! The one problem, the power went off! It turned out there was a massive blackout in the area and we had no idea when the power would return. That meant no douff douff music for the night.
I can't say I was overly disappointed but this trip wasn't about me. With some quick thinking we grabbed some guitars (you're never far from one or someone who can play it when you're in New Zealand!) and started an acoustic sing along. Everyone was getting into it with dilated pupils and having the time of their life. Even Cindy, unbeknownst to me, had taken some “mood enhancers” and was at long last getting into the swing of things. Everything seemed to be falling into place. My mate who had come down to help me turned out to be an ace on guitar and he, along with another of the agents, kept jamming for a few hours until the power came back on. When it did the party really took off.
This trip wasn't about experiencing the wildlife, walks or adventure the country has to offer, it was about getting “wasted”, “hooking up” for one night stands and living like rock stars for the few days we were away from their real lives. As I did earlier on the trip out of defeat, I now just kicked back, cracked a beer, and let the good vibes wash over me but this time with a triumphant feel of accomplishment. I had turned. I had become the consummate sales man. And you know what? It was working!
I made it to bed about 4:00 am and had been lying down for about 30 min when I heard my door open. I raised my head to see Cindy stumbling in through my door. Despite what you may be thinking she was not looking for a little midnight romance to finish off the evening with, she was disorientated and looking for the ladies room. As I saw her move to the end of my bed and begin to drop her pants and squat I realised she thought she had found it.
With an almighty leap I rose from my bed yelling “Cindy, Cindy, wake up! What are you doing?” She mumbled a reply which was inaudible and then tried to climb into my bed. She then realised that I was in it and began to yell at me. First for wondering why I was in the girls bathroom and then secondly for being in her bedroom. All the while she was naked from the waist down. As politely and discreetly as I could I pulled her pants up and sent her outside back to her room. She seemed to be on her way and I jumped back into bed, worried about what the fall out from this would be in the morning. It was then that I heard a gushing stream of running water outside my door on the outside patio. I guessed that Cindy had found a pseudo ladies room to make use of. The morning would come way to soon for me at this point.
When everyone started to stir I again stepped out to asses the damage. This was becoming a morning ritual for me. There were some sore heads and tired faces strewn about all over the place along with the obligatory new couples trying to sneak back into their right rooms. At this point I wasn't worried about them. My main concern was Cindy.
I found my mate who had been the ace on the guitar the night before and asked if he had seen her. He seemed oddly sheepish at my questioning. “Are you all right?” “Yeah, yeah. So her name is Cindy?” With this he started to go red and I put two and two together. “You didn't?” I questioned. Silence. “If this turns south it’s on you!” He didn't say a thing but knew the consequences. Now all I could do was wait it out.
We were in no rush to head back to Auckland and for that I was glad. A few of the more adventurous agents actually stirred to take in a surf lesson down at the beach. I joined them as I could do nothing about the situation brewing back at the hostel. When we came back Cindy was up and being very quiet.
What the fuck was I to do? I shot her a glance to see if there was any recognition from the night before but she seemed preoccupied. Fair enough. I let it go. She stayed off to the side of the group for the rest of the day. It was an uneventful return home. No calls for beers, hardly even a peep came out from the tired bodies in the seats of the bus. For the most part I felt my job was complete. All that was left now was to deliver them all back safely to Auckland and start the next procession of “wooing” travel agents.
A couple of days after we had returned I tentatively made my way up to visit Cindy at her office in Auckland to see how much damage had been made and what, if anything, could be salvaged from the trip to get her on board with our product. As I walked into her office she asked me to close the door behind me. “Thank you for coming in” she started. I had a knot developing in my stomach.
In front of me was a well dressed manager in her mid-thirties, not the loose party girl trying to urinate on my bed a few days earlier. How was this going to play out?
“Firstly, I wanted to thank you for a great time on your bus. It truly was an eye opener to see what goes on when these young travel agents of mine are with the various operators. Also, I wanted to personally thank you for your discretion with my behaviour that night in Raglan.” She began to blush at this and for some reason so did I. “No worries” I said. “What goes on tour stays on tour”. We left it at that. We exchanged pleasantries and I left. I still had no idea where we stood with the contract. I guessed that only time would tell.
I can tell you that we got the contract. Not only that but we succeeded our competitor to become this company's preferred product when selling globally. It's with interest that I look back at this now. What did it really take? I hadn't shown them a true representation of our tour. I had taken a group of travel agents out, thrown a heap of cash at them and watched as they all proceeded to get loose and fuck each other.
That's all it took. I again found myself thinking back to my greener days in the industry and that encounter with the travel writer. I was no different. I was dishing it out for the reference. I didn't really give it much thought at the time. It was just what needed to be done.
That year NZ Tours Inc. took in an annual profit of over $1 million dollars. It really had nothing to do with creating a tour the backpackers enjoyed, it helped, but what made the success happen was a succession of tours and parties like this to wine and dine the powers that be.
There is a lot of debate in the media at the moment over the image Tourism NZ is trying to promote around the globe of this country being “100% Pure”. A lot of the flack is coming from those who point out our conservation shortcomings and say that the only reason we have so much beautiful, untouched scenic space is because there are so few of us.
I view this debate in another light. Tourism in New Zealand is anything but “100% Pure”. It is full of antics, back room deals and front room tours which grease the way for travellers to come into this country and part ways with their hard earned cash. This is why I called bullshit at Mr. Key's keynote address a couple of years back. Not only is it the backpackers spending up large when they get here, but it is us, the tourism companies, spending up large to get them here. Whether it’s through advertising, tours with travel agents, or simply just paying off the travel writer it's happening en masse.
I'm not trying to say if it is right or wrong. How can I? For six years it paid my wages and afforded me an incredible lifestyle I will never forget. I did some things I wasn't proud of but in the main scheme of things I figure I did alright. I had a job to do. What would you have done in my position?