MASON'S GLOWWORM CAVES: STARTING A TOURISM CAVE BUSINESS
I thought the best approach to dialogue with fellow members would be to share with you the most common questions asked of me by my paying guests. Mostly they run like this:
"Why did you start this new business?"
"Do you still run a farm?"
"Do you own the Glow-worm Cave?"
As a simple response to each question I could say "yes," but I have often discerned that there has been a thought behind the question. Statements like this often followed:
"If this was my country the government would own this."
"Why should someone at retirement age want to start up a new business" (or even worse)
"With 300 hectares of good land running beef and sheep does he need to be in the tourism industry?" (Sometimes even worse than that, unspoken of course, the mental process of intellectual arrogance saying "I am an environmental scientist. I know a lot about small cause and effect studies, and a great deal about large cause and effect processes, I don't really think that commercial propriety business should exist, let alone turn a profit, from natural wonders!")
There is something primal about owning a hole in the ground. In this Waitomo region we get enthusiastic about it, it brings out all the passion both good and bad, of local people. The up-side of this, is that it raises an awareness of the natural environment and its value both now and in the future.
To return to the reasons about why to start the venture, closer to the truth may be Sir Edmund Hillary's response as to why he climbed Everest "because it was there". In my case, Te Anaoteatea and the Glowworm Cave were there. It was not motivation enough on its own. Other activities in Waitomo had opened up and were catering principally to the travelling youth market seeking adventure. I had the concept that a soft adventure cave, no squeezes or wet suits, walk through or boat ride but still 'adventure with head lights' differing from the Tourist cave could appeal to a wider age group seeking something to get alongside the real New Zealand. There were other aspects for the visitor: open karst, historic sites, ecological areas, plus on-farm travel. I had enjoyed caving in my youth. I look back to that time in reading Bulletin 28 of the New Zealand Speleological Society of 1958 which describes visits to Mason's Dry in 1958 and early explorations to the Mangawhitikau underground system.
My wife and I had been willing hosts to guides, school groups, friends and guests over the years who had a great fun time in Mason's Limestone Valley and the Mangauwhitikau Gorge. We traditionally had links with Waitomo itself. Our home had been converted to allow for Bed & Breakfast guests and our children had left home. The thought was also there that commercialising the cave might give better protection to the environment of the area given that my nearest neighbour was big, big Macdonald's Lime "read BHP".
A decision to proceed was made and little did we know? I personally still am going through a steep learning curve as to how the tourist business operates. The 'Blackdown' farm is run on a sustainable resource basis by choice: lowered stock numbers, low cost inputs, no veterinary bills, low impact on the environment. A cash flow from an outside source to support the farm experiment appeared as a good option. For the cave we set a policy to achieve growth to a certain level that we considered should have a minimum impact on the environment. Likewise any changes within the cave were to be minimum impact, consistent with getting a limited number of tourists through. These objectives are still our policy plan, but again little did we know? We got the product for the customer ready and right but forgot that the cash flow would probably go in the wrong direction for the first three years. We did not realise at that stage that the whole of the tourist industry works from the top down (sometimes called vertical integration) particularly in the bus market, and in policy areas e.g. VIN centres. That it is a very controlled market from those at the centres of the market. The market area for us, which we had identified for our limited operation was, the free and independent traveller. It was the most expensive market to target and we soon realised our survival would depend, not only on the quality and satisfaction that we could give the tourist by our operation, but it would need the good standing and recommendation that others gave us in the local area. To capture the free and independent traveller was like trying to head and mob a bunch of stroppy ewes with lambs using a huntaway dog, they come and go in all directions!
On the local scene the business required a strong connection to the centre of things.
The recognition by other operators in the tourist industry that our business offered something special and different. We needed friends who were customer oriented, referral minded and who would through their contacts recommend us.
Our only front desk locally for access to the F.I.T. traveller was the VIN Centres. It was and still is vital to us that they exercise their people skills in assessing and advising potential clients, in sorting out the traveller's requirements for his best options, unbiased as to the operator's interest.
The standard, the quality and type of operation should eventually win through as the customer's choice, and be self-regulatory (in an ideal world!)
What happened next in establishing the business were the realities of start-up costs. The list gets longer and longer and after two full years of operation I am still adding to the list! Lawyer's fees, surveyor's costs, insurance costs, increased by ACC charges and Health & Safety regulations, council administration costs, time costs, advice costs, signage costs, cave costs, access and road costs, advertising costs. All very boring information, but with regard to cash flow supporting a more relaxed farm operation, it was a joke, at this early stage. Funding for start-up costs was not available from any public small business source because the criteria did not apply.
Free advice came to us from all directions, most of it good. Waitomo Enterprise Development Agency supported us on a regular basis. From elsewhere we collected information like: "get a good brochure", I think we did, "advertise in this and that", some of which we did, "put stepping stones into the river cave". Does anyone recognise that advice? "You will get nowhere unless you set up your own 'front office' in Waitomo", haven't accepted that advice yet; "don't do this or that at this stage, it is too expensive for you" ... I have sometimes accepted that advice.
We did some inventive things like arrowhead "keep left" stickers for the windscreens of hire cars with some discreet advertising in the interest of safety and hopefully a spin-off by being heard of. Advice as to whether my tourist operation on my own property was legitimate as to land use appeared OK because of an amenity zone rating (that incidentally was not originally sanctioned by myself as landowner but was established some years back in the Waitomo District Scheme Plan).
Permitted activity for my operation, with regard to land use, is still a grey area for me. In particular, with regard to whether I am required at the level I operate here, to be compulsorily required to apply to council for activity on my own land, and the question then arises "can my business be destroyed by non-compliance and the court action that would follow?" On the other hand would council, or the public purse, pay compensation if they refused to allow the use, or activity, on the land? A new Local Authority Scheme Plan for the Waitomo District Council will no doubt sort this out as council, themselves, will have to comply with the Resource Management Act.
What are the acceptable levels of resource and environmental control? My interpretation of the Resource Management as envisaged under the Act, is that it was not intended to be a zoning manual for regulatory control, and that it does not intend to preclude economic use, but that resource use should not degrade our natural environment for people now or in the future. It empowers a lot of people who have no background of economic management of local resources to lodge objections, at a high cost to small start up businesses.
Mankind is a user of our resource base and will continue to use resources in order to live. The best we can do is to exchange one resource with another, and slow the speed that we degrade resources, in order to meet the reasonable needs of a modem society. Nature will provide, and will fight back if we slow the speed of change. The regulatory procedures that we apply need to encourage that balance in the environment.
We desperately need an economic structure that would make this possible. I believe that economic pressure needs to be lifted from the product base, by which we all live. In the management of farmland, the demands of the overdraft and speed of turnover often overcome educational long term goals, sensitive to the environment.
Given the best economic condition, a case for environmental control can be made, but can you see this happening with policies limiting the size of a business. Pro-active policies for dispersal of populations, moving densities away from cities, on site recycling of waste and dispersal of waste, banning the production of non-biodegradable material and lowering water degradable percentages to zero. Education rather than legislative direction would be my personal preference as to method for a way forward. I also think it would be my most unpractical dream in today's world. Dreams are free, not those ones.
The public interest today is represented by the Resource Management Act and perhaps a good starting point for planning is a respect for property rights at all levels. The good husbandship of land use is ultimately the responsibility of owners in whatever the form and so are the costs. Public funding of resource consents should be automatic. The question for my business is "can these processes be so cost effective as to allow my small business to establish itself on a sound footing?" My difficulties in dealing with regulatory matters are not yet over. What do we now think of the project we have started?
Battling through the difficulties with more to come keeps us alive, our customers are often 'over the top' in their expression of appreciation of the non-sanitised version of what we have offered them for their visit here to NZ. Their enjoyment makes what we do here worthwhile and is still a satisfaction to us. The Glow-worm Cave business on 'Blackdown' will survive, be it the small version or a much larger version. The vision for its future has been set.
In conclusion I invite you to ask questions, particularly if you so wish in the area of the nature and nurture of the environment.
I have had a long gestation period in thinking about these issues