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Arrival Revival: Jason McKay Williams, iFLY Queenstown, New Zealand

It's no secret that Queenstown's tourism operators have suffered signficantly throughout the last eighteen months. Thankfully though, good things are happening again in New Zealand's adventure capital of the South. I caught up with iFLY Queenstown's Jason McKay Williams to get his take on the fresh wave of optimism, innovation and personal post-pandemic learnings.

It’s no secret that Queenstown’s tourism operators have suffered signficantly throughout the last eighteen months. Thankfully though, good things are happening again in New Zealand’s adventure capital of the South. I caught up with iFLY Queenstown’s Jason McKay Williams to get his take on the fresh wave of optimism, innovation and personal post-pandemic learnings.

After firstly donning a fly suit and zooming around iFLY Queenstown’s windy tunnel of fun (what an experience!), I sat down to catch my breath again with iFLY Queenstown’s ‘Conversion Architect & Head of Light Bulb Moments’ (yes that’s his real title – look him up!) Jason McKay Williams to find out more about the high flying operation.

Tell us a little bit about the iFLY experience…

We’ve got a vertical wind tunnel that simulates the solo freefall aspect of skydiving. The line I use is “that it’s fun and safe, which ranges from five to 105.”

The eldest person we’ve ever flown here is 94. We are all-abilities, and fully inclusive. So anyone that uses a wheelchair has any physical disability, we can fly them. We operate all-weather, into the evenings, and are one of the only businesses with a 24-hour operating license.

And the cool thing about this is that it’s skydiving approved by mum. Because there’s no other place in New Zealand that you can get someone as young as five flying.

Mum or dad may or may not approve of jet boating and bungee jumping and some of the high-adrenaline activities, but they also can’t get kids as young as we can get experiencing it, which is a pretty unique point difference for us.

It’s ‘skydiving approved by mum’ as we like to call it!

How are things looking at iFLY Queenstown at the moment?

Business has been pretty good, but it’s still taken a while to bounce back. Like the rest of Queenstown, the winter July school holidays has always been our busiest period. So from a domestic standpoint, we’re going to see a lot of foot traffic coming in, as well as a return of the Australian market coming here to ski, which is fantastic.

It’s a much-needed time to fill the bucket, so to speak; as much as I hate using that sort of terminology, this is where we’re really going to play catch up on the last 18 months.

We’re also really looking forward to launching a snow-by-day, fly-by-night campaign. We want to build some awareness around the fact that Queenstown doesn’t just stop once the sun goes down.

What will happen next? Like everyone else, of course, we’re not sure. And so, while we’re excited, we are still hesitantly waiting to see how it pans out. Particularly with the snow and changing trans-Tasman restrictions.

I think we’re just looking forward to seeing the masses return, really, to be blunt. And creating something new for so many people, which is really exciting. This is year three as a business for us, and there are still so many Kiwis that have never been here.

Our biggest international market pre-pandemic was Australia. It was huge. We also had many Chinese and Southeast Asian visitors and that was how our market flowed. For us, it is about providing the opportunity to experience something that people may not be aware of, that they can do back home, but instead doing it in the adventure capital of Queenstown while they are here.

I was impress to hear that you also run school education programs. Can you tell us more?

We have two education programs and one, in particular, has really taken off post-COVID. So the first one that Matt Wong, our GM, and I run is our tourism and business program which is targeted at high school and tertiary level students.

We talk to students in a hosted Q&A session about COVID, tourism recovery, marketing strategy, startups, entrepreneurship, emotional intelligence and self-awareness. And particularly at the tertiary level, how to start their career in tourism.

One of the biggest focuses has been the pandemic and how it’s impacted our business, particularly in the Queenstown landscape, as a startup business. And how, as a startup business, it has been successful, and we’ve been bought out by a local owner (Matt) who is now our GM. That’s been a huge talking point for us and an excellent opportunity to share a bit of a positive news spin.

We’ve also had the pleasure of hosting multiple groups of tourism teachers, as well as career advisors from schools across New Zealand in partnership with a couple of the tertiary level providers to re-engage and build confidence in tourism through that program.

The second one is our physics-based stem program, where we teach the mechanics of flight. So, that’s based on NCEA level physics programs through years 11 through to 13. And we have one of our instructors who’s actually got a PhD and used to lecture at Auckland University. She’s the most qualified person we have, who went through and reworked it to suit, so we can make it teachable.

The students from the classroom go through a worksheet, we create a lot of hypotheses, and then we take them into the tunnel, and we test those out. And they also get to enjoy a flying experience at the end of it. This is the best part of the tourism business as well because once they get done with the boring Q&A and talk, we chuck them into the wind, which is pretty rad.

Sustainability is such a vital word in tourism today. Is that a big ethos for you at iFLY Queenstown?

Jason Williams, iFLY Queenstown. Pic: Matt Leedham

Absolutely. We’re a 100% carbon zero business. And so, while the tunnel is fully electric and generates a tremendous amount of electricity; our power is 90% sourced sustainably through hydro and wind.

Longer-term, we are looking at ways of how we can generate solar to power the tunnel. The technology isn’t there yet to run the tunnel fully sustainably and self-efficiently, but we’re looking at a variety of ways to utilise solar and also sell back to the grid to offset some of our costs.

We also do a lot of work with the wildlife trust in New Zealand. Our GM, Matt Wong has a background in zoology and ecology. When he first moved to Queenstown, he used to raise Kiwis just up the road at the Kiwi Bird Park, so our environmental footprint has always been high on his agenda.

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome through the pandemic?

One of the biggest challenges we faced coming out of lockdown was reinventing the product and the pricing and how it was going to be interpreted by customers.

The move for us was to reduce our price by 46%, and the whole plan of that was that it was going to be a short-term fix. However, it’s since become our stable pricing all the way through, and we’ve only just increased our prices slightly.

But when I say increase, a basic package, which is two flights, used to be $149. When we relaunched out of lockdown it went down to $79. We’ve just increased it back to $99. And it’s going to be our default pricing in the future. That allows us to maintain volume, while still being a great price point for the market.

So we’ve got a great word of mouth reputation now, and we can sustain the long-term with that pricing increase. But also, the additional yield allows us to offset some of the larger costs that we accumulate. It also means that we’ve continued to grow, and enabled our business to take on three new employees.

We pay commission to agents and the trade, we’ve paid a hundred per cent wages for pretty much the entire time coming out of lockdown, and it means that we can move forward with some new initiatives as a business, which is pretty exciting.

What has the business learnt in the last 18 months?

There’s been a heck of a lot of luck, and a lot of hard work, but lockdown hit us at the perfect time, in the sense that we’d just finished year one. So we were a brand new business and weren’t too ingrained in being fixed on the way we did things.

We have an agile leadership team where the three of us sat down and said, “right, we need to make the decision – do we hibernate, do we close the book? Or do we open a new one and give it our damn best shot?” And that’s what we did. And luckily, it paid off significantly. I think because we were open to making a change and accepting the fact that if it didn’t work, we could all say, “so what? We at least gave it a shot.”

Outstanding leadership has been the key to our success, but also putting a lot of time into empowering the team.

As we’ve come out of lockdown, we’ve done a lot of work on self-awareness and emotional intelligence with workshops and training for the team. We’ve encouraged everyone to identify their needs to ensure that they are operating at the highest level they can to ensure business success.

What are your personal takeaways?

Work-life balance. I burnt myself out last year by taking on too much and trying to control what I couldn’t. And I think, that while I thought I was a rather agile person, I work in sales and marketing, so I look at data, look at revenue, look at strategy, and implement everything. So keeping the big picture in mind without getting caught up in the little things has been the biggest lesson for me.

COVID has taught me that in the blink of an eye, everything that you think is going well is going to change. And then you’ve got to start all over again. And so, the whole way that I think and work has been completely different. And I think accepting that fact has been one of the biggest challenges but also the biggest learnings.

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