Tour guide ‘ down but not out’

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Market realignment . . . Bookatour owner Bex Hill has launched virtual tours after Covid-19 stopped cruise ship passengers visiting Dunedin. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE

After bookings for a booming tour business stopped after Covid-19 hit, a Dunedin business woman decided to “change it up” rather than concede.

Bookatour owner Bex Hill, of Walton Park, began taking busloads of cruise ship passengers on day tours of Dunedin in 2008.

She would tout for business in Port Chalmers by displaying a page of a calendar, each day representing an available space in her tour party.

“I’d cross the days off as people booked and it would create a panic and I’d have my bus loaded up in about 10 minutes.”

The business grew as word-of-mouth of her tours spread, she said.

To ensure she was delivering a great service, she went “undercover” as a cruise ship passenger, travelling to port cities across New Zealand to take tours.

She asked the operators of tours she enjoyed if she could sell their tours on their behalf.

With tour operators across New Zealand on board, she redesigned her website to allow cruise ship passengers to arrange excursions across the nation in one booking.

She did not get any payment from the other operators for the service.

“For me it was never about the cut – I just want my clients to have a really good time and I built a really good reputation.”

As the business grew, she bought and hired more vehicles to transport tourists, ranging from a car to a 50-seat bus.

Business was booming, in part to the popularity of her “quickie tour” allowing tourists to visit Dunedin attractions in an hour for $25.

“All my staff started wearing shirts saying “fancy a quickie” and man, we didn’t expect it to take off like it did.”

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, cruise ships stopped visiting, and clients started cancelling bookings.

“I was like holy crap.”

Her income stream stopped, but the payments on her fleet continued.

She spent lockdown in Dunedin, dreaming of what the cancelled holiday her family had booked in Bali for the same period would have been like.

That’s when an epiphany hit.

Many people had also cancelled holidays because of Covid-19 could they experience a destination without leaving home?

As a result, she had launched a “virtual tour” of Dunedin.

To create the tour, she had a crew film tourist hotspots in Dunedin.

People who book a tour could watch the footage online as she commentated live and answered clients’ questions in real-time.

She was investigating making the booking to include being posted a “sensory kit” of Dunedin-related goods, such as clients eating a Jaffa on a virtual visit to Baldwin St, or drinking an Emerson’s beer while being told about the brewery.

In a bid to continue to use her fleet, she was providing tours for the domestic market.

She had bookings to give a tour to staff at work functions including designing an interactive “amazing race” event as part of the package.

She urged people impacted by the pandemic to “think of something else and change it up”.

“You might be down, but you’re not out.”