Eight years ago four friends took a punt on an abandoned catamaran. Today Matt, Annie, Tina and Don are running a highly successful luxury tourism business on Lake Rotoiti.
Matt Horder and Annie Walden have long admired Lake Rotoiti. After crewing superyachts and travelling the world together, in the 80s they abandoned the nomadic lifestyle and settled in Okere Falls, Rotorua where their passion for the lake grew and the seed of a business idea germinated.
“I saw an opening. There were not enough ways to explore lakes in New Zealand. A few launches were operating but there was nothing under sail – nothing graceful,” recalls Matt.
“So I put together a business plan [for a tourism sailing business] and went for it.”
The couple approached friends Tina Masters and Don Johnston to join them at the helm. They jumped at the idea.
But first they had to find the ideal yacht and keep the initial outlay, and risk, to a minimum.
The style of yacht they were seeking was prohibitively expensive in Australasia, but in the Caribbean the yacht they were searching for was very affordable.
“There brokers’ yards are full of blue-water boats,” explains Matt. “People cruise the islands for a season; then put them up on blocks to gather dust.”
Matt trawled the Internet and eventually found the perfect boat.
“We needed a boat that could host a family comfortably, but also a group of 30 people.
“I called the guy and he said ‘If you want it, you have to be here in 48 hours; the phone’s ringing off the hook.’
“I left for Grenada that night, arriving 37 hours later.”
The 53-foot catamaran needed a complete overhaul. The first step was to make the yacht seaworthy, with new rigging and engines. The second step was to find a crew to bring her home.
Matt was joined by business partner Tina, as well as Okere Fall locals Tim Pickering and Bernd Sommer, and they set sail.
One thousand nautical miles and 16 weeks later they sailed into Mount Maunganui, christened the yacht Tiua (‘to move with the wind’), and began a full refurbishment.
Two trucks then hauled the boat to Okawa Bay, where a crane lowered Tiua onto her new home.
Thirteen kilometres long, 94 metres deep and sheltered, Lake Rotoiti is the ideal lake, says Matt. It also has fabulous bays to tuck into.
“You can fire up the BBQ and sit back in a stunning location that’s often just yours to enjoy.”
The lake has trout in abundance. Another huge drawcard are the stunning Manupirua thermal hot pools – only accessible via boat.
Pure Cruise is a maintenance heavy type of business, so having crew living on the lake’s edge ready to be called upon is also a bonus, says Matt. “Every two years the yacht is craned out for inspection and the pressure is on to have her hull scrubbed, repainted, and back on the lake in a timely manner.”
The eco-sailing aspect of Pure Cruise is another point of difference. “Eco-sailing is about sharing the natural environment of Rotoiti with our guests – educating them on the surrounding flora, fauna, heritage and cultural history,” explains Tina. “We strive to ensure the vessel is economically and environmentally sustainable – with minimal impact on the environment.”
Fuel consumption is closely monitored and around 80 percent of Tiua’s charters are done under sail. Pure Cruise also looks after a number of reserves on the waters edge and explores new avenues of pest control to preserve endangered wildlife.
On and off the water, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the business.
Creating systems which staff could pick up easily was essential, recalls Matt – “because not everyone’s a sailor, nor has a passion for sailing.
“Finding staff willing to learn, putting them through their skipper’s course, then intrusting them with Tiua was a challenge – but one I had to overcome unless I wanted to be on the lake 24/7.”
Creating relationships with inbound tour operators was another challenge and it took two years of hard marketing and cold calls to gain traction.
“We truly believe every time we’re out on the lake we over-deliver, but forming these initial relationships and creating that trust wasn’t as simple as initially expected,” says Tina. “We worked on this by continually seeking feedback.
“We’d rather know if something’s wrong with a particular charter than not get feedback at all.”
Luxury tourism clients want to experience more of New Zealand and “off the beaten track experiences”, says Matt, and in particular, what Rotorua has to offer.
“What better way to showcase our stunning geothermal and cultural beginnings than by a helicopter flight to an active volcano, followed by a lakeside marae experience with Powhiri welcome and hangi-cooked food? All followed by a cruise where you can take the helm, trim the sails and navigate the lake in peace and serenity.”
As demand for luxury tourism has increased, other regional operators have adapted.
“It really is a team effort – for everyone to work together, share knowledge and provide the best possible experience. Thereby increasing Rotorua’s footprint in the luxury market.”
Specialising has been key to the success of Pure Cruise, and finding team members who hold the same values and passion.
“Building and maintaining relationships with our suppliers is vital,” says Tina. “We make a promise that their clients will be looked after and we then deliver on that promise”.
All the hard work paid off in 2010 when Pure Cruise won Westpac Emerging Business of the Year at the Rotorua Business Awards.
Over the years there have been many neat stories and experiences generated on board Tiua.
There was the couple who caught a trout; then had the added thrill of steaming the fish at a lakeside geothermal spring.
Guests include honeymooners, whole families, Hollywood stars, princesses, and famous musicians passing through on world tours.
Seasonality has forced Pure Cruise to broaden its market and look for new business avenues. They’re working hard on increasing the shoulder season market and encouraging more conference and incentive groups.
Weddings are becoming more popular too, with couples looking for unique experiences and a way to impress their guests.
A new five-star hotel planned for Rotorua is also expected to be huge for the region.
“Hopefully encouraging more luxury activity providers to think how they can diversify their product to suit,” says Matt. But it will require collaboration.
“You don’t do this kind of thing to be a millionaire. We wanted to do it because it seemed like a great idea, and we chose the people we did it with because we are great friends.
“It’s about relationships.”