Visitor experiences don’t come any more down to earth than Rangitikei Farmstay. Owners Kylie and Andrew Stewart have created a highly successful tourism business.
New Zealand’s tourism industry is a multibillion-dollar earner. But where overseas visitors once wanted bubbling mud pools and sparkling glaciers, today many are looking for a real down-on-the-farm Kiwi experience. And, as our cities expand, many townies are heading to the country to relive their rural heritage.
Six years ago Rangitikei farmers Kylie and Andrew Stewart identified this as an opportunity and set about creating a destination to attract visitors. They’d enjoyed the safari park experience in Africa and, back home after travelling overseas, saw they had the basics – an easily accessible 630 hectare working farm which had been in the family for four generations, and out-buildings that could be made liveable for guests. They also had machinery and artefacts from previous generations that could be recycled to make the visitor experience unique and authentic, plus that all-important drive and enthusiasm to make it happen.
“We’d looked at what else was out there but the main thing for us was using the resources we had, such as the original buildings, which gave us a great starting point. We’re not entrepreneurs; we’re just trying to capitalise on the opportunities we’ve been given,” says Kylie.
Since then they’ve renovated buildings on the farm and converted them into comfortable accommodation, transformed the original homestead into a farm museum and bunkhouse and hosted hundreds of guests from New Zealand and offshore.
The couple were both working full-time, Kylie in teaching and Andrew as a journalist, when they launched the project – one which had a lot of people questioning whether their efforts could ever be rewarded. They believe it’s important to think outside the square, and sometimes that goes against what others are thinking, says Kylie. “On the whole I’ve loved the process of creating Rangitikei Farmstay. It’s been hard work and there have been moments when Andrew and I both wondered what we’d got ourselves into. But it’s always been my passion so it doesn’t feel like work to me.”
That passion earned Kylie Stewart a top tourism accolade in the 2013 Enterprising Rural Women awards. Like a lot of people she found the process of completing her entry for the award worthwhile. “It was actually refreshing to sit down and think about what we’d achieved through hard work and vision. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in what you’re doing and forget where you started.”
Farmers are famously adept at turning their hands to anything but did Kylie’s teaching background fit her to run a farmstay? “It’s been a huge help,” she says. “It’s given me the confidence to talk to small and large groups of people, taught me to plan and organise people and tasks, and given me lots of contacts which I use to encourage school groups to visit Rangitikei Farmstay.”
A year as head of marketing at Wanganui Girls College gave her an important insight into what marketing involves. But marketing with a very limited budget is a challenge. Andrew’s understanding of the power of technology saw them decide to put the available dollars into a website and this has become their number one marketing tool. It’s a site that gives visitors an enormous amount of detail – something Kylie believes is important. Guests need to know what to expect when they come, she says. And it means she spends less time responding to emailed questions.
Currently more than 95 percent of bookings come via the website which Kylie describes as being “very much a work in progress. I’m always changing it to keep it updated.” In 2012 the site was redesigned to make using social media applications a lot simpler. “If you’re in business I think you’re mad not to be embracing social media. It’s not difficult to use and it’s a quick way to reach potential clients. It doesn’t always convert to bookings of course but certainly creates awareness of your product or service.”
Google ‘farmstay nz’ and you’ll get dozens of results. But they’re not always working farms, something the Stewarts believe gives them an edge. “Lots of our guests tell us they chose to stay with us because we’re a genuine working farm and they want to see what our life is all about. In saying that, not all guests go out on the farm; some just come for the views and the peace and quiet.”
But can thousands of sheep and cattle generate the same sort of excitement as the exotic animals in an African safari park? “You’d be surprised. We’ve put groups into the yards with 400 sheep and after 45 minutes it’s hard to get them out. They can’t get enough of them.”
For many visitors sheep certainly have that novelty factor, she says.
The Stewarts aim to have large day groups regularly visiting the farm while continuing to grow the accommodation side of the business. And with glamour camping creating interest around the country, they’ve big plans for an original scrub-cutters’ hut set in beautiful native bush in the middle of the farm. “We’ve begun doing it up as another unique accommodation option for guests wanting to experience glamping.”
Mid-winter is the off-season for the farmstay, and an opportunity to prepare for the busy months ahead. The Stewarts are careful to avoid overcommitting themselves with the farmstay. “It’s as full-on as we want it to be,” says Kylie.
“We manage our bookings and no longer accept one-night stays for small groups. The business is inspired by a lot of our travels around the world and we continue to share the love of travel and get away for a break every year. I feel this is the pay-off for working hard the rest of the year.” Their travels also give them an appreciation for what they have at home, she says.
With more and more tourists seeking authentic experiences away from the standard tourist route, the Stewarts believe the farmstay sector will continue to grow. But think carefully before you start converting the barn. There are plenty of stumbling blocks they say – like managing farmwork, farmstay, and family. “The biggest challenge is probably the work, life, family balance,” says Kylie.
The plus is knowing they’ve created a place to share with guests who leave describing it as the highlight of their time in New Zealand. “Our TripAdvisor reviews speak for themselves!” (They also highlight Kylie’s culinary skills).
Patricia Moore is a freelance business writer. Email [email protected]
August 26, 2014