A previous career, raw instinct, and sheer bloody-mindedness have all helped Sharon Stewart create her highly successful luxury personalised visitor experience.
by Patricia Moore
Move to a new country and you’ll soon discover “everyone and his cousin wants to come and visit”, says UK expat Sharon Stewart.
But not everyone hosting overseas friends and family sees it as a business opportunity.
“I found myself carrying out quite a few ‘tiki’ tours and it was on one of those evenings at Piha Beach when the idea began to form,” says Sharon.
Standing in the black sand on the wild west coast beach, she realised delivering and detailing what we know about our country, and how we look after it, enriches the visitor experience. “With the blind faith of a child I realised I could do it.”
She actually had more than blind faith to call on; Sharon has a wealth of management experience in the hospitality industry and a real passion for what New Zealand has to offer visitors.
Then came the broken marriage that shattered ‘the pink fluffy dream’ of starting a new life in a new country; that strengthened Sharon’s determination to make a success of her business idea.
In 2014 she launched ‘Love My New Zealand’, providing luxury personalised visitor experiences for people who want something outside what the guide books have to offer.
Initially Sharon was a one-woman band, supported by friends who shared her vision. “Over time they’ve joined with me, not as staff but as people who are invested in the business whether by way of profit share or other ways of paying in kind.” Her business development manager is a long-time friend and one of her hosts is a network colleague “with a high-end hospo background who loves how we strive for excellence and is doing this as an investment in his future – and because he loves it.”
Love My New Zealand is also tapping into the seniors’ workforce. “I find older people are more careful drivers, tend to listen more and are willing to spend time polishing a car to within an inch of its life!”
New Zealand’s unspoilt beauty, particularly Auckland’s west coast, and the warmth and friendliness of Kiwis provided the catalyst, but could they kick-start a profitable business? What about researching the sector – the key to success as a start-up?
Sharon believes her previous career path gave her both the necessary skills and an in-depth understanding of her target market. “My whole working life had been in high-end hospitality in the UK, sometimes managing up to 300 people at any one time. Being new here, raw instinct, passion and sheer bloody-mindedness are what drive me to achieve what I do in my business and in maintaining my exclusive relationships.
“Being humble is vital to growth and new learning, but being confident in my own ability means I can handle the challenges that are unique to New Zealand in business.”
Doing business with people you know, like, and trust, is crucial, she says – adding it took her some time to get used to the way building business relationships through networking is important here. “In the UK it’s more transactional. I really value my relationships with suppliers and invest time, energy and money in being with them, while also being aware of their business needs.”
A relationship Sharon particularly values is with the Auckland Land Rover dealership Archibald and Shorter. Love My New Zealand is now their brand ambassador; they share a synergy of luxury, she says.
“Land Rover Discovery is our vehicle of choice and we have a loyalty to these amazing vehicles. To help people learn more, twice a month we take Archibald and Shorter’s new clients into the forest for a day that showcases the ability of these vehicles and that of our private chef!” It also helps keep the team busy over the winter months when business is slower.
The off-peak season also gives Sharon time to plan future development of the business and “get ready to explode over summer when I have less time to work on the business rather than in it.”
So does ‘high-end’ mean Sharon’s focus is on wealthy international travellers? “Not at all!” A growing number of Kiwis are happy to spend a little more to get away from the hustle and bustle, she says. “We offer a number of standard experiences but we pride ourselves on being all about the luxury of that experience. Events are tailored to the people involved, be it a particular menu, wine, music, flowers – we take care of the small details that make the experience unique. We’re not frightened to be flexible. We also work with a number of smaller and mid-size corporates that use us for corporate days out or to reward significant staff or business partners.”
In a tourism industry where sustainability is becoming an important issue, Sharon says they’re focused on keeping a small footprint. “Our tour experiences are based around two to four people and we always leave a place the way we found it. The only sandhills we race up and down are specially prepared tracks within the Polaris 4WD park – it’s fun but safe.”
Word-of-mouth has been one of the most important ways of growing the business to date and often that word is coming through social media travel sites like TripAdvisor. Responding to online comments is important to Sharon who says acknowledging appreciation for taking time to voice an opinion keeps the relationship going.
Love My New Zealand is currently oriented towards destinations within an easy drive of Auckland, but Stewart says the more she sees of New Zealand the more her horizons broaden. “My research normally takes place when my three young children and I go off to ‘discover’. Indeed, one of Love My New Zealand’s winter-warmer favourites is the result of several great camping holidays at Miranda Holiday Park. We dress an apartment and our private chef serves a meal to guests who’ve spent time relaxing in a hot outdoor pool.”
The tourism industry is booming but demands are changing, with a growing number of travellers prepared to spend more to experience authentic, high-quality experiences; untouched nature and wildlife are
the new luxury.
Love My New Zealand, with its unique blend of offerings is perfectly placed to satisfy such demands.