Despite warnings flooding in from countries around the world, no-one was fully prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic to literally shut New Zealand down mid-March 2020. Doors closed, streets deserted, whole towns and cities eerily silent. It was as if someone had flicked a switch and the Tourism sector in particular, was plunged into complete darkness. Business came to an excruciatingly abrupt halt.
So what did fledgling Tourism business ‘Go with Tourism’ do? How did they survive, pivot and thrive during this crisis?
GridAKL talks with Go with Tourism’s Matt Stenton and Will Kim
- Describe briefly your journey with Go with Tourism from launch to early March 2020?
The initiative launched in April 2019 as a job connector to address a growing skills shortage in the tourism industry. After joining forces with Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA), Go with Tourism received $5.2 million in funding from the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy to expand the programme nationwide.
By early March 2020, Go with Tourism had 1,300+ candidates seeking employment, 500+ businesses looking to hire and launched successfully in 4 regions. Since launch, over 250 individuals had been placed into employment.
- What were your first thoughts when you heard NZ was about to enter lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Fortunately we’d gotten a head start by the time the lockdown announcement was made. On the 17th of March, just over a week prior to lockdown, the government announced a $12.1B COVID-19 relief package. That’s when we started preparing for the worst. At this point our thoughts could be summed up by the statement “evolve or die”.Within 48 hours (19th March) we had created a complete pivot plan that would move us from building the tourism workforce, to supporting the tourism workforce should our worst fears around COVID-19 be realized. By the evening of the 20th, we received approval from most of our board and when lockdown was announced on the 25th, we were almost ready to launch our post-pivot offering. By the 27th, we were in market again.
- What was your plan? How did you pivot?
Knowing that the landscape was changing exceptionally quickly, we started by making broad predictions about what our industry/target market would be needing in the coming months. We then compared those needs against our existing product and software infrastructure to see which problems we could solve with minimal changes to what we already had.
Once we had a rough idea, we ran it past our entire team and collaboratively designed a plan.The plan would see the deactivation of multiple features we’d worked hard to build but we knew it had to be done so that we could catch the wave of opportunity that was hidden within the chaotic swells of COVID-19. Simultaneously, multiple new features were quickly built (using existing infrastructure as a template) so that we could get to market first and actively test our new offering with real people.
- What were the key elements of a successful pivot?
- Positivity/Optimism – If you believe that something good can come of this, you’ll try harder to find it. It also gives your team the resilience to push through the tough times.
- Adaptability – It’s important to be open to letting things go to make room for new things. When the landscape shifts so quickly, it shouldn’t be a surprise that old methods may not work. The sooner you can accept the way things are, the sooner you can influence how things will be.
- Speed – Start ups don’t have many advantages on larger companies. Usually, you have less capital, less people, and smaller infrastructure. This sounds bad but ultimately it gives you the advantage of speed and agility. Use that advantage to innovate quicker, launch sooner and test faster. Don’t be too afraid to launch before you’re “ready”.
- How does the ‘new’ GwT differ from the original concept?
Fortunately, many parts of the original concept persisted. The primary difference has been going from “building the tourism workforce” (changing perceptions about jobs in tourism and getting more talent into the industry) to “supporting the tourism workforce” (helping and redeploying employees in businesses currently in the industry). Interestingly, COVID-19 was a catalyst to digitally recreate many of our events/expos/engagement programmes which have ultimately made these offerings better and more scalable.
- What are your plans for the next 6 mths?
We plan to continue executing our pivot plan until the industry shows signs of returning to a pre-COVID-19 state. When this time comes, we will revert to our original plan equipped with the learnings acquired through COVID-19.
- What are your longer-term goals?
In the long-term, we want to sublicense our programme/digital platform to economic development agencies in other countries. This would allow us to make our product free for New Zealand so that our tourism industry can reap the benefits of our offerings at no cost to NZ.
- Will GwT move back to the original concept once the pandemic crisis is over?
In principle, yes, although it may not resemble the pre-pandemic concept 100%. We’ve learnt and built a lot during COVID-19 and hope to use those learnings to improve on our original concept.
- What are the key learnings you will take from this Covid-19 experience?
When the landscape shifts fast, move faster. Understand where the landscape is heading. Don’t think in silos, make partnerships, work together. Trust your team. Take bold but calculated risks.
- Any words of advice to other founders after this experience?
In times of crisis don’t think about what has been done, think about what you can do now. Be open to letting go of what used to work in the past.