Wānaka Sun       

Farewell James Helmore, after 11 years at the helm

Posted at 6:00am Thursday 27 Aug, 2020 | By Pat Deavoll editor@thewanakasun.co.nz

When the Wānaka Sun talked to former general manager of Lake Wānaka Tourism James Helmore,  he was just back from a mountain bike ride to Johns Creek and relishing his recent retirement.

Time to ski, time to bike, time to spend with family, and, after 11 years with Lake Wānaka Tourism, time to ponder his next move.

Helmore's background in tourism initiated with a postgraduate degree in Parks and Recreation at Lincoln University back in the 1980s. I did a business degree then thought, I love the outdoors and meeting people so put these things together and did the post-grad in tourism, he says, It combined everything he enjoyed.

So is that how you headed into a career in tourism?

I didn't want to do a doctorate- I wanted to get out into the real world and do some stuff.

I had a range of jobs over the years (ski patroller, ski and snowboard instructor) then spent ten years in Queenstown working for NZ Ski and then Skyline. They were sales and marketing and business development roles. They were followed by the 11 years with Lake Wānaka Tourism.

So what was Lake Wānaka Tourism back 11 years ago?

When I started the organisation was a vastly different entity – it was my role and one other. My purpose was to run the information centre. When I went for the job, I was asked to articulate what Wānaka could become, how it could take advantage of tourism.

Back then, Wānaka was a tiny place – a lot of businesses weren't self-sustaining-  they were struggling to make ends meet, and the number of companies was pretty small.

In the interview, I talked about Wānaka being about people in the know – those with holiday homes. That's how I had experienced Wānaka back when I was at school in the 80s.

People in the know knew about it, but others didn't. Wānaka didn't have a clear identity.

When I talked to the interview panel, I talked a lot about Wānaka needing to have its own identity based on the strengths of what it had to offer- the physical landscape and the intangible with the community and the values that were important to it. What was the essence? How could we amplify those values, and how could we attract people that share them? So that the community and visitors can connect and enjoy each other's company. So that's really what started the development of Wānaka's identity.

Wānaka needed to be distinct from Queenstown, but it also needed to be complimentary. That way the region would appeal to a large number of people.

So what are the differences between Wānaka and Queenstown as you see them?

Wānaka tends to be in that boutique space, and visitors are more couples and individuals. Queenstown has a bigger scale with big businesses like Skyline.

Wānaka is very personalised.  People who were in business had come here to follow a passion. Whether that's mountaineering or water sports, or wine, they asked themselves how can I sustain my lifestyle in Wānaka? They turned that passion into a business, and an owner-operator was sharing their experience with visitors.And that's incredibly powerful; a rich experience

When you have bigger businesses, it's a lot harder to have that connection with the visitors that come through.

So what does Wānaka mean to you?

I used to come to Wānaka as a kid, in summer to visit friends and in winter to ski. I have a natural affinity with Wānaka. I had a fantastic time in Queenstown when I was footloose and fancy-free. Still, when I had a family, I wanted to bring them up with a respect and appreciation of the great outdoors – so it was a pretty easy decision to apply for the Wānaka Tourism job. 

My youngest was about ten days old when I applied for the job, so I was a bit sleep deprived, but it must have done the trick.

What changes have you seen over those 11 years? What are the positives?

Over that time, there have been things that have been positive and negative.

A lot of the positivity is around Wānaka having a more definite identity. People are more aware of what Wānaka is and what it has to offer.  It has allowed a lot of people in Wanaka to create businesses and sustain a lifestyle. Lifestyle is significant to a lot of people in Wānaka

What we tried to do when I was at Lake Wānaka Tourism was maintain that domestic base and that's an essential part of the identity. Kiwis come here on holiday, and that's something we worked hard to maintain and grow as Wanakas appeal has broadened.

The reason for that is that domestic visitors can travel at any time of the year and this is important to smooth out that demand- the big peaks and troughs.

And so that's given Wānaka real impetus in terms of growing that domestic base and all those experiences and restaurants and cafes. As they have grown to accommodate visitors, they have also grown to accommodate the community.

As a community of 10,000 in the middle of the North Island, the range of shops and services we have here in Wānaka would be nowhere as much. That's what tourism brings to a place – it brings a much higher range of shops, services and amenities.

It allows the community to connect with people from around the world and helps broaden people's horizons. It gives an appreciation of their lives and where they come from and enables you to reflect on your own life. To me, that's the really powerful thing that tourism has brought not only to Wānaka but to the whole country.

And what are the negatives?

I don't talk about negatives but instead challenges. The rapid growth is not only in tourism but in our resident population. And that has made it incredibly hard to plan for that growth- roading flows, carparks, toilets that are needed to sustain a community and a visitor base.

That is exacerbated by our resident population doubling in six years.

Council has to adhere to the Local Government Act, and that has specific parameters, and that makes it tricky for the council to respond speedily to that growth.

I think we have seen the finger pointed at tourism, but it has been both tourism and resident population growth. We have seen COVID and the lockdown, and that just shows us what no tourism looks like. But then we see residents moving around the town and discovering that the pressure points still exist without tourism.

I think lockdown has given us a much greater appreciation of where we are at.

If you were to envisage Wānaka in ten years, what would you see?

I see what we have to offer in Wānaka is a desirable place to live.  Spectacular beauty. So I think if we get more things like pandemics or lockdowns it gives us a chance to reflect and ask ourselves what we want out of life. And I think a lot of people will be making more significant lifestyle choices that put Wānaka and Queenstown firmly on the radar in terms of places that would be desirable to live.

We've seen that through property development. And the other thing that the lockdown has taught us is that it has been quite useful to remote work. So you don't need to be locked in the city\, with all the challenges that city living brings. If you do have an affinity with a natural environment like ours, you do have the ability to work remotely.

We could see the economy diversify to attract workers from different sectors, and that would be a good thing because we don't want to be reliant on tourism. We want to have a few different strands to our economy.

View edition 989 of the Wānaka Sun here.



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