The Chamber of Commerce is sitting down with each of the winners from the recent Waikato Chamber of Commerce Business Awards, supported by Foster Construction Group, to find out what they did to stand out from the crowd. This week's Winners’ Insight is with Discover Waitomo’s commercial manager Christine Mans and environmental manager Shannon Corkill. Discover Waitomo won the Community Contribution Award – Commercial.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Waikato person who hasn’t visited the stunning glowworm caves at Waitomo, perhaps as a school kid or as a parent who’s taken their family there. But what most people don’t realise is that Discover Waitomo – the company that operates the cave tours and black water rafting – is much more than just a tour operator.
They also operate local events such as the Waitomo Trail Run.
Commercial manager Christine Mans says it’s a major event that supports the community.
“We had 2200 entries and we’ve also run the event in the middle of a pandemic… We’d just come out of the first lockdown and our little village of about 100 people went from having almost nobody here to being packed and humming for the weekend.”
Discover Waitomo don’t put on events like the Trail Run for the money. Instead, it’s because it helps build awareness of the region itself and for the other operators nearby such as cafes and restaurants and accommodation providers.
“It’s the right thing to do as a cultural and community business. And as a publicly listed company, we have strong mandates around FutureFit, which is all about reducing our carbon footprint and sustainability, and around looking after people,” Christine said.
And that was recognised by the Awards judges who said: “The passion for their people was evident with talking to Discover Waitomo and was refreshing to see. Profitability went negative [during Covid], but a long-term view of what business may look like on the other side of Covid and the desire to keep their community together saw them invest time and effort into their people, plus considerable working capital to produce a greater good for the wider community.”
Environmental manager Shannon Corkill said Discover Waitomo’s values were long-held and were leant on heavily during the pandemic.
“Those core values are whanaungatanga, kaitiakitanga, and manaakitanga. Whanaungatanga means family in Māori which, for us, means providing jobs for local people, local hapu, helping out with donations, support in-kind and other specialist services to local community groups, providing pathways for rangatahi by taking part in initiatives that establish employment and skills development for local youth.
“The kaitiakitanga aspect means we take really seriously our guardianship of the precious taonga that we operate out of.
“Cave ecosystem health is linked to catchment and stream ecosystem health so it makes sense that we also work to improve the catchment ecosystem. We help with fencing to exclude stock from waterways and plant the riparian margins of streams and wetlands.”
Discover Waitomo also maintains hundreds of pest traps and bait stations in the area.
“And manaakitanga is all about us being the best hosts we can be for our visitors. So, we’re big on health and safety initiatives, we embrace our Māori culture and we help raise everyone’s knowledge of Te Reo, incorporating that in our tours, correspondence and signage. And we’re always looking at new training and development initiatives and progression opportunities to increase staff engagement.”
In the midst of the pandemic in 2021, former Hamilton Waikato Tourism chief executive Jason Dawson saw what Discover Waitomo had done to take care of its people during a tumultuous time.
They’d kept staff on, moving some into ‘Jobs for Nature’ roles. Jason encouraged Discover Waitomo to enter the Business Awards.
Last year they were finalists in the sustainability category. This year, they took out the Community Contribution – Commercial Award. They were also finalists in the recent Tourism NZ awards in the conservation category.
“Both times it was really interesting to go through the process and have judges here to help us reflect on what we have achieved in what has been a very challenging environment,” Christine said.
“It’s good to meet businesspeople who are also doing great work and not from a tourism perspective. They’re from a range of industries so getting advice and reflections from different background is always very useful.”
But it’s not just the business being judged that benefits. Christine says it works both ways.
“As we talked about Future Fit this round, one judge said he Googled ‘Future Fit’ and said he was keen to apply that to his business. With another judge we had a good korero about how he could break through barriers to introducing Te Reo into his business because for us Te Reo is business as usual. So actually, it’s joint sharing of information and ideas. Judges have had ‘aha!’ moments just like we have.”
Waitomo District Mayor John Robertson said he was thrilled to see Discover Waitomo recognised at the business awards.
“The business is a huge contributor to both the Waitomo and Otorohanga districts from an economic, social and cultural perspective. Their resilience through the pandemic is incredible and I congratulate them on this win wholeheartedly.”
Not surprisingly, the Discover Waitomo team won’t be resting on their laurels with this winner under their belts. They’re looking to the future – always with its community and cultural focus – but with a regenerative lens too.
“We’ve always been on that sustainability path but Covid has enabled us to stop and think about what the future will look like.”
Whatever the future looks like for Discover Waitomo, you can bet the small immediate community will benefit.
“For us it’s about supporting each other, taking care of the community and our people. That’s our philosophy as a business and that’s supported by Tourism Holdings Limited, it’s supported by the Ruapuha Uekaha Hapū Trust, it’s supported by the Department of Conservation. It’s very much a team effort, and this award is recognition for all.”