A Typical Portrait of a Family Business?

A cornerstone of tourism in New Zealand has always been the small, most often family owned, business. While the industry shows signs of some consolidation, with corporate buy outs of a number of previously privately owned operators, small and medium businesses still comprise 85 % of the businesses involved in tourism.

River Valley sits within this category.

How Long Is Our Story?

While Nicola’s family had always loved hanging out by the river, fishing, swimming and kayaking, the River Valley story as an adventure tourism company did not really start until 1978 (or was it 1979?). This was when rafting companies based from National Park and elsewhere started to take the often long drive to Pukeokahu, Taihape, to take on the Grade 5 section of the Rangitikei River.

Enthusiasm was the name of the game. Over the next few years the number of people white water rafting exploded, and while there were some exceptional river guides, it would also be fair to say that skill sets were not always of the highest order. Be that as it may, they were fun times.

River Valley purchased two rafts and began offering its own trips in 1982. Nicola’s brothers, William and Richard, along with several other good guides were the main stay of the river crew.

There was no Lodge back then, with everything based from the old homestead. Weekends were full on. Farming chores being relegated to the background while the family braced for the weekend invasion.

Nicola’s mother Robin, would cook dozens of scones for morning tea, while her father, Brian Sage, would have made sausages during the week which were a highlight of the after trip BBQ.

an early rafting trip leaving from the homestead

An early rafting trip departing from the old homestead.

brian sage cooking some sausages after a rafting trip

Brian Sage cooking up some sausages after a raft trip.

river valley lodge, early days

River Valley Lodge – early days

river valley lodge in 2017

River Valley Lodge – current

So What’s Changed?

While the welcoming hospitality of the family and crew and the challenges of the river has not changed, much else has.

We started construction of the Lodge in 1987, and still joke that we may totally finish it one day. Nicola and I bought the rest of the family out in 1991, (though her parents still live on site) and increasingly it is now our children who run the day to day operations of the place.

Staffing has gone from a few weekend warriors in the 1980s to 28, fun to be around, people at the height of summer, dropping back to about 12 of us over winter.

What we offer has also changed. Now on any given day over summer, there will be horse riders, multi day river trips, white water trips, meals at the Lodge, and people staying overnight in a variety of accommodation options. By far the majority of our customers are now from overseas rather than the business social clubs of the 1980s.

There have also been many changes on a national level. Tourism has now become a major industry and is New Zealand’s leading source of foreign exchange.

Changing Focus

Along with the change in customers, over the years our focus has also changed. Just surviving as a business in the earlier years was totally the main issue. However now, environmental and social issues and challenges are increasingly part of our business and personal agenda.

The New Business Agenda

On the social front, like much of the western world, rural areas are becoming depopulated. In New Zealand there has been a drop in the rural population of 30% since 1990. Our local rural service town, Taihape, has gone from a population of 2800 in 1980 to 1700 now. We don’t think this is ideal, as healthy communities need people. Many of our company policies and future planning wrestles with how we can contribute to turning this around in our area. We believe the primary way we can do this is by providing economic opportunity.

Hand in hand with social concerns are environmental concerns. While we think that most farmers are great people and are doing their best, we don’t necessarily agree with many aspects of modern agriculture. We see the effect of some of these practices on the river and the landscape. A loss of biodiversity and more silt in the water after heavy rain being two examples.

The Future Comes From The Edges

I recently read an article outlining research that conclusively showed that most great ideas came from small businesses and not corporates.

Tourism is like any industry. To have ongoing relevance it needs new ideas and enthusiasm. These new ideas pop up regularly, driven by families and entrepreneurs, often in rural areas. These same businesses most often have a real connection to the land and place that a corporate may never have.

Former CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, Kevin Roberts, made much of the fact that new ideas seemed to be generated more at the “edges”.

New Zealand’s rural areas are increasingly marginalised and at the edge.

The perfect breeding ground for new ideas!

Brian Megaw