Tourism cuts regrettable

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 12:00 17/05/2014
Owen River Lodge owner Felix Borenstein
BUSINESS BOOMING: Owen River Lodge owner Felix Borenstein and labrador Keeley.

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The owner of one of the country's most exclusive fishing lodges, tucked away in a quiet corner near Murchison, has questioned the wisdom behind a local authority plan to pull back on funding tourism.

Not because it has any bearing on his niche tourism venture, but because of the impact on the wider tourism industry and the township of Murchison.

Felix Borenstein, owner of the Owen River Lodge on the banks of the Owen River, said reduced funding and the resulting closure of the Murchison i-Site would have a big impact on the area.

"Their abandonment of Murchison is reprehensible and they should be ashamed of themselves.

"The information centre is not just about tourism - it provides a lot of social services to the town. It employs people and tourism here is a significant part of the ‘good' economy," Borenstein said with reference to tourism essentially being an "export" industry because of the benefits of dollars brought in from outside.

The Tasman District Council plans to cap its current $426,000 tourism contribution to the regional tourism marketing and promotions organisation Nelson Tasman Tourism at $405,000 next financial year, and cease funding tourism from next July.

Following a review in April last year, NTT said it would close the Golden Bay and Murchison i-Sites which were running at an annual loss of about $60,000 each.

Borenstein, an Australian import, is among the region's biggest tourism ambassadors. He also pays several thousand dollars each year in rates - some of which go towards the district council's share of funding tourism, and the rest goes to roading and infrastructure services he does not get any benefit from.

It was his love of the sub-alpine river valley environment and its fly fishing that brought him to the region permanently just more than a decade ago.

The former Melbourne IT provider with a cache of business awards and accolades became a casualty of the dotcom bubble burst, so sought new horizons making a living out of his great love of fly fishing.

It was almost disastrous.

"I got into computer industry in 1983-84 and did that ‘til about the early 90s. Then I opened up my own recruitment company specialising in IT."

In 1999 Borenstein won the Victoria Government Small Business of the Year award and the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.

His firm became one of the state's largest providers of IT, with more than 350 contractors working, and then the bubble burst.

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"In 2001-02 most of our clients stopped hiring and started firing, so it went from being really fabulous to being really hard work," Borenstein said.

He had already caught the fly fishing bug, after spending a weekend away with a few mates at a private fishery outside Melbourne. Then he saw a TV show on fly fishing in New Zealand, which was the trigger that introduced him to former Lake Rotoroa Lodge Bob Haswell. Borenstein was a frequent guest at the lodge until he moved to a property beside the Owen River, and set up the Owen River Lodge in 2003, prompted by the sale of his business several years earlier.

The first few years were some of his toughest in business.

"It was a bigger decision than I realised, but I'm good at paving myself into a corner then figuring out how to make the whole thing stick. I could hardly operate a lawn mower before I came here, and a chainsaw . . . what's that?

"I was urbane and inner-city with a housekeeper, so the first couple of years were tough."

Borenstein said he "haemorrhaged" cash in the first few years, after buying the riverside property and doing an extensive rebuild of the house that was on it, and which had been operating as a B&B. There was no expense spared on the conversion to a luxury, boutique lodge with separate chalets.

"Then the economic crisis happened and we've had our best five seasons in a row," Borenstein said.

It took him four years to get an understanding of the business, and that long again to "stop shoving ideas down the throats of guests and listen to what they wanted".

He did not have money to spend on marketing, but relied on word-of-mouth. He still does not spend much on marketing, but does a lot via social media and a small amount in specialist print media. He also relies on repeat business. Annual turnover hovers around the $1 million mark, which is considered a small business in the luxury sector.

Ironically, it was the decision to increase his rates which got the business cracking.

"I sat back and thought, ‘if this is as good as it's going to get, what rate do I have to charge to break even'?

"I'd run out of money so I put my rates up about 40 per cent that season, and I've had five record seasons in a row."

He said the type of visitor he attracts has been less affected by the global financial crisis: "Yes, we have multibillionaires, but mostly our guests are successful professionals like doctors, accountants, American supreme court justices and other people I'm not allowed to talk about, because they're coming next season and I respect their call for anonymity."

Borenstein said working in tourism is sometimes a huge ask.

"We do one of the toughest jobs there is - delivering people's dreams, and to deliver that is a big ask.

"People spend 11 months a year thinking about the time they'll spend in New Zealand fly fishing."

Borenstein described its appeal being in its "zen like" state.

"It means lots of things to different people."

It provided a good way to forget about the world.

"You absolutely have to concentrate and if you aren't that fly floats down the river and you miss the fish. You cannot think about work, what's going wrong in your relationship or what you're going to cook for dinner that night. You have to focus on finding a fish and watching that fly."

He said it offered "terrific relaxation" and exercise in a beautiful environment.

"Trout live in the most beautiful places and New Zealand, especially the South Island, is full of beautiful places."

Borenstein said he has not reached the point he cannot face another season.

"I love what I do - I'm lucky. I think many people who turn their daydream into their passion, it ends up becoming their nightmare.

"I now, without any shadow of a doubt, that closing for five months makes it a lot easier. If I had to do this for 12 months straight, there would be burnout."

- The Nelson Mail

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