I originally interviewed Kirk Demeter of Down Under Answers for a popular travel trade magazine earlier this year. While the primary focus of the interview was geared toward travel professionals, Kirk Demeter knows the South Pacific and especially New Zealand. His award winning company, DUA, provides customized tours for thousands annually and this interview should help travelers understand some of the highlights of New Zealand and Australia. If you are looking to visit the land of kiwis, DUA may also provide help via your reputable travel agent. In any event, read on!
ITKT: Where did find your inspiration?
KS: I was inspired by traveling. I got a backpack in 1989 and I spent a year traveling. I worked in London for a little while, not in the travel industry. I really enjoyed this world experience. I was in Europe when the wall came down and communism died. I saw many perspectives and was fascinated.
When I traveled around the world, I went to India and Thailand, had my first visits to Australia and New Zealand. The Pacific Islands and all over Europe. I just loved travel and that's what inspired me to start the company.
I began with participatory, more adventure kinds of travel. So, when I started it [Down Under Answers], I started on the basis of bike and hiking tours and New Zealand is a Mecca for that.
Do you bike and hike?
I have never been a serious biker or hiker but it is what I like to do. Before I started my own company, I worked as a bicycle tour guide for another company. I did that in the Pacific Northwest, in the Seattle area. We would go to the San Juan area and do tours there.
How many times have you been to New Zealand?
I have actually lost count. About 23 or 24 times.
Do you have a favorite spot in New Zealand?
Yes, well, all over New Zealand really. But, if I had to pick up and move somewhere, I might say in the Northland in the Bay of Islands area. Maybe Christchurch "“ my father lives there. However, he is not related to the business. My father is an American guy who married a New Zealander woman, they moved to Christchurch a year and a half ago and they just love it. I love it there as well.
My father had nothing to do with the business. It is actually funny, when I was starting this business, my father told about this woman he started dating from Vancouver, who was originally from New Zealand. On a subsequent trip, I met her family. It was great. I actually worked for her mother on a sheep farm moving sheep from paddock to paddock. I wasn't very good at it and ultimately left it to the dogs who knew what they were doing. It was ironic that at the same time I was starting a business based on New Zealand that my father would eventually marry a woman from there.
How many trips does Down Under Answers build for travelers each year?
We send about six to seven thousand people to the South Pacific each year. However, each year this number seems to grow by about thirty percent. Our growth has been rapid. But, I do not want it to sound as if this is out of control growth. I am hoping that we just keep going, but with the number we have gotten to it becomes harder to maintain the pace.
As long as we can still provide the same level of service and have people feel good about working with us with the popularity of the destination is what it is, then there is no reason we should not strive for that.
Is Down Under Answers a 100% wholesaler or do you work with F.I.T.'s (free independent travelers)?
Most of our business is wholesale. We have campaigns occasionally where we deal directly with consumers. Although we have a nice referral program for our agents where we bring leads back into them. It is almost too complicated to explain but we have some very loyal agencies that love working with us and we want to look out for them. If we get an inquiry in the agent's zip code, we send it back to them. We have even done unsolicited bookings where we have had a first call deposit and then let the client know he or she will be working with a local agent in their area who knows the destination really well. This allows the customer to feel they are getting more personal service in their neck of the woods and the agents seem to like this as well.
How has Nordstrom's effected your business ideology?
I worked with them from 1983 to 1989 and Nordstrom's has a philosophy that says, "You take care of your customer." That if you go above and beyond and make sure their experience with your company is done well and you respect your customer, they will come back. I really bought into that Nordstrom philosophy. I valued what I learned there, I valued the people I worked with, and I am glad this idea was engrained in me.
I would not say that we are the Nordstrom's of the travel business. I never liked to hear that phrase when I worked at Nordstrom's and I do not like to use it now. However, it was definitely a way of looking at business for the long term and not just for the immediate sale. When I first started, my office was the size of the kitchen table. When I got phone calls, they were consumer direct. People would call from Outside magazine. I keep saying "we" but really was only me at the time. I would get an occasional call from an agent. I would try to give them great service. If that meant I needed to get them an answer right away or if it meant calling New Zealand to check on availability and such. They would start telling me they really enjoyed dealing with us. They then started asking us if they could come to me with other requests. Did we sell this or sell that. Can we come to you for this or that?
We didn't try to be all things to all people but we did start expand what we would offer and it all was agent driven and that is how we became a wholesaler as opposed to a retail adventure specialist. Agents would just keep asking for more products and we would just source it. We had to make sure we knew the market place, so people who joined the organization had spent a lot of time in New Zealand and then Australia and learned the destination further. We are getting big into the South Pacific Islands and I have two employees jumping on a plane tonight to the Cook Islands and Tahiti. I eventually want to put these people on the phones to talk to people about the islands in an educated way. As soon as they get back, I have another wave of employees going. I have three travel agents going because nothing beats that education. All this leads to service
I know you have recently launched a new brochure covering the South Pacific, have you been arranging trips to the South Pacific Islands long?
It is a funny thing; I just started selling New Zealand and agents would ask, "We enjoyed working with you for New Zealand, can we work together for Australia?" "Sure, let me get that set up." We have always been asked about selling the Islands and we have been selling Fiji really well for the last several years. The demand continues and we now have a beautiful brochure on Islands called "Islands, Cruises and Spas of the South Pacific. It has recently come out. It is a great looking brochure with many different options. Now that we are out there representing it, we want our employees to be able to speak about these destinations with a high degree of education. Obviously, we have stepped that up.
What specific South Pacific Islands are you focusing on?
Tahiti Islands, Fiji, the Cooks and a bit of Samoa. However, our real focus, our real strength is New Zealand and Australia.
What percentage of your travelers currently goes to New Zealand?
I would say about 50-50% of our clients go to New Zealand. We have a fair amount that only go to Australia and a fair amount that only go to the Islands. New Zealand is a major part of our business.
Down Under Answers promotes itself as not promoting tour packages. Can you elaborate on that?
We have found that when you create a set itinerary, you tell somebody, "This is what you should do and this is how you do it. We think there’s a lot of good in that philosophy but we also feel that someone calling an Aussie specialist, who really takes a passion in Australia wants to incorporate their own ideas and allow their clients to bring their own own ideas to it. Rather than saying "I noticed on page 64 this nine day and night package, we want to book that.” Instead they say, "I have a clients sitting across from me who’s interested in going to Lizard Island and they also would like to do some golfing in New Zealand, which I hear is great." We will build a package like that. We know how to structure one. Is it better to go to Australia first? Is it better to do the Kauri Cliffs Golf Course first, or Clearwater Golf Course in Christchurch. These are the things we know how to do. We would be delighted to allow the client to lay out their dream itinerary as opposed to saying here is an itinerary and this is what you get. We want them to put together a trip that they want. It’s our expertise that helps make it work. Somebody might say they’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand and they’ve always dreamed of Milford Sound or Queenstown or something off the beaten track. And they’ve also talked about spot treatments and they want to stay in a nice city and see a show. We know how to map that out and use international flights. We know the best way from getting from point A to point B. Then they can look it over and say that’s exactly what I want. Or if it’s a little over budget they can say, "Can we can bring that down." And will allow the agent to gauge their client for that dream itinerary. Instead of saying, which of these five packages do you like the best? We will just put together the package the client likes the best.
I understand last Thursday, May 12 you won the award for best Kiwi Specialist (North American travel agents specializing in New Zealand destinations).
We were awarded by the Kiwi specialists as best wholesaler in North America. We also won for best brochure for best New Zealand content.
How does it make you feel?
I am delighted. I guess you can go back to that philosophy I was talking about earlier focusing on customer service. We have won the last three awards in our industry from the Kiwi specialist and the last two Aussie specialist awards from the retail travel agents. I think it just validates what we are trying to do. The travel agents appreciate it and I love that it works. With the staff that we have, I can say with confidence is the best in the industry. They take such pride in their job. They enjoy the fact that they are not micromanaged. They make their own decisions to learn about the destination. Most of them are from the South Pacific and they truly enjoy what they do and it’s only proof that the travel agents from around the country voted them as the best. I look at it as an award for the people who work for Down Under Answers.
How many different companies does Down Under Answers work with?
Our current database has over 7300 products [tourism companies] in it so there’s really nothing that I can think of that we can’t sell. If it’s not in our database, for example a travel agent just got back from Australia stayed in a charming bed-and-breakfast just a back from outside of Byron Bay, we will put it in. We are in business to facilitate the dream itinerary. We are happy to incorporate products that we don’t have by adding them. We have preferred products, sure, they are there for a reason. 7300 products, 124 page brochure so we leave quite a number of products out.
We know that you work with Kiwi specialists do you work with smaller agents as well?
We are willing to work with any agent who wants to look after their client. So we do have a lot of Kiwi specialists a lot of Aussie specialists, and large chain travel agents all the way to mom-and-pop working out of their dens. We look at them all the same, as valuable clients.
Where do you see down under answers expanding?
Down Under Answers will not expand to any other parts of the world. I feel that potential for travel in the South Pacific is such that we will experience the growth that we want. We would rather be really good at selling the South Pacific. And there’s a lot of great products there. There are a lot more people we can get to go As a long-haul destination, Australia and New Zealand have plenty of room to grow. It’s becoming, and I believe, less expensive. The airlines competing with aggressively priced tickets. The US dollar remains relatively strong in Australia and New Zealand. So it can still be considered a value destination. I can say with a high degree of confidence we will not be selling a destinations outside of the South Pacific. We will stay doing, what we do well. We’ve extended our breath of offerings, in the Pacific Islands mainly. Tahiti is a great example. We were asked to incorporate Tahiti is a destination, but mainly as a stopover. Now we have full-fledged Tahiti products. We feel we are very good at doing that. We are educated and that’s why it’s now in our program. We now have a dedicated brochure just for those South Pacific island products. You may see more adventure tours coming from us "“ harkening back to our roots, things that are more cultural. So that there is more of an understanding of the destination. We always want to highlight the unique and off the beaten track itinerary. When I turned 40, I treated myself to a trip to Western Australia, really got out there. I had an absolutely fantastic time. It’s a mass of wide-open space with so few people and to see the sun set over the Indian Ocean, it was always a dream of mine. I even used it as a tagline for an Australian commercial. I’ll still love the areas in the far North Islands of New Zealand. It is not a tremendously traveled area but it is so beautiful. The Bay of Islands, those are some of my favorite places to go. Waihiki Island just outside of Auckland has some tremendous winds and good dining and still being so close to a Major city. I have a lot of favorite places I could go on for another 45 minutes. And I do like to golf. I have to confess I’m bad at it. I think some of the courses that you get in the state of Victoria that would be my favorite area to play. I also played a great course in Christchurch called, Clearwater. It is challenging course as I remember. How the wind was blowing when I played. I like that course quite a bit Kauri Cliffs on the North Island is absolutely spectacular and some of the opportunities you get south of Melbourne on the Mornington Peninsula. It’s not like golf that I play. There’s a lot of links courses but I know one make it sound like I’m too much of a golfer unfortunately the genes don’t match up to the aspiration.
Do people calling get recorded messages when I call down under answers?
We don’t believe the machine should never be the first point of contact. And therefore we would never have that. At Down Under Answers you will get a person. We try to make ourselves as available as possible. We never force you to hit one, hit two, hit three but we have a voicemail system just encase you one leave a message or the person you need to speak to his out for lunch or what ever. Our hours of operation are from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Pacific time.
Interviewed and edited by Devin Galaudet
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