Leading Questions: Tourism Holdings boss Grant Webster

Grant Webster is the chief executive of Tourism Holdings (THL), one of the first companies to feel the impact of Covid-19

How would you describe 2020 for your business?

If the business was a “being” it would probably have been a lucky survivor of a horrid car crash. There were a lot of cars in this crash. Luckily we had good airbags and plenty of other safety features.

We need to change a couple of tyres before we can get moving again but there is no long-term damage we can see, and we have had a thorough insurance check. We have even managed to tidy up the paintwork while we have been fixing the tyres. We will be moving at a super pace once the pace car leaves the track.

I am really proud of the way the THL team have managed themselves through this year, in particular the US crew, the UK team and the Melbourne crew who have had the worst of the Covid-19 restrictions and personal impacts.

We keep changing and adapting and the crew just step up.

How do you think the Government has handled the Covid-19 crisis?

When I look around the world at our business you can see that New Zealand has handled the crisis very well from a health perspective. The depth and speed of the economic response were also admirable, despite a few understandable missteps. They have sensed the needs of New Zealanders well.

I remain in my view that the Prime Minister and Finance Minister, in particular, have grown with their roles, delivered well and I hope all their colleagues can deliver for them at pace in this next term.

Delivering now on climate, poverty and business growth by investing in transformational change projects will be the test of successful crisis management.

What are two key things the Government should do for economic recovery?

Any tourism operator with a historical reliance on international tourism is going to push for borders to be opened as one key to an economic recovery. But it needs to be very nuanced. As well as leisure tourists there are freight links to maintain, an education sector to revitalise, business links and investment to re-establish, and most importantly there are families that need to reconnect.I am not sure everyone has seen the deep impact of no International tourists yet, February is going to be very telling for the economy.

The second key thing from my perspective is to create a clear recovery plan in conjunction with business, using the resource of both Government and New Zealand business. Imagine if the top 300 businesses in New Zealand provided, say two highly capable specialist people from each business for a one-year secondment (free to the Government), to be matched with Government resource. You could have a highly capable dedicated team focused only on the issues relating to the Covid-19 recovery and economic growth.

How is your business planning to tackle 2021?

2021 is about revenue generation and continued balance sheet management. We have done the cost out work, we have learnt what domestic only market metrics are, so we continue to grow, to focus on revenue. Around the world, we are in very different stages of recovery and development. The US holds the greatest chance for growth today, yet New Zealand has the broadest spread of business opportunities. We generate deep excitement when we consider that we are likely to have several years of ongoing growth from this low point in 2020. There are lots of opportunities to continue to reset the business in 2021 and launch at pace as borders open.

What will be the major challenges and/or opportunities for your industry?

The largest challenge for the industry will be waiting for the borders to open and all the consequential impacts that we may have globally. The longer-term consequence we need to be mindful of is product quality. When a crisis has this level of impact on an industry, balance sheets are challenged and refurbishment and renewal become difficult. We could see the likes of hotels and coaches pushing out required renewal plans whilst profitability is restored. We are fortunate that vehicle sales have been strong thus we have been able to renew our fleet at an even faster pace than usual.

What was the most interesting non-Covid-19 story of 2020?

Netflix has probably been the most interesting non-Covid-19 story creator – the Social Dilemma, A Life on Our Planet (David Attenborough), and Season 4 of The Crown have created superb conversations (that’s about all I’ve managed to watch). From an economic perspective the prospect of negative interest rates in New Zealand was really interesting, a mind bender. From a business perspective the Work from Home trend and where that is settling.

Where are you holidaying this summer?

I am lucky enough to be able to spend some time in Whitianga, Coromandel. The more of the family and extended family there the better. Really looking forward to connecting with the family after a demanding year. Four kids and a tolerant partner deserve some attention.

What are your predictions for 2021?

1. No prediction I make will come true.

2. The first no-quarantine travellers (apart from the Cook Islands) will enter New Zealand on March 15th.

3. We will have around 50 current United States resident billionaires move to New Zealand to live in 2021-22.

4. We will win the America’s Cup.

5. Unemployment will, unfortunately, reach 8 per cent at its peak.

6. House prices in Auckland will increase by only 5 per cent in 2021.

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