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An Otago-based company is introducing well-heeled tourists to New Zealand’s under-the-radar gems – and is very much on the radar of some of the world’s top travel authorities.
From its base in Omakau, in the Maniototo, Ahipara Travel has broken into Conde Nast Traveler's list of ‘top travel specialists’, ahead of more than 10,000 travel planner and tour operators.
This is powerful praise for the luxury travel company and its owner, Jean-Michel Jefferson.
“There are only 133 operators listed worldwide, so it feels pretty good to be on it,” he says.
Of the more than 10,000 tour operators who have tried to make the list since its inception 12 years ago, only a tiny fraction have made the grade.
Conde Nast director Wendy Perrin says getting into that group was, statistically speaking, tougher than getting into Harvard. But Ahipara Travel made the cut the first year it applied.
And this year he was also profiled in pre-eminent luxury lifestyle publication the Robb Report as one of its "Perfect 10" travel specialists internationally.
Mr Jefferson writes all Ahipara’s itineraries himself and steers away from commercial and off-the-shelf activities. His custom-made adventures have been priced at up to $950,000 for an itinerary that included a lot of helicopter travel.
“They might generally focus on sightseeing, adrenaline, discovery, sport, food and wine, hunting and fishing or touring by helicopter, but we have never repeated the same one,” he says.
Winery tours by mini-van will not cut it for Ahipara, so for one client Mr Jefferson tailor-made his Queenstown visit to meet the owner of Valli Vineyards, Grant Taylor – responsible for establishing pinot noir in the area and twice-awarded best pinot noir maker at the London International Wine Challenge.
A private island was hired for the 50th birthday celebrations of a Russian billionaire who was taught how to dive for crayfish, which were later cooked by a top chef in a beach banquet where a Maori waka delivered 18 warriors to perform a seaside powhiri challenge.
In another adventure, a group of 10 Brazilian motorcyclists had a seaside feast of whitebait caught and cooked by local fishermen while their divers were on a nearby island catching crayfish for the second course.
And a client who wanted to fly in a helicopter found themselves at the dual controls in a flying lesson all the way to Huka Lodge.
Other clients have been flown to Fiordland to hike with Lydia Bradey – the first woman to conquer Mt Everest without carrying oxygen – or have taken the wheel for a rally drive on a stretch of the New Zealand circuit or a private jet boat on Lake Dunstan.
See an example of what an 11-day, 5-star vacation designed by Ahipara for could look like at $30,000-a-head here.
“We don’t just get our guests to ‘do’ things, we connect people to the country,” Mr Jefferson says.
Ahipara’s itineraries are designed to get visitors “under the skin” of the New Zealand by introducing them to the land and authentic Kiwi characters in innovative and authentic ways.
“It’s like visiting the country with a well-connected friend, you see so much more.”
Mr Jefferson works within budgets ranging from three-star to six-star and assumes that by the time his clients arrive in New Zealand, they have been everywhere and done it all.
Accommodation varies each night and could range from a formal lodge or private home to a mountain-top hut or a high-country sheep station.
Although the luxury travel market suffered under the global financial crisis, and Ahipara’s revenue was almost halved, the company has just seen its best year yet, with revenue growth of 60%.
Corporate career over
Eleven years ago, Mr Jefferson threw in a role as director of corporate finance and head of PwC’s aviation group in Moscow to set up Ahipara with his wife Karen.
Europe makes up the lion’s share of his current client base, but the Brazil, Hong Kong and Singapore markets are starting to grow and the US and South America will be the focus of his marketing next year.
Opportunities are also spotted for Ahipara to design activities for New Zealand companies who are hosting overseas clients.
“That’s instead of just fobbing them off to a PA and a trip to Waiheke,” Mr Jefferson says.
“And lots of Aussies still think if they go online and create a do-it-yourself holiday here … but they won’t find the scallop beds if they do that.”