During the summer months the Taupō district has traditionally welcomed a number of high-
spend international travellers. These visitors are attracted to the natural beauty of the
region, seeking out experiences that are luxurious and unique. For the last 15 years, five-star
luxury lodge River Birches has been serving this high-end market with their boutique
Located on the banks of the Tongariro River in Turangi and the closest luxury lodge to the
popular Tongariro Crossing, the lodge’s guest rooms and self-contained cottage would
usually be bustling at this time of year. One of River Birches’ popular products is a private
guided walk over the Tongariro Crossing. They also provide guided fly-fishing experiences.
However due to the COVID-19 pandemic border closures, this has been a very different year
for owners Jason and Rebeca Bleibtreu. “The majority of our guests come from the USA and
the UK” says Jason. “As soon as the borders closed we lost 98% of our bookings overnight.
Once the national lockdown lifted and New Zealanders were able to travel we received
more bookings. But it’s not anything like the numbers we would normally be welcoming to
the lodge” he says.
Jason realised he needed to review his business approach, and look for opportunities to
adapt to the new conditions. “Initially we looked at pivoting our business to attract new
customers. However we decided it was better to focus on optimising our current offering. At
this stage we’re confident New Zealand will bounce back strongly once the border opens”
With the support of Rick Keehan and Mike Bowie from Enterprise Great Lake Taupō, Jason
began applying for training vouchers from the Regional Business Partner Network (RBPN).
“Rick and Mike have helped us access over $9,000 in funding, which has been incredibly
helpful. We used this funding to gain advice from an accountant about applying for and
managing government support payments. We also received training from a digital marketing
company and a social media expert. The RPBN funding came through quickly, so we’ve
already been able to implement several changes” says Jason.
Rather than discounting prices, River Birches includes value-added options in their
marketing, such as room upgrades or a discount on dinner for a two night stay. “Most of our
guests value their time more than a bargain. They don’t want to spend their holiday looking
for the right hiking guide or the best restaurant. We work with local operators to find quality
experiences for our guests that are unique to this area” says Jason.
After over 15 years living in Asia and Central America as journalists, Rebeca and Jason have
really enjoyed moving to Turangi. “It’s so peaceful and quiet here, compared to the pace of
life in Asia and Central America. We love to fish and hike, there are so many options within
an hour’s drive. It’s also really nice to hear the ‘Oh wow!’ when guests arrive – it reminds us
that we live in a beautiful place” says Jason.
Family photo caption L-R: Robert, Rebeca, Jason Bleibtreu