Covid 19 catastrophe: How one hospitality business turned itself around

When Covid-19 caused international tourists to disappear Kyria Warren’s business, catering for high-end clients, nearly folded. Now her company does everything from corporate incentives and charter boats to organising no-expense-spared birthday bashes for youngsters.

If anyone understands the meaning of the Covid-inspired buzz word “pivot” it’s Kyria Warren.

When we last met for an interview in June 2019, she’d just launched her new business after 17 years as a stay-at-home mum of two sons. She called it Luxury LAS (land, air and sea) and had wealthy international visitors coming for the America’s Cup in her sights.

Warren, 43, was buzzing with success. Inquiries were coming in thick and fast, she was hiring new staff to manage bookings for boat charters, helicopters, and luxury mansions and lodges. Her job was to fill every whim, demand and request from well-heeled tourists and America’s Cup visitors.

What could go wrong? Plenty, as it turned out. When Warren first heard about the coronavirus in China, she shrugged it off, thinking it would never reach as far as New Zealand. She did the same when her ex-husband rang to warn her to get rid of her staff, to hunker down and wait out the worst of what was coming.

Like many, Warren couldn’t imagine a world where tourists would no longer come to New Zealand, where the borders would close and the flight paths would become deserted.

She describes the first Covid-19 lockdown as “horrific”. She was forced to let go of staff who had become as close as family, and the company had to refund money for cancelled events and charters.

“Luckily the [local] America’s Cup contracts stuck otherwise we would have been gone.”

And looking back, Warren says that lockdown was a blessing, forcing her to stop and think.

“We were going a million miles an hour. It [the business] was growing so fast.”

When the second lockdown came, Warren says she felt like she was swimming upstream.

“Everyone [in hospitality] was closing their business down. I was going the opposite way.”

But late last year, there was still no sign of the borders opening. By November she was warned that the business was unsustainable. She would need to close.

It was devastating news on top of a tough 18 months – dealing with a marriage breakup, the deaths of her beloved grandfather and surrogate mum, and her dog, and struggling to keep her business afloat. Warren, who puts herself through tough fitness and boxing routines, wasn’t about to give up.

“I had to fight for this. I couldn’t let it fail.”

We met again this week in one of Auckland’s iconic Ngapipi Rd boat sheds on the edge of Hobson Bay. Warren took this on as well, turning what was little more than a dilapidated, rat-infested storage shed into an airy, modern space where she and her staff could work, looking out on to the water.

Inside, beneath glittering chandeliers, her six staff are busy, answering between 10 and 20 inquiries and bookings a day, and working feverishly to load promotional video and photos from new suppliers on to the website.

Almost overnight they’ve found themselves masterminding events and incentive trips they’ve never done before, some of them with eyebrow-raising budgets.

Last month the company organised a lavish Pokemon-themed birthday for a 7-year-old on a 24.6m superyacht. A life-sized Pokemon Squirtle greeted the young guests through a balloon festooned archway on the dock before a day of Pokemon-themed food, games, DJs, luxury goody bags, jetski rides and a giant, inflatable water slide supervised by two professional lifeguards.

The event was captured on video by a professional production team. The cost is confidential but, says Warren, it was more than some people would spend on their weddings.

The child’s father was so impressed with the arrangements he wants Luxury LAS to organise his upcoming 40th.

The staff have hosted millionaires on superyachts and acted as high-end PAs, collecting executives from Auckland Airport in Maseratis, booking accommodation and restaurants, and then delivering them back to the airport.

Says the company’s operations manager Kelly Kemp: “Luxury LAS has become a one-stop shop for everything.”

While we’re talking, Kemp tells Warren she’s just had an email from the New York Fashion organisers who want to work with Luxury LAS co-ordinating influencers on Instagram.

“So we’re starting to get international recognition and we haven’t even tapped into that market yet”, she says.

It was Kemp who, having returned from maternity leave last November, looked over the business and non-existent forward bookings and told Warren she would need to close. A financial adviser agreed, saying if the company didn’t sign up more charter boats and get more bookings within a week, it would be curtains.

Knowing that the Prada Christmas Race was coming up the following month, Warren started hustling. She headed for Auckland’s docks and marinas, photographing luxury yachts and launches, and tracking down the owners to persuade them to charter their boats.

The team rethought their entire marketing approach. The wealthy international tourists were gone but there were still plenty of Kiwis around with itchy feet and money to spend. Scattered around the North and South Islands were empty lodges, estates and luxury homes.

Luxury LAS started putting packages together – wellness and yoga retreats at lodges, corporate events and simply making suggestions. Why not charter a boat and go to Great Barrier? Or heli-fishing or heli-golfing? Or a private estate with a heated, indoor pool and its own vineyard on Waiheke?

The company organised events, putting singers and entertainers on charter boats.

“I had to think differently,” Warren says.

She used the downtime after lockdown to organise content producers to capture New Zealand’s stunning scenery and “hidden gems” on video.

She took a trip herself with her eldest son, going off the grid for three days in the South Island’s Matukituki Valley and Mt Aspiring for three days of tramping, mountain climbing and camping in teepees with a guide, an adventure that was filmed to add to Luxury LAS’ marketing library.

Now she’s sitting on six months’ worth of content, showcasing New Zealand at its finest, ready to produce when the borders re-open.

“At the moment all eyes are on us because of the America’s Cup. So everyone around the world in lockdown, they’re watching what’s going on. They see us walking around our cities with no masks on.”

Her contacts tell her there are so many private jets lined up at Aspen in Colorado there are no parking slots left. Those clients, she says, travel with entourages the size of small villages. They spend money and create jobs.

When their owners are allowed to travel, Warren is betting they’ll head to New Zealand. And what’s not to like, Warren says. “Our food, the mountains, the snow, the lakes, the sea. People will want to come.”

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