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Camper-van rental company sews up all segments of market

By Graeme Kennedy

Friday 16th June 2000

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Tourism Holdings Rentals (THR) is repositioning its business with a wider product range, new business plan and stronger branding backed by a $250,000 market research programme to consolidate its standing as the world's biggest camper-van and motor-home operator.

The company, a division of Auckland-based Tourism Holdings Ltd, was created in November with the $161 million acquisition of major competitor Britz and its merger with Maui motor homes.

THR has integrated its depots and staff in New Zealand and Australia, set up single reservations systems in Melbourne and Auckland and, following the sale of its South African operation two weeks ago, ordered 400 Mercedes vehicles worth $28 million for the two markets.

Chief executive and Tourism Holdings director Chris Alpe said the survey - the first major research conducted on the motor-home industry - was aimed to confirm the company's strategies regarding customers' expectations and to protect the Britz branding.

"About $60 million of the purchase price was goodwill so it is vital we continue that brand name but buying the goodwill doesn't guarantee continuance of customer support - the only way to do that is to deliver what the customer and our agents are expecting and promising," Mr Alpe said.

"It is imperative that we retain the value of the Britz name - often when a competitor is acquired the name is lost and forgotten - but we will run the two brands in parallel, with Britz for adventure and Maui for the more family-oriented holiday.

"Wholesalers who sell our products feature both brands - that gives us good market spread and we are using the survey to confirm our strategies and lift quality of product and service to protect our market share and ensure we stay well ahead of the pack of smaller operators chasing us."

Mr Alpe formed Maui in 1981 and took an equity position and a seat on the board of The Helicopter Line after his motor-home company joined the growing tourism business which changed its name in 1998 to Tourism Holdings Ltd under chief executive Dennis Pickup and moved its headquarters from Dunedin to Auckland.

Along the way, Maui expanded with the acquisitions of Newmans, Mount Cook and Budget mobile home divisions.

Britz, of similar size to Maui, increased the new rental company's vans and motor homes to 3800 in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand although South Africa was sold as a franchise to a prominent tourism operator due to its remoteness, Mr Alpe said.

"I don't believe an absentee landlord can do a good job in South Africa," he said.

THR has placed an initial $14 million order for 200 new Mercedes vehicles for the New Zealand market, the first of which will enter service in October in time for the peak tourist season. Another 200 have been ordered for Australia.

Mr Alpe said Mercedes supplied cabs and chassis while the caravan living area units were built at Elkhardt, Indiana, knocked down and shipped to New Zealand in 40ft containers. They are reassembled at an Otorohonga plant and matched to the Mercedes chassis.

"The caravans could be built here but there are seven million motor homes in the US which gives them much greater buying power while we get improved quality at a significantly lower price," Mr Alpe said.

"We replace around 25% of our fleet on a three-and-a-half to four-year cycle and last year we had an extraordinarily large build to just keep pace with replacement, without accounting for growth.

"The industry is a lot bigger than people perceive it to be. Our fleet translates into 12,000 beds in Australia and New Zealand, which gives us a capacity of 4.4 million bed-nights a year - and we have less than 60% of the market."

Mr Alpe said Europeans, particularly Germans, were THR's biggest customer group, followed by the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand domestic travellers.

The company had successfully packaged motor homes with other activities such as the Maui-Treble Cone Skiwi product and saw opportunities to involve the vehicles in other pursuits including golf, fishing, wine and food, diving and farm stays.

A new business plan separated vehicles into price classes based on age and service standards to meet the needs of various market segments, Mr Alpe said.

Premium class offered new vehicles and quality fittings, bedding and crockery, Value vans were two years old and provided sleeping bags and basic utensils while Backpacker class vehicles were up to 32 months old and all equipment was hired.

"We expect our research to tell us these are the types of products our customers want and no competitor can deliver what we are doing - they can't offer vehicles at certain ages because they simply don't have the numbers," Mr Alpe said.

VALUING THE MAUI BRAND: Chris Alpe covers the

family-holiday market

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