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Pacific Experiences: Tourism, and the Intersection of Native Business & Culture

Melehina Groves, interviewer [Ka‘iwakīloumoku]
February 2006

In February of 2006, Ka‘iwakīloumoku caught up with Te Puia CEO Andrew Te Whaiti while he and his family were spending some time in Hawai‘i. In addition to conducting various presentations, including one entitled "Mana and Money" for Kapālama High School economics students, Te Whaiti was able to spend quality "ho‘onanea" time with the Kamehameha ‘ohana—time during which we got to know each other, to laugh and share, and also to return some of the amazing hospitality which is always extended to us when we visit Te Puia.

Located in Rotorua, Aotearoa, Te Puia is an institution which was established to preserve and foster Māori culture, crafts, and arts. Today, carvers, weavers, story tellers, performers, and tattooists are still trained in the skills of their ancestors, while technology and "tourism science" have been infused into the organization, making it a successful business venture.

Andrew shared some of his mana‘o on the challenges Te Puia has faced and the successes they have enjoyed, feeling that many are universal for indigenous peoples. Most importantly, he said, a culture does not have to sacrifice its authenticity in order to succeed in the business realm.

For more information on Te Puia, visit their website at

MG: Aloha e Andrew, mahalo for giving us a little time out of your day! Could you start by telling us which iwi you belong to?

AT: Sure, my iwi is Ngai Tahu which is a predominantly South Island tribe. Ngai Tahu were involved in a treaty settlement several years ago, I think they got several hundred million dollars. The canoe that we came in on is linked to the central part of the North Island and we literally beached at Mount Maunganui which is where I was brought up. I was brought up right on the coast. 

MG: Could you explain a little bit about Te Puia as an organization? It used to be known as the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, right?

AT: Right. Te Puia is in Rotorua and was established by an Act of Parliament in 1963. It’s owned by the New Zealand government, which means that it can never be sold. Basically our place is about the land and the people and about asking the question how can we grow culture and the arts? Essentially, we’re storytellers, we look to earn money and reinvest in the culture to continue the passing of knowledge from generation to generation—it isn’t necessary to compromise cultural authenticity to make money.

The name Te Puia really came from looking to the past and looking within—it literally means "geyser" or "geothermal," and if you’ve seen our site, you’ll know why we chose that! Also, according to tradition, Te Puia as a power site was never beaten, so that figured into the naming as well.

MG: How long have you been working at Te Puia?

AT: I’ve been there five years. I spent almost one full year as the Marketing Manager. I held that role for just under a year and then moved on to becoming the Chief Executive Officer.

MG: So four years as CEO?

AT: Just about. Yeah . . . think the average CEO term before that was something like 1, 2 years . . . [laughing]

MG: Really?

AT: Yeah, a lot of turnover. It’s the "balance" issue; it’s a tough place to manage, because you’re affected not just by the commercial staff but by the cultural staff as well. Then throw Treaty of Waitangi stuff in there as well, it’s an interesting mix. Have to come to Hawai‘i every now and then to recharge! [laughing]

MG: I know what you mean! What do you appreciate most about your work at Te Puia? What do you find most rewarding?

AT: Two things. One is that we preserve and perpetuate our culture, and falling under the cultural umbrella is our art and crafts, carving, weaving, everything. The second thing and one of the reasons I love tourism is that we have visitors who might save their entire lives to travel halfway around the world and visit us. They’ve chosen us. So we’re charged with creating memories. It’s laughter, they’ve got to come and experience laughter and enjoy themselves because they’re on holiday. So when we hear about that or when I see that happening, it’s just the coolest thing.

A good example of some things we’ve done on-sight is that we’ve positioned every viewing platform on our site to create a world-class view and range of vision, which then provides a world-class photo opportunity, so when that person is standing at that platform they can get that world-class photo, take it home and show people and go, "Wow, look where I’ve been!" Every viewing platform on our site has been repositioned to somewhere so you stand there and you literally have to go, "Wow!" If you didn’t go "wow," then it was in the wrong place.

MG: The "wow-factor."

AT: Yeah, yeah.

MG: What in your background do you think best prepared you for this role at Te Puia?

AT: My background commercially I guess is predominantly in the marketing arena. I’m fairly light on the ground in terms of culture, so I think that’s actually a bit of a strength and a weakness for me. Every exchange or thing that I’m exposed to culturally is new and wonderful for me, because I’ve come into the job with no cultural "baggage," if there is such a thing. My eyes are wide open. I’m like a sponge soaking it all in.

So that’s very cool. I did my MBA out of Massey University, sort of central North Island. I think that prepared me commercially and then I have a very good network of experts—I’ve worked very hard over the past ten years to have a strong network of external relationships so that I can just pick up the phone and ring either chief executives or retired directors, that sort of thing. So I use external people a lot, and that makes it a heck of a lot easier because they’re all street wise. They’ve all been there and done it, so they can help me. I put a lot of interest in that, in surrounding myself with experts.

MG: As far as maintaining the "mana" of Te Puia, how have you all managed to maintain the balance between the tourism element and preserving the integrity of your culture?

AT: I don’t think there’s any magic formula, but I think what we’ve managed to do . . . the key word is just "balance" it. I don’t think we get it right every time, but we’re striving to. Again, we use a lot of experts, we have a lot of relationships with people who give us guidance, drawing on experts from the elder people, Māori people.

MG: Are you referring to experts in the sense of master practitioners?

AT: Yup. When Te Puia began, they literally took these old masters out of the bush and brought them here to teach students. We still bring their knowledge forward to today. We go a lot on researching, going through almost a new diligence process and ultimately coming to a decision. At the end of the day, the decisions will rest on my shoulders whether it’s a "yes" or a "no" to do something. I think we research things pretty well, but also we’ve got 70 or 80 wonderful staff that are all from that land, so it’s almost like a consultation-type process. But I do like to move through things with reasonable momentum so that we can get to a decision as fast as we can. A consultation can go on forever!

MG: What sorts of things are you talking about when you say you have to decide whether or not to do something?

AT: Really anything to do with our business. Because our business is the culture, so anything to do with the land, or the arts and the crafts, or product development, if we want to initiate or develop any product. 

I’ll give you a brief example: our night time guided tours through the valley. If we were going to do a formal greeting, we’d want to do it properly, but it’s very difficult to greet people in the dark and, culturally, you wouldn’t do it. How were we going to overcome that hurdle? So then it’s really just about explaining to the guests if it’s really an authentic, real experience, there’s some things that they won’t get that, perhaps, they would have thought they were going to get. 

MG: So it’s drawing that distinction between "this is what we’re going to do now," and "this was done traditionally."

AT: Yup. But as far as we’ve effectively maintained the mana of the organization, I really think it’s the people and our past. We regularly look to the past to give us a sort of a steer forward, and certainly what I’ve found is that there’s not a lot of new things that come out, it’s more that we go back and look and just modify some of the old things. No one completely reinvents a new way to do anything, we just tweak it, review it, look at it, perhaps modernize it a little bit to make it relevant for today, and then implement it. Not that you’d call it "new," just different ways of doing old things.  

MG: What are some of the most popular draws of Te Puia? Does it depend on the audience?

AT: Yeah, we segment our market so that we can target one of our sub-brands to that market. Two examples: in India, which is a quite strong emerging market for us, they’re not that fascinated with the culture, because . . . I mean, look at India’s culture.

MG: Right, right.

AT: But they are fascinated by the geothermal, the geysers, and the mudpools! So we market that to them.

MG: That’s what you said you do with Australia, too, right?

AT: Australia’s exactly the same. Europe though, for example, is the reverse. We hit hard with the cultural stuff and that hooks them straight away, and while they’re there they’re exposed to the geothermal and the arts and crafts. Basically, we segmented the world and then put specific targeted strategies for each country and market accordingly.

MG: Why do you believe Te Puia has been successful in blending tourism with cultural authenticity?

AT: I think historically we haven’t been that successful but over the last seven, eight, or nine years we’ve been starting to get pretty good at it. We’ve always relied a lot on—and I reckon every indigenous people has this—our natural ability to host visitors, show aloha, kitanga, all that sort of stuff. We naturally do that, we tell stories and entertain, but when you apply a bit of "tourism science"  to it, then you can stretch that a heck of a lot better and do things better and grow faster. I think we’ve become very good over the last few years at understanding the mechanics of tourism and added that to the natural talents that have always been at Te Puia.

MG: Was the organization struggling before that, in terms of business?

AT: I think it was OK, it would always return a reasonable surplus, it was average, it was OK. I think we’ve taken a good look at it and thought, "we’re not into average," and if we’re returning a 10% surplus, why can’t we do 12%?

MG: Any specific challenges that you find in maintaining the organization?

AT: I think the challenge is "balance." There’s so many things you’re exposed to, and virtually everything we’re exposed to is emotive, which means it’s always difficult to come to a real fast solution because there’s emotions flying. You’re gotta tread lightly. Similar issues to you guys, it’s balancing the cultural staff to the strictly commercial staff that say, "you do this," then to the land claims, etc., etc, so the challenge is balancing all of that.

MG: That’s why the CEOs don’t last!

AT: That’s why I go grey really quick! [laughing]

MG: Any advice for Hawaiian businesses here?

AT: Yeah, there’s a couple of things that have really surprised me since I’ve been here this time and been looking more in-depth at tourism, and one thing is the lack of Hawaiians in key management roles. My two cents worth is that the Hawaiian people should be really striving to get people into those key roles, because there’s so much more to the Hawaiian culture than just meeting-and-greeting at the airport and saying "aloha." I think getting into the universities, getting to the young ones, perhaps learning things like we saw last night—we went up and watched a performance, the kids practicing (Hō‘ike practice at the Performing Arts Department) and it was cool. It was so cool. And any one of those kids could perform anywhere, that’s great, but why can’t they perform and be the CEO?

The second thing is I really struggled to find any Hawaiian-owned tourism businesses. I was really keen to go in and hang with some of them, talk to them about challenges and all that sort of stuff, but I couldn’t find any. I reckon my wife summed it up the other day when she said, "Hawai‘i is so much more than the beach." Hawai‘i is known for the beautiful weather, the beaches, but we went and talked to locals, saw things . . . so much more than the beach. Hawaiians could control that, I think, and should.

The reality of it is you can’t make decisions on the outside, that’s life and we’ve certainly found that to be true. In some cases we’ve had to bulldoze our way in at the boardroom or bulldoze our way in other areas, so you just have to equip yourself with enough armory to handle that, I guess. A very thick skin! [laughing]

MG: Does Te Puia get a lot of support from the community?

AT: Yes and no. Well, we get heaps, probably 95% yes. But we do suffer a bit, as I guess you folks do as well, because we trade reasonably well at the moment and we’re in the top two or three tourism companies in New Zealand, but we’re pretty humble about it. We don’t go "rah-rah-rah!" about it, but sometimes people like taking pot-shots and that sort of thing. In general, though, we get fantastic support.

MG: Do you ever come across people who simply don’t support tourism? How do you address that?

AT: Well, we don’t come across that so much where we are. Tourism’s now surpassed dairy as the highest export earner in New Zealand, so it’s significant. In Rotorua, tourism would be the strongest economic driver. Our organization, for example, had fantastic support regarding development from our council, the mayor, and others because if we get it right, we can bring an extra 50,000 visitors to Rotorua and a strong economic gain throughout the city. They’ll buy petrol, they’ll buy bread, they’ll stay in a hotel, so we don’t get that much negativity about tourism.

But you get 7 million tourists a year here, more than double what we get [laughing] and I think we can spread our load more, with much more land, we can sort of funnel them off into different areas but you’re very concentrated here. We were walking in Waikīkī the other day and it was like, "Oh my God!" [laughing]

MG: Do you think the growing popularity of eco-tours has contributed to Te Puia’s success?

AT: I think one of the major reasons for our success is the product mix. You can’t replicate our culture or where we are, because our stories link back to the land where we are, where we were birthed—and damn hard to replicate geysers and mudpools and put them somewhere else! But that’s an important question regarding eco-tours and eco-focus, because we’re the guardians of that land so we look after it really well. We don’t put anything into the ground that will harm it. We put a lot of emphasis around protecting it and making sure it’s sustainable, so we do some pretty good work around that, and as a consequence, the visitors love it. The park, the valley is pristine. We work with a lot of geologists and other scientists to get a better understanding of geothermal activity and that sort of thing.

MG: How big an area is Te Puia?

AT: 60 hectares. (148.2 acres) 

MG: Why do you place such great emphasis on Te Puia being completely self-sufficient?

AT: Well, one thing, really, it gives us the ability to make our own decisions. We’ll either reap the reward or not from those decisions, and that’s where your strategy and your planning and all that sort of stuff comes into play so that hopefully you will make that right decision.

MG: Because you’re not big on grants, I understand.

AT: Have you heard that? [laughing]

MG: Only from you! [laughing] During your talk to the students at Kōnia.

AT: A lot of the staff tease me about that as well, "Andrew, we hear you’re not into grants." Really? But for us it does make sense, and I think it’s important that we’re self-sufficient, we do what we’re charged to do. It’s a really good feeling to know we’ve done everything like that. We grow as a result of great work from the staff. And if we don’t achieve what we want to achieve, well that’s our fault, too.

And I’m not big on reports and analyzing the worth of the grant, and I don’t take a report that are more than a page, ever, from management or anybody. So get it into a page! We don’t want to be experts in policy-type stuff, we want to be good at tourism and grow our culture.

MG: Well, besides any closing thoughts, I hope you really enjoyed your visit here!

AT: Yup, we have had just the most unreal time here . . . and I hear Waimea Bay’s about 20–30 feet, so I’m gonna go check that out this weekend! [laughing] Gonna go there tomorrow, hopefully!

So we’ve had an amazing, amazing time but I do feel—and not that I’m an expert or that I really understand Hawaiian culture that significantly—but I really do feel that there’s an opportunity in tourism for the Hawaiian people to get more control, get into those key roles, and take ownership of some things, because it just sort of doesn’t sit right that the major tourism attractions and activities around here are controlled by corporations or by other things like that. This place is Hawai‘i.

01 tewhaiti long-216

photo credit: Melehina Groves

Andrew Te Whaiti, CEO of Te Puia.

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photo credit: Melehina Groves

Geysers and mud pools are main tourist draws at Te Puia, and also behind the inspiration for the institution’s name.

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photo credit: Melehina Groves

James Rickard, master carver, explains some of the pieces he and his students are working on in the carving school.

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photo credit: Melehina Groves

A carving student displays a green stone adze. Despite its beauty and widespread use in jewelry and traditional ornaments, green stone was also used in tools and weaponry.

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