Tell me a little bit about yourself and what Neat Places is all about?
I’m Johnny, I’m the Director of Neat Places, which is essentially a guide to regions and cities around New Zealand. Neat is a curated brand, so we pick all of the places we feature and recommend people to go. We have place listings, directories and itineraries featured across our website, socials and publications. We're a pretty domestic tourism focused brand I would say.
How did you get involved in Neat Places?
My business partner, Marcia, started Neat Places in 2010 as a response to the Christchurch earthquakes. Basically, there weren't many things to see or do around Christchurch and people didn’t really know how to explore the city at that time, so she created it as a blog and was doing that for a year or two. I then moved back to the city from overseas and started a music and food festival here in Christchurch and through that I ended up meeting her and we started chatting about Neat Places. She has a real marketing background and I have quite a hospo background. We started collaborating and became friends quite quickly and from that point we decided to turn it into a business and got stuck in.
Has Neat Places always been a full-time gig?
No, definitely not. In the beginning I was running my festival and doing a few days of labouring - I was a shocking labourer so I knew I had to make this work! It would have taken a couple of years before I was full time, and Marcia has a couple of kids now too. It’s very much a lifestyle business, we work super hard but it has to work for us as well. It did take a while to get to a point where it would support us.
Do you find it manageable to navigate the business with other aspects of your life?
Yeah - now that we’re a bit more established and have a much bigger audience it’s a lot easier. It’s definitely been hard though because, as mentioned before, we’re a lifestyle brand and for us we really enjoy good coffee and food and fashion so it can get quite personal. For a long time, any place I visited I would be assessing all the aspects of the business, so it’s taken me a long time to be able to switch off, but over time I managed to learn how to do that.
Are you personally quite engaged in all of the content creation?
There’s a lot of things out there, like Trip Advisor and what not, where you can have users create content - and that’s a really easy business model because, as the owners, you don’t have to do that much. We were sort of over that and really wanted to build a brand that could be trusted and respected and hold ourselves accountable. We create all of our own content, so there’s a real consistency across it. For a long time, to make money we would go to businesses that were already ‘Neat’, and say, “Hey, we’d be really keen to include you within this and it’s going to cost this much”. That was hard work, as any sales is, but pretty quickly we realised that that wasn’t a great model going forward because if we want to be a true brand, we want flexibility and we don’t want to have to just feature people that have marketing spend. Over the past few years we’ve been transitioning through to a model where we go into partnership with regional tourism organisations, councils, or economic development agencies. We’re looking to pass the bill over to them and not on small business. Because, generally a ‘Neat Place’ is a small business, it’s not a global brand or a massive chain, the people that own these businesses are very involved. Our model is probably 70% there, in most of the regions we work in in NZ, the businesses don’t have to pay - so that’s great, but still there’s more to be done. For us, that’s the goal going forward and these partners/tourism organisations work with us for a number of reasons. One of them being that they like having an independent authority coming into their region and highlighting what we think is great, being a kind of external voice. Another one is the quality of content that we create, and they’ll get access to some of that content, like the imagery and what not. We publish that across our networks that have a really good reach. We also have content partnerships so there’s other parties that will share that content. Really we just go out and try and make the most authentic, high-quality content we can and then it gets thrown around from a few different sides. We’ll move into different regions around the country, for example, we’ve just done a heap of work with Manawatū which has been really cool. I’m the one who will go into all of these regions and uncover what there is. That’s quite hard for me to do if I haven’t spent a lot of time in that region, so I need to identify some local ambassadors and really chat to them, and a lot of people who are respected and are leaders within those communities, and pick their brains. Generally the best thing to do is go to the best pub and sit at the bar and start chatting!
It must be pretty cool going out and networking and meeting new people along the way!
Yeah definitely. That’s probably my favourite part of the job. And it’s not always doing that, I spend a lot of time at my computer, but when I’m doing that work it’s definitely my favourite. In Manawatū for example, I went to this jeweller called Cameron Jewellery and didn’t have huge expectations from what I saw online, but you just never know. And that’s what this job has taught me - you never know. Just going and hearing about them and that they’ve been creating jewellery for over 30 years and also learning a little about the industry... hearing these stories, every now and then one of them really strikes me and I get really inspired by it and I’m like, this is the greatest job! When I do find those unique spots and stories, what I really want to do at that point is just champion it and get it out there - which is great, because that’s our job essentially.
Then the bigger thing for us is really trying to find a way to travel off the beaten track and experience places that are, say, locally-owned and just really unique experiences. It doesn’t mean a place has to just look really flash, it’s about the story and the history. It is quite hard.
Do you have any highlights, or a favourite person or place you’ve visited?
It’s hard because we’re sort of working through a lot of regions in NZ - so there’s a lot! I think a big thing for me is the spaces that allow a community to flourish. That could be something quite specific, like a small gallery that has created a space with a cafe inside, it’s about the culture that these businesses provide for communities. What I personally think, is that in New Zealand we’ve got so many imported products and different things, and also in our places like in our strip malls, and if we continue like this our towns and cities will really lack to create any identity. So, by us being able to support small owner operated businesses, we’re helping create a unique culture for each of these centres - that’s super important. On the back of Covid-19, people have realised this ‘conscious consumerism’ and how their money needs to be spent, so that’s one of the positives that has come out of this and we need to continue doing that so it can allow us to really champion these cities and towns across New Zealand. And they’re all ‘Neat’ for one reason or another and we’re just trying to help identify that I suppose, and support them.
How did COVID-19 impact you guys?
We’re very fortunate because as a domestic tourism facing brand, it’s where a lot of the energy has gone, so we've been busy! We’re just out there trying to do as much as we can to guide people when they’re exploring different cities, and we’ve been lucky enough to work with Tourism NZ on a recent campaign which is really cool. We sort of turned it around by talking to different people that lived within these cities and are respected within their field and said to them well, how do you experience your city and what are your favourite spots?. “Never Have I Ever” - so that was cool to spin that around and put it on other people.
Do you have any exciting plans for the summer/new year?
Well that was quite a big piece of work which we’re still working on now. We’ve just launched Manawatū which was really cool. I’ve been doing a load of work down in Oamaru and the Waitaki, which will come out just before Christmas. The key thing for me, and what I’m pushing going forward, is just getting more regions online. Our goal is to be right across the country. It’s not simple. As mentioned, we create all of our own content so we love that we provide work for photographers and writers, but it’s really tough to get the balance of business right and it’s a constant thing to continue doing, but for us it’s just to keep working hard and adding spots to New Zealand and enjoying what we do really.
What does your team look like?
We have a team of content creators. The core of it is based in Christchurch where we are. We also have a North Island content team based out of Wellington, then we have a range of feature writers. All together there’s probably about 9 or 10 of us working on it, from a range of photography, to writing, to design. In the beginning, Marcia and I had to do quite a lot of writing and content but we weren’t very good at that so thankfully we don’t have to anymore!
And you've managed to maintain a good work-life balance?
Yeah… that’s an interesting one. The festival I had, called Nostalgia, was a food and wine festival in a 1900’s replica township - it’s quite an odd thing, haha. That taught me a lot about work-life balance because the events industry is extremely high pressure and you’ve got massive things you can’t control, like the weather and what not. I didn’t have a very good work-life balance when I was doing that and Neat Places because they were both quite full on. Going forward and having the years of experience with Neat Places now, I definitely value my time and I’ve realised how important that is not just for my physical wellbeing but mental as well. I really notice it now if I miss out on the couple of key things I do recreationally per week. Having to travel for work means that I miss that, so I have to be aware of that too. So it’s something that comes with experience for me. I had to go through some tough stuff to sort of work out the importance of it.
And you’re able to go on holiday and enjoy that fully, and separate it from your job?
Yeah, it’s a lot easier when you go out and do nature-based activities, but definitely, say for urban holidays, I really love nothing more than exploring a city and going to certain cafes and galleries. Especially if I haven’t been there before, I find it a really relaxing experience. So yeah, I can do that now and turn off the Neat Places radar when I’m out and about which is cool.
...and if you are passionate about your work then it’s not necessarily always a bad thing I guess?
Yeah exactly. With any passion or creative thing that you strive for success, it’s going to take a lot out of you and it’s going to take a lot of your time. I’ve sort of realised that now and have come to a point where I know how much I want to give, and how much time to keep for myself. We’re very lucky, we’ve worked hard to get where we are and we’ll continue to, but I do feel very lucky to have the job I have, and as I say, when it’s great, I’m out exploring regions and cities for work. If I had free time and excess money, I’d probably go out and do the same thing. So when it’s good, I am really lucky that I’m out doing that for a job!
Is your work at Neat Places sustainable all-year round?
Yeah, it’s something we can do all year around. Obviously in summer there’s longer hours and there’s better lighting to capture people dining outside etc. Funnily enough, I’d probably say it’s when funding is coming up or the end of the financial year is happening and maybe potential partners have some excess money left over or whatever, that seems to be a busy time for us. But we’ve got quite a few facets to our business; we produce printed pocket guides and thought that they would finish up as digital got more and more popular, but there’s something about it, the tangible effect of having it in hand, and we’re producing more guides than we ever have. We do that consistently in Christchurch, and we had been in Wellington until Covid-19 and we’ll probably pick that up again. We’ve done some national publications, we did a little guide to NZ coffee roasters which was a little 60-page free booklet. There’s heaps of things we can be doing, so if there’s free time, I’ve got ideas, but generally - there’s not a lot of free time.
What’s your ultimate goal for Neat Places?
I think in the not too distant future, it’s about getting that balance of business right and into more regions. Auckland is a very big city and somewhere where we’re not super present. We’re a lot more current in Wellington, Dunedin, Christchurch and Hamilton, and for us to get our feet on the ground in Auckland and go hard requires quite a lot of resource and planning, so there’s a couple of years work there alone. And then we still have a lot of regions to add to the site. So I’d just like for us to continue doing that and continue working on trying to make the content on point as possible. We’ll do our best, but it’s always hard people miss out and all these different things. There’s always gonna be a kick back and there’s always gonna be room for improvement, so there’s that. But if you just continue to work hard and do the best you can do, you’ll be alright in the end. We’d really like to start doing full NZ lists because we do get out and travel a lot and I think that’s cool content for the whole country. So we’ve got plenty to do, plenty of space!
Do you have a favourite story?
Not so much a story, but I have favourite moments and experiences within the business. One is Love Grove Lane in Hamilton. Just going there for the first time and seeing this little group of owner-operated businesses in this tucked away alley in Hamilton East was really inspiring and really cool. I remember that really well, I was sitting at GG’s Cafe’ at the end and just seeing that bit of community coming in and out. More recently in Moeraki, going down there and meeting The Fish Wife, which is sort of a container fish and chips next to Fleur’s, quite a famous restaurant. They have their boat where they go out and fish every day and boat straight back into the jetty and take the cod directly off the boat to the container, where they serve the best piece of blue cod I’ve ever had in my life! Just seeing and being able to appreciate that and what goes into some of these businesses and the products they turn out is pretty cool! For me it’s just a range of experiences I cherish I suppose.
And you get a good response from the partners you work with?
Yeah. These partnerships are sort of new and RTO’s and economic development programmes haven’t really done these partnerships before so it’s definitely taken them a while to see the value, but they certainly have. We’ve been in partnership with Hamilton Central for four years, the same with Wanaka and Southland, we’re about to start a second year with them. So once we sort of get rolling, they really do. I think it’s the authenticity and championing of businesses. Rather than ‘do this walk’ and ‘go to this one winery’, we're really trying to get under the skin of it a bit and tell the story of this, say, third generation baker that’s been milling their own flour. I think we’re really good at being able to uncover and find those stories and multiple times tourism companies have been surprised at what we’ve been able to find when it’s been under their nose the whole time.
Have you noticed your progress from when you first started to now, getting better at digging out those stories etc?
Definitely, and we’ve got a really good team and friends also that fire us stuff and what not. So it’s not just something that we’re doing, we get a lot of input as well which is really cool. It’s definitely become a bit easier. Sometimes it feels like we’re going really slow and there’s not much change but I think from the outside it seems like it does change a bit. When you’re in the business you’re sort of engrossed in it and in it all day and every day it’s hard to look at it from that perspective, to sort of step out of it. Which I think is another thing, like I said being able to step out of work allows you to take a view from your business that you don't get when you’re in it sometimes. For me that’s become really important. If that means I have to have another holiday, then that’s fine, haha!
It must be cool as a predominantly online business to be able to see people directly engaging with your content?
Yeah. We don’t allow any functionality on site for people to comment on the site directly, but social media plays that role and that’s perfect for us. It is, we get some really nice responses from businesses and the beauty of the work that we do is that mostly the businesses don’t have to pay. Sometimes in less urban centres we go and cover a business and sort of lift them up a bit and we get some amazing feedback from them because they didn’t know who we were, or what we do, and they didn’t pay much attention and then all of a sudden we’ve sort of thrown them on a publication and then Stuff would’ve featured them in the 12-hour guide to that region or something and it’s really cool for us to have that freedom to lift up businesses that we want to.
Have you had any regrets along the way?
Definitely. Nothing that really stands out though. I am a firm believer that you need to have those mistakes to create the path that’s got us here. If we hadn’t made some of those mistakes I don’t know if we’d still be running as a business. As we know, small business in NZ is never easy. No, no massive regrets really. The good thing about being a small business like us is that we’re really malleable and we are constantly changing, and will continue to, and I think that’s super important in this landscape. A lot of big organisations can’t do that and we’re really fortunate to have that and my business partner and I can make that decision pretty rapidly and move in that direction if we need to.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to do something different and pursue their own passion project?
Yeah. I think what I've really learned is what you want to achieve is really achievable and stuff, but I think it’s really important to realise what it will take out as well and what is required for success in whatever you do. It is going to take a lot and dominate your life and I think being prepared and open for that is really important. It can build the lifestyle that you want. I got into the festival industry because there was a lack of events happening in Christchurch and I just wanted to create a culture that I really wanted to attend myself and I wanted certain musicians and certain things. So luckily, for a long time I loved it because I was living that sort of dream, but I wasn’t prepared for what it would take out of me. But now looking back at it I can see it. I think if you can also seek advice from the people around you so you can stop yourself from making mistakes, that’s great. I didn’t have a lot of support early on in that side of things and that’s something I had to learn, but if you can have people and opinions that you trust then they’re going to steer you in the right direction and save you some money and time probably.
What’s your personal favourite NZ spot?
I’ve still got a lot to see to be honest. I was enjoying the Wairarapa. It’s a new area I’m just starting to explore and that’s been really cool. Same with Waitaki and Oamaru, it’s been really cool checking out the Waitaki Valley. Nothing is really the number one I suppose, I am driven just to go and check out new spots. But that coastline around the Wairarapa is really cool, Castlepoint especially. I think it’s because it’s quite fresh so I’m quite excited about it. I spent quite a lot of time around Southland last year doing some work and that was amazing, such wicked terrain and rough beaches and we’re so lucky to have so much coastline around this country which is so diverse. Nothing is the number one - still yet to find it.
Yes, so much to see, and cool that you get to highlight it all through your business!