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Pivot with a passion for kids

When the Government told the tourism industry to “pivot” a little over a year ago, one far north accommodation provider did just that – and found themselves a new niche.

Russell – Orongo Bay Holiday Park co-owner Tori Burns says the team have worked hard to think outside the box and work to their strengths; now offering immersive cultural experiences for schoolchildren.

“We’ve had to think outside the box when it comes to how we’re going to survive the winter because obviously summer is when we get domestic tourists anyway to the holiday parks,” says Tori.

“We have had school groups come through in the past, but we haven’t done anything as comprehensive as what we are doing now, because we haven’t really had the time to think about it.

“Having COVID really gave us some time to think.”

With Howard Reti, a kaumātua, living on-site at the holiday park, Tori was excited to involve him in her plans.

“He came to the site to retire and he lives in his big green bus. He’s a man of so much wisdom and knowledge and he’s taught cultural education for 40 years all over the world,” says Tori.

“He’s always offering to help where he can.

“We sat down one day and I was telling him about a school that was coming, and he suggested we try some new things and offer to do some team-building or something he could help with to make it a little more interesting.”

Tori – a woman with a passion for children and an old dream of being a schoolteacher – got thinking about this proposal and decided to try something new.

“I’m not from here originally but it’s really special to me and I love to visit Waitangi, which is just across the way from us, and lots of schools come to stay with us and visit Waitangi. To be able to offer a hands-on experience that complements the trip to Waitangi, it just sparked a lot of ideas.”

The holiday park now accommodates school groups that want a hands-on cultural experience, with expert knowledge, right across the way from Waitangi.

Kids can build their own marae, participate in a hƒÅngi and learn MƒÅori myths and legends around a fire, all with Howard’s supervision and help.

“That’s the whole thing about a kaumƒÅtua, they are passing down the stories, they are developing people’s strengths because they can see it through their experience and their wisdom. It’s so special having him here,” says Tori.

The holiday park itself invokes a bit of magic. Set on 14 acres of native bush, there are nesting kiwi, weka and more than 50 species of bird on-site, meaning the team engage in predator control and conservation efforts.

“One of the things that we really love doing is getting kids back into nature, getting them back into basics and off devices,” says Tori.

“I’m really passionate about what we have to offer at the park, and I’m really passionate about helping kids.”

She says the park is also running nature-based holiday programmes – filling a childcare availability gap in the Bay of Islands while also getting kids outside and enjoying nature.

“It’s become really popular with local kids,” says Tori.

Tori had a dream of being a teacher, but says she “never got around to it”, so this meeting of tourism and teaching is a perfect fit for her.

“Now I feel I have the best of all worlds – I can get involved with schools and help with their curriculum, I can help identify what they might be lacking in and offer the cultural side of things, as well as the history this area has to offer.

“It’s so much fun and we’re all so excited it at the park, because it’s giving everybody a chance to see the park in a different light.

“We’re really proud of how it’s going.”

She says part of the fun for her is helping schools access what they can and work with what they can offer.

“We think all schools should have this opportunity and know that it’s within their budget and they can achieve it and we can do a lot of the work for them, so the teachers don’t have to think too much.

“One of their pains is having to do extra work outside of what they have to do as a teacher anyway, so organising these trips, we’re just trying to make it as easy as possible. We can come up with an itinerary for them once we know what they’re curriculum is focusing on and what they want to build upon.”

Tori says the park works alongside organisations such as Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Pompallier Mission, Russell Museum, Haratu Kororareka Marae, R Tucker Thompson Sailing Trust, Kawiti Glowworm caves, Great Escapes Sailing School, Barefoot Sailing, Russell Kayaks, Kerikeri Stone House and Kemp Store, and more, to promote and support local businesses and tourism in the area while also offering a comprehensive cultural experience.

And she says one day they hope to open up the opportunity to experience New Zealand culture first-hand to people past their schooling days.

“One thing that I didn’t realise, and that really hit home to me last week, is that it’s not just the children doing the learning, the teachers have been learning so much,” says Tori.

“Kids are really open to learning, but the teachers didn’t always understand what we were doing or how we were doing it, so I think sometimes the teachers have been learning more than the kids.

“That really got to me; everybody learns here, it’d not just about the children. We’re looking at doing the same thing for adults, where we hold it at a set time of year and people can sign up for it.”

Russell – Orongo Bay Holiday Park is also running a special Matariki event over July 2-4, which opens up a unique cultural experience to the general public.

“We've partnered with Russell Mini Tours, Bay of Islands to put together a unique weekend experience of Matariki celebrations including meals, accommodation and activities,” says Tori. “Honouring the TangƒÅta Whenua view of Matariki, led by our Kaumatua, we will celebrate and bring to life the traditions of Matariki.”

For more information, visit: www.russellaccommodation.co.nz

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