Like the rest of New Zealand, Sonja Painter could never have foreseen the impact of Covid and the dramatic drop in tourists seeking the adrenaline-fuelled attractions of her business, Thrillzone, dropped away dramatically.
With three locations in Auckland Viaduct, Takapuna and Queenstown, the state-of-the-art gaming adventures business had been booming, but the lack of tourists meant a complete rethink for Sonja.
After Covid hit, Heart of the City partnered with Business Mentors NZ to offer free mentoring to CBD-based businesses needing support. Sonja jumped at the chance to get the guidance of a highly experienced mentor.
"We created Thrillzone nine years ago in Queenstown – quite by accident. We had moved down there from Auckland, and the kids complained there was nothing to do. So we jokingly suggested we build a little cinema at Jacks Point, but instead, we ended up building a fun family adventure business," says Sonja.
Thrillzone started with two motion simulators and then other products were added including laser tech, paintball, bazooka ball and virtual reality (VR) games. Thrillzone was the first company in New Zealand to experiment with the new VR technology for commercial use and developed the first set up in Queenstown.
A return to Auckland in 2019 saw another arm of the business open in Takapuna, and then on the spur of the moment, when Sonja saw a small shop in the Auckland Ferry Buildings, the decision was made to open another outlet right in the heart of the city, with a brand new product, Escape Adventure.
"We were primarily targeting the cruise ships. We wanted to give them a really different tourist experience, and Escape Adventure is a combination of a scavenger hunt and escape rooms with augmented reality which is highly tech-driven," says Sonja.
"We opened two weeks before Covid hit and then the country went into lockdown. We had to rethink what all three businesses were about and the impact on them."
The mood was sombre in Queenstown and Sonja prepared herself for the worst but the strong commitment and energy from the local community to turn things around, saw a recovery, sooner and better than expected.
Auckland was a different story, particularly the CBD which was already struggling with construction and heavy road works issues, making it difficult for visitors.
"We needed someone who had more experience than us, understood the CBD market and could help with some critical decision-making," says Sonja.
Business Mentors mentor and entrepreneur Paul Speary was just the right person to help get Thrillzone back on track with his sales, marketing and business development expertise. He was also based in the CBD so had a good understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities.
"Working with Paul has helped us turn the business around. His knowledge and connections were invaluable. It was great to have someone experienced to bounce ideas off. We had to rethink our approach and make some big decisions that resulted in our city-based business's closure. However, we still operate in the city but with a different model and in collaboration with other businesses who are in the market for doing something fun."
The focus shifted to the Takapuna site, and new products were developed for new markets. Providing a unique teambuilding offering for the corporate market was one of them.
"With Paul's help, we created new sales channels and marketing approaches. Telemarketing, which we wouldn't have thought of on our own, is something that has worked very well for us and has driven the business forward."
Thrillzone Takapuna now offers indoor escape rooms and VR escape games which have proved popular not only with big corporates but also birthday parties – whether they're for five-year-olds, 21-year-olds or 55-year-olds.
"Customisation has been key and we work to the needs, budget and location of the customer," says Sonja.
When Paul got the call to work with Thrillzone, the first thing he did was take his children down there to experience the operation firsthand.
"I quickly saw the potential for what is a really special experience, whether you're in business or just want to have some family fun," says Paul.
"Sonja needed clarification and substantiation of her thinking and help with networking and connections to open up the business and move it forward. They were on to it. They had the proper structures in place but knew their business needed strategic reaffirmation."
Paul, who is the first to admit that he is always keen to offer his thoughts, has been mentoring 'unofficially' for years but has really enjoyed joining up with like-minded people at Business Mentors and having the benefit of the organisation's structure and guidance.
"Being able to share my knowledge and connections with small businesses and seeing the results is very satisfying."
With her eye now firmly on a positive future for the business, Sonja is excited for the next phase of Thrillzone.
"We love to make people happy and find it very rewarding to watch groups and families try something new and have an awesome time. It's not so much about the money but the smile."