Air New Zealand’s Hobbit-themed planes are part of a marketing push to get more U.S. visitors to choose New Zealand for their next vacation. // © 2013 Air New Zealand
Just hours before the world premiere of the newest film in “The Hobbit” trilogy in Hollywood, Calif., Air New Zealand unveiled the latest Hobbit-inspired plane in its fleet at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Dec. 2. The Boeing 777-300 features a 177-foot decal of the dragon Smaug from “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” — revealing director Sir Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythical beast in its entirety for the first time.
In addition to the unveiling of the new plane, the event featured speeches from Christopher Luxon, CEO of Air New Zealand; Chris Tremain, New Zealand’s associate minister of tourism; and Blair Rich, Warner Brothers’ executive vice president of marketing. The presentations centered on the long-term strategic partnership between the production company, the airline and the New Zealand government to promote the country as a filming location and tourism destination.
“The government remains determined to use the opportunities that ‘The Hobbit’ movies present to highlight New Zealand as a great place to visit as well as a wonderful place to come and do business,” Tremain said. “Making the three movies in New Zealand safeguarded work for thousands of talented New Zealanders and enabled us to further build on the success of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy by once again giving us a platform from which to promote New Zealand on the world stage — and promote it we have.”
As New Zealand’s third largest tourism market, the United States contains more than 28 million people who have put New Zealand as a destination on their bucket list, Luxon said. Air New Zealand, which advertises itself as the official airline of Middle-earth, sees a major economic advantage in being associated with the films because the company believes that they’re driving people to visit the country.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure we can get Americans to visit us as their next destination rather than just one of several that they’re considering,” Luxon said. “If wanting to see and experience Middle-earth is a way you might come and visit us, then we fully encourage that."
The promotional alliance between Air New Zealand and Warner Brothers has also yielded benefits for the production company’s lucrative film franchise, Rich said.
“‘The Hobbit’ is the jewel in our crown, and we are very protective of our brand. Air New Zealand has so completely embraced the spirit of the [films] and what Peter Jackson has brought to life,” Rich said. “From its entertaining and engaging Hobbit-themed safety video, which has delighted millions of passengers and become a viral hit, to its remarkable plane wraps, Air New Zealand has added a completely new dimension to our marketing efforts for the films.”
Air New Zealand worked with the digital effects company behind the films, Weta Digital, to develop the graphic that would serve as the film’s “flying billboard.” Luxon likened the project to a wallpapering job — just one that took four days and 430 man-hours to complete.
“Seeing Smaug fly off the big screen and into the skies is pretty exciting,” Jackson said. “The first (Hobbit-themed) Air New Zealand aircraft features various characters from ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ and is extremely impressive, but I think Smaug running the entire length of the aircraft is even more awe-inspiring.”
Furthering its global marketing campaign, Air New Zealand recently released another Hobbit-themed video, “Just Another Day in Middle-earth,” which drives home its message that “Middle-earth is closer than you think.”
The airline and the New Zealand government hope that these efforts, along with the premiere of the second installment in the trilogy, will continue to boost tourism brought about by the first film, which reinvigorated interest in the country much like “The Lord of the Rings” did.
Selling New Zealand
Since the release of the first film, total tourist visits to New Zealand have increased by 10 percent, with travel from the U.S. growing by 18 percent, Tremain said. Last year’s holiday season brought around 10,000 visitors to the Hobbiton movie set near Matamata in the North Island, and the attraction is on track to welcoming a total of 250,000 visitors this year.
Tremain, who owned a travel agency before getting into politics, said he knows the difficulties travel professionals have to go through.
“Travel agents want their customers to come back and say, ‘We had a fantastic time and want to do business with you and your travel agency again,’” Tremain said. “Predominantly, they want happy customers — and that’s what New Zealand can deliver for them.”
Whether clients want to experience an adventure tour, enjoy food and wine or simply “chill out and relax,” Tremain said that the country has something for everyone. The greatest difficulty in selling New Zealand as a travel destination, however, may be clients’ perceptions about its distance from home.
Luxon, who lived in the U.S. for eight years and regularly made the journey to New Zealand, cited survey research that revealed that some Americans believe the country is 42 hours away — compared to the actual flight time of 13 hours from Los Angeles to Auckland.
“At the end of the day, you can jump onboard one of our aircraft, have a great sleep, have some great Kiwi food and wine and then wake up in New Zealand,” Luxon said. “It’s much closer than anyone thinks, and I think that’s the key barrier that we’re starting to unlock with Americans.”