BusinessJuly 5, 2020

The Central Otago family-run startup sustaining the renewable energy dream


Covid-19 or not, renewable energy is the future. That’s why one grassroots business is taking a leap of faith and trusting that the current downturn will eventually yield to an ecotourism boom.

To launch an ecotourism business in rural Otago right now, you’d need to be either a visionary or just a little bit mad.

Rik Deaton may be a bit of both.

With the help of his three sons, Wanaka local Rik and his wife Juliet have launched LandEscape – a sustainable, renewable energy-focused venture that combines the splendour of the Central Otago landscape with the mobility of electric bikes.

Located on the Deatons’ land near the Hawea River, LandEscape has a fleet of 80 electric bikes for hire, eight wood-fired chlorine-free hot tubs to relax in day or night, and nine kilometres of wide, easy trails for guests to immerse themselves in the intermontane wonderland.

It’s a bold business idea in a spectacular setting and it’s invariably tapping into a market with enormous potential. However, a lot can change in six months, and the devastating effects of Covid-19 has forced all tourism operators to refocus their business strategies on one thing – survival.

With many businesses in Wanaka struggling to stay afloat in a market barren of international visitors, the Deatons admit the last few months have not been easy.

“It certainly has been hard,” says Rik. “We had several staff leave in the lead-up to Covid. We used to employ seven people, including Juliet, our son Spencer and myself … [Now] our staff has now shrunk to just the three of us.

“Because we own the land, we have no rent to pay and have tried to put a lid on development costs for now to help get us through. This has definitely been a help, as has the government’s various initiatives and assistance packages. So we are confident of still being here when international visitors start arriving again.”

Rik, Juliet and their oldest son Spencer on e-bikes at LandEscape. (Photo: Supplied)

Having bought the land in 1991, the Deatons’ vision for their rural property has been difficult to put into practice, not least because of resource consent issues. The mere mention of Queenstown Lakes District Council is enough to make Rik’s eyes flash with anger.

“We naively imagined, as a local family trying to save a magnificently scenic piece of rural land from urbanisation and create an energy self-sufficient business based on sustainability principles, that we would be able to engage with our local consent authority productively. That has absolutely not been the case,” he says.

“Scenic rural properties like ours offer untapped potential for the reset of tourism that New Zealand needs and supposedly wants, but local government always stands squarely in the way, for reasons that escape us.

“What we hope to offer here at LandEscape Wanaka is a true travel experience, not just corporate crowd-control tourism. We hope it will be as popular with our wonderful local community as with the visitor segment.”

Although it’s been a quiet period since the end of lockdown with just a trickle of international and local visitors, Rik remains bullish about LandEscape’s future, tethering its success to New Zealand’s nascent e-vehicle explosion.

The Deatons have certainly made a significant investment in the business. According to their calculations, once you include spare batteries at $1,000 each, helmets, lights and other accessories, they’ve invested half a million dollars on e-bikes alone.

A self-described “energy evangelist”, Rik has a genuine lifelong passion for renewable energy systems and energy-efficient building principles. He and Juliet are determined to change the way New Zealand thinks about tourism, energy and transport as they put their knowledge into practice on their own section, strategically located outside Wanaka and directly off the Upper Clutha cycle trail system.

“Electric bicycles are the short-to-medium distance component of the electric vehicle revolution,” says Rik. “Together, e-bikes and e-vehicles are about to change transportation forever.

“Make no mistake – the electric vehicle revolution is here right now, along with the rapidly accelerating transition to a renewables-based energy infrastructure.”

The Deatons firmly believe that ecotourism, done well, can contribute to protecting the natural environment. It’s a belief that underpins everything they’re trying to do at LandEscape.

The land is not hard to find but feels utterly remote. On a sweeping expanse of land between Wanaka and Lake Hawea, it’s 115 hectares of rolling hills clad in tussock and forest with views in all directions. From various high points on the property, you can see down Lake Hawea to the mountains beyond, and as far as Albert Town, Mount Iron and Luggate in the other direction. There’s only one spot on the entire property where you can see another house far in the distance.

The bike trails (Photo: Supplied)

Other than the Swiss-made YouMo e-bikes, one of the most compelling aspects of LandEscape is its target market: families and older, less fit people who might otherwise put cycling in the “too hard” basket.

Following a period in which older people have been incessantly warned to stay home and stay safe, Deaton hopes to see more of them come enjoy the outdoors and get back into cycling through e-bikes.

“We’ve had an 85-year-old try an e-bike … because our trails are so wide and relatively easy people don’t have to look out for cars or other cyclists. They can enjoy the scenery instead.”

“I desperately need two new hips and even I can do it!” says Juliet.

From the Deatons’ land, guests can connect to many local trails: along the Hawea River from Albert Town to Lake Hawea, and as far afield as Luggate, Wanaka township or Glendhu Bay.

But e-bikes aren’t the only product of Rik’s passion for all things renewable. Through his many visits to trade shows around the world, he’s brought back temperature-stratified thermal energy buffer tanks to heat the hot tubs, ultra clean-burn wood gasification boilers, and triple glazing for his “self-heating shipping container-based coffee shop building”.

He hopes LandEscape’s isolated position will prove popular for what he calls “spa gazing” evenings when guests can look up at the stars from their hot tubs in a place where the night skies are dazzling and unpolluted.

“Spagazers” (Photo: Supplied)

Wood fired, chlorine-free, and spring-fed, the hot tubs have been built to Deaton’s very specific requirements by local Wanaka company Stoked Stainless. They’ve been trademarked as “SpaGazers”, a name coined by his youngest son, Bayne. 

Alongside the hot tubs dotted around the large flat hilltop, there’s a shipping container building with showers and a changing area, as well as composting toilets and a clever solar energy solution for heating the hot showers and tubs themselves. While accommodation isn’t officially part of the offering yet, the Deatons have already opened their land to a dozen guests seeking refuge over the past few months.

Despite the economic downturn, the Deatons hope is that the renewable energy revolution will continue to gain momentum and that New Zealanders get a taste of it before the tourists return.

“I hope they also get a glimpse of a different kind of future, where sightseeing by car is not the only option and then end the day with a true taste of Kiwi rural life,” he says.

“People hunger for it and New Zealand can still give it to them.”

Keep going!