“When we come up with our solutions, we need to contemplate how that innovation is going to be so much better than what we already have.” – Trent Yeo at Ziptrek Ecotours
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to build a business that aligns harmoniously with nature? Or maybe you’re curious about what it takes for a travel business to become carbon zero? Well, hold on tight, because this episode with Trent Yeo from Ziptrek Ecotours is about to take you on a thrilling ride through the breathtaking landscape of Queenstown Lakes.
Ziptrek Ecotours offers zipline experiences that help people connect with nature. And it’s also a great example of blending adventure with environmental responsibility. Trent details how the company was carefully planned to align with the values of the place and support the local community. He walks us through the journey he took to assess Ziptrek’s carbon emissions and offers advice for businesses taking their first steps toward a sustainable and carbon-conscious future.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How Ziptrek Ecotours was designed to be built in harmony with the landscape and to support community needs.
- About the transformative role of travel experiences in changing perspectives.
- What it was like to assess the business’ carbon emissions and become carbon zero.
- Understanding why carbon zero is just the beginning of the necessary shift.
- Practical advice for other businesses starting their carbon zero journey.
This season, Queenstown Lakes Solutions, will bring you the impactful solutions shaping the possibilities of sustainable travel. Stay tuned for Queenstown Lakes’ remarkable journey toward a decarbonized future.
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Remake Things – A book by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart
Ziptrek Ecotours –An adventure eco-tourism company with operations in New Zealand and Canada.
Emotion is so important in the way in which somebody lives their life. And tourism is a great place to get people out of their context and to be thinking about the world in a different way.
When we come up with our solutions, we need to contemplate how that innovation is going to be so much better than what we already have.
David Archer: Welcome back to Travel Beyond. I’m David Archer, Editorial Manager at Destination Think, and I’m recording from Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida Nation.
Last episode was the first in our Queenstown Lakes Solutions series. We toured the Headwaters Eco Lodge and its sustainable guest accommodations.
And this time we’re heading to higher elevations with entrepreneur Trent Yeo of Ziptrek Ecotours, and he’s going to tell us about his journey to building a tourism business that reflects his values of care for nature and his community, and also about the impact it’s having on locals and travellers alike.
Trent’s been on the podcast before, and you might’ve heard him on a previous episode all about the region’s commitment to reaching carbon zero by 2030. That one is called “The Future of Travel is in Queenstown Lakes”, and you can find it by scrolling back in your feed to May 19th, 2023, or season two in your podcast app.
Ziptrek Ecotours is a carbon zero company, one reason we’re including it in our solutions series, and it’s an example spurring others on toward a more sustainable visitor economy in the region. In this conversation, Trent provides some valuable advice for business owners who are just starting to understand what decarbonization will mean for them, but as you’ll hear, Trent also views carbon zero as just the starting line for the transformations that are truly needed in the industry.
And he also acknowledges that Ziptrek’s carbon zero designation doesn’t yet include scope three emissions. That is, pollution generated by travel to and from the destination, for example. And as we’ve started to explore elsewhere on the podcast, scope 3 emissions are one of the bigger, gnarlier elephants in the room, let’s say, for the travel industry and the world at large to grapple with.
When you visit Ziptrek, you have the chance to spend some quality time in the forest, and then hurtle through the air on ziplines with panoramic views of Queenstown and Lake Whakatipu. And as an aside, I also learned that flying fox is another term for zipline, so filing that away for later.) The experience all starts with a ride up to the Ziptrek treehouse by gondola, and that’s where we join Trent, along with our colleague Steve Henderson and his camera gear, as they begin their adventure.
And by the way, this interview was a bit more rugged than usual, and that’s why you’ll notice some changes in audio clarity in a few places. But I think it still sounds good and there’s a lot of great stuff packed in here.
So let’s get ready to board the gondola.
Trent Yeo: Kia ora, my name is Trent Yeo, and I’m a director of Ziptrek Ecotours, a zipline flying fox company, which wants to tell our beautiful story of this place. And we’re, um, heading up the gondola.
Steve Henderson: Can you talk to me about your epiphany moment. I find every person who’s involved in some way, whether they’re changing their business or changing their lifestyle to be more carbon negative, climate positive. What was that epiphany moment for you? And what did it feel like?
Trent Yeo: I think that my epiphany moment was maybe more a moment where I could realize that I could do business that was contributing to my values.
So the epiphany wasn’t, “We should care for the environment, look after it, do things that are, you know, relevant to people and place.” But the idea that I could set myself a business and employ people that were all telling the same story and building for the same reason.
Steve Henderson: Let’s dig into that a little bit. You talk about your values. How did you shape your values? Where did you grow up? How did how did the current version of you come to be?
Trent Yeo: So I grew up in Melbourne. I’m, like, an Australian, Chinese, Malaysian person, and I’ve got Canadian partners living in New Zealand. And I think the international nature of my upbringing was part of why I thought travel was a really important thing to get involved in.
I suppose my training in architecture, particularly around sustainability, was probably my driver for designing things better, for getting in front of things that are happening to us and actually starting to design how we want to interact with things. So that was kind of my start. And whilst I travelled the world, and did my exploration of self, and did lots of outdoor activities, I discovered this model of ziplining and the idea that you could do it in a way which was not only low impact but was high value. High value for lots of different types of people. And I got excited about ziplining as a business.
Steve Henderson: And before we get to the top here, can you explain where we are?
Trent Yeo: So we are here in Queenstown and obviously we have a gondola. We’re up here looking up at the Remarkables behind us, which is 2,300 meters, and the lake’s about 300 meters.
So we’re way above everything, and we can sort of see from alpine to forests to rivers and lakes. We’ve got a whole range of environments in this place. As we go up this hill, we’re going to see our tree houses that are built in living trees. And you’ll see people going on tour, whether it’s a four or a six line tour, all the way back down to town following gravity and using beautiful zip lines to traverse the mountains here and to talk about the place that we live in and why it’s important to protect it.
Steve Henderson: Let’s talk uh, Ziptrek.
Trent Yeo: Yeah.
Steve Henderson: Tell me about how the company started, who’s involved, and building a company to your values. What was that journey like?
Trent Yeo: In a way, most of the events that I’ve ever been involved in have actually been mistakes or someone else’s idea. And I think that Ziptrek Ecotours was an example of that. Actually, I had a friend who asked me while I was in Canada, actually, I said, he said to me, Oh, what are you going to do? Are you going to do architecture?
And I said, Oh, not really. I don’t, I don’t know what I’m going to do. And he said to me, why don’t we bring this to our part of the world, like, why don’t we start up a Ziptrek in another part of the world, and I’m like, okay. So we got together, and we started cooking up ideas, we started looking for locations in where I’d grew up in Australia and It was a long road.
We went to a lots of different locations to look to the right place. And I came here to Queenstown for a wedding of a friend, and I thought, oh my god, this place has everything that I’ve ever wanted from a place in a town, and it doesn’t have this type of tourism. So I dropped everything, and three months later I was a citizen of Queenstown Lakes.
And it was one of the best moves I’ve ever made. I was already setting up a business in another country, but I was like, this has to be the right place. In terms of sustainability, the – and it was called sustainability, and I’ve worked in sustainability for a long time, through architecture and other things – is I wanted to contemplate what it looked like to build something within the context of the natural system without fighting what was happening around us to actually contemplate how we design to be in tune with a natural system.
At a certain point, even in architecture, I was thinking, Golly, I really don’t need to build anything new, I could actually just take people out into nature, take people out into these places, and help them to understand and build a relationship with the natural world. And that was the way I was going to have the most impact on our Earth, on people. Because the sustainability conundrum wasn’t really a technological one or a challenge around, we don’t have the ability to do something, more than it was about a choice.
So I chose tourism because it was an outlet which is heavily influencing the decisions of people. Like, the influence of emotion is so important in the way in which somebody lives their life. And tourism is a great place to get people out of their context and to be thinking about the world in a different way.
So long story short, the idea of being on a tour or traveling and experience something physical in an amazing place like we live in here, but also having a meaningful story around it, was really like the perfect model and combination of outdoors. The right place, the right time, and the very personal side that I see is the challenge around sustainability, or as it’s known now, regeneration.
Steve Henderson: Right on. So can we talk about the construction of the treehouses and the philosophy for Ziptrek incorporating itself into the natural environment?
Trent Yeo: Yeah, so you’ll see in the forest here, we’ve got a whole series of ziplines or flying fox tree houses. Each one of the tree houses was built by hand, so we climbed up into every tree. And I was climbing up, and in fact, the fastest way to move around timber is actually by zipping it. So we zipped around timber, sat in piles of timber and sort of hung up there. And it was quite an amazing process, because when we build something like this, we are using trees, which for the structure and for the ground anchor and, and the health of the tree is so vitally important to the success of us in that architecture. So it’s in our best interest to look after that environment and to make sure that the tree is very healthy so that it can support the load.
We built all this stuff using locally sourced, naturally durable timber, macrocarpa in this case. And we, yeah, we, we didn’t use any heavy machinery. So it was, it was a handmade task by about a dozen people over about three months. And we built, let’s say, a dozen tree houses all hanging up in these Douglas Firs. Now, Douglas Firs are really good trees because they’re straight and they’re strong. They’re known as structural timber, and we could utilize It’s the amazingness of the forest and then just wiggle our own structures, our own platforms, and our staircases around the natural trees and what they could be – the loads that they could take.
It was a unique process out of a kit of parts and so I think this analogy is, is something akin to a sustainable or regenerative approach is that we need to understand the natural system in order to build into it and around it so that the natural system itself thrives. Because if we can’t do that, then all we’re doing is asserting, you know, the strength of human ingenuity over the top of nature, but the nature really just catches up in the end anyway.
I think when you’re building in a forest and you look at where the trees are and where the ground is good, and where you get the best views or best locations is, all of these constraints make for, a beautiful, rather than a forced human interaction.
And I think that constraints make for the most creative solutions.
We’re zero carbon. My view about the idea of carbon zero or zero carbon is maybe a little bit different from some others. And I speak to it knowing that we have been through a process to become a zero carbon business as well. And also with these kind of new data points around the legitimacy of carbon work.
I kind of think that being zero carbon and even the idea of offsetting is actually just a start line. And I think everyone needs to get to the start line as soon as possible. Because without being at the start line, you could never get to the end as such. And you know what? There’s no end to it either. That’s the revelation.
So we’ve been doing our carbon calculations and certifying through the ISO standard for four years. In a way, I went through, and we went through an emotional roller coaster as well. We were thinking, golly, what if our calculations aren’t that good? What if, what if we don’t perform that well?
And maybe we were lucky, but the fact is we did pretty well, and we actually produced very little carbon and we can talk about that in a minute, but the whole idea that you go through that sort of psychological, that, that journey is something that everyone in this town is going to need to go through, because to go through the certification or to go through some sort of external check on this stuff, you actually need to go, you need to start understanding where every piece of your business is going.
And once again, I just think everyone needs to slowly walk the path.
So I think that when people have made the decision, or they’re contemplating how they’re going to become carbon zero, or even just measure their carbon and understand what that looks like for them, I think they’ll discover a lot about where their energy flows are. And people maybe think they know where it is, and maybe they do know where it is, but maybe they don’t know where it is.
And I think that when you do it, you start to work out, obviously, your transport pieces. But you’re also working out things like rubbish volumes, so that affects methane. And so there’s other things that you have to measure that become part of the pie of impact you have.
Now, there’s two things you want to get out of that pie. One is, how big is it? And can you reduce it? Can you save money by making that as small as possible and therefore not affecting climate?
The second thing you’ll want to find out is, which areas are the hardest to work on? Which are the largest, for example, and which are the hardest to decarbonize? So you might argue that certain things, yeah, you know they’re big carbon emitters, but they’re actually quite difficult to to contemplate how to fix that.
So these are really important positions or things to know as a business, because if you don’t know them as a business, these will be exposed to future attack, right?
I think people, once they start to contemplate their carbon and do some calculations will start to reveal how future-ready their business is because the costs of these energy sources are not going to decrease. And you could argue that you could afford them. But actually, if emissions trading comes in and starts to affect the price of energy, a lot of businesses may or may not be viable based on the new set of rules that are going to change on you.
Trent Yeo: I’m not suggesting that anything’s fair. Life, in a way, isn’t very fair. I’m suggesting that you need to know where these costs or implications of business are going to be because there’s also director responsibility, which is a part of the discussion that’s, that’s happening right now, is how do your shareholders view your risk as a business? Are you adaptable to the future? And are you adaptable to new conditions that might affect your business going forward?
Steve Henderson: The climate crisis, you could argue that it’s a crisis of the imagination. How does that statement make you feel, and how is it relevant?
Trent Yeo: I think that climate could be a crisis of the imagination. Yeah, no, I suppose it’s probably is a really good way talk about it. I think that it’s the ability to people, for people to make those decisions collectively. It’s not even an individual challenge, because any individual can make those choices. It’s that we actually need to do this collectively, because most of the challenges around, let’s say, energy, transport energy, are systems-based. Yeah, so one might argue, well, the government has to change it.
Well, it doesn’t really work like that, because businesses have to drive that specific change. And then the businesses will go, well we don’t, we don’t determine that the drivers of the marketplace, and that’s just all individuals, right? So everyone can easily just say oh, well, it’s somebody else’s problem.
It’s actually a collective – it’s finding collective solutions that work well for all people. And there’s really a strong equity aspect to this, right? There’s a, it’s fine for you to drive your fancy electric car, kind of conversation. And then it’s like, no, no, no, no. What we’re doing is creating transport that anyone can use anytime. For, you know, 10 times less than what you’re currently paying to move anywhere. That’s the sort of ideas that we need to think about. So, when you talk about electric cars, EVs as an example, it’s not about the electric, it’s not about the drivetrain, it’s about the way in which that car will interact and possibly not be owned by anyone, right?
And so this idea of autonomy, or on-demand transport, or all this sort of stuff is important. But the challenge is what we try to do is replace what we have now in our heads with something that’s the equivalent of doing the same thing. But that’s just not how creativity works. That’s just not how innovation works.
Like, you have to transform that action into something maybe much more meaningful. When the normal phone, the old school cell phone became an iPhone. It didn’t just change the way in which we talk to each other, right? It changed the way we had computing in our hands. And so, once again, with all of the problems we see around us, we’ve got to watch we’re not contemplating the solutions to the problem that we have today.
And that’s what’s going to be really vitally important. And there has to be an element of, we need to invest in that, and there has to be a way in which to think, how does everyone have access to that? So that the alternative is way better than the option we have right now.
When we come up with our solutions, we need to contemplate how that innovation is going to be so much better than what we already have.
So that’s where we come down, we finish there and come down. And then we walk through this section.
So this is all Ziptrek replanting as well. All these trees, like this was all just rubbish before.
Steve Henderson: Was it an old cut block?
Trent Yeo: Uh, yeah, it was an uncared for cut block. So all this stuff is Ziptrek. So it’s like a garden right now. It’ll fill in to actually be a forest eventually. In our time. So some of these trees are 14 years old. And some of them are less.
Steve Henderson: Beautiful.
You know, when you talk about design, I couldn’t help but think about how you’ve set up your business here in the forest. Working with the natural landscape around you to enable people to live an optimal life on so many levels. I mean, it’s not just from an energy perspective. It’s also a social perspective, right? Because that’s also something that communities have lost and are frankly searching for.
Trent Yeo: One of the inspirations for me is this guy called William McDonough from Cradle to Cradle and he, it’s a phrase, something like, “Design represents our intent upon this earth.”
So design is the idea that we can project a future state and build something that is better for the future state, right? That, that changes the way in which we interact with that environment in an architectural sense. Yes. And I think that we need to design our future rather than let it happen around us and be defaulted.
What I would say is our future is not created already. Our future is what we make it. And I understand that there’s many external factors which will shape that. And it’s not just one person’s view, but I can tell you the collective view of a town or a region towards a specific task like 2030 Carbon Zero.
If there was a collective decision, that was where we need to get. In fact, that’s probably the only way we can get there.
What I would say about this path of 2030 is, it’s going to be rocky, and it won’t be a straight line. I think that it will be a question of, a movement of forward steps and backward steps, but ultimately we need to all agree on the trajectory of movement and that we, we need to be able to contemplate what a zero carbon future looks like. ‘
I also think that in 2030, we won’t be satisfied, even if we get what we hope to achieve. I think that we also won’t be happy with where we’re at. I think that we’ll be considering how we can even do it better. And I think that’s okay.
If you ask an athlete when they stand on the dais of an Olympic gold, I’m sure they say, I could have run faster or maybe done a little bit better, and I will do next time.
And that’s what we should be like.
David Archer: That was Trent Yeo of Ziptrek Ecotours in Queenstown Lakes, along with Steve Henderson of Arcade Motion. And this has been Travel Beyond, presented by Destination Think. We’ll include links to more resources on the blog for this episode at DestinationThink.com.
My co-producer is Sara Raymond de Booy. This episode has been created and has theme music composed by me, David Archer. Lindsay Payne and Annika Rautiola provided production support. We would like to thank Destination Queenstown, Lake Wanaka Tourism, and Queenstown Lakes District Council for their participation in our podcasts across the region and for their trust in Destination Think.
You can help more people find the show by subscribing to future episodes and by leaving a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really does help. So go ahead and mash that five stars.
On this show, we partner with leading destinations and talk to changemakers who are addressing regenerative travel through action, often from the bottom up, and we’re looking for the best examples of efforts to regenerate economies, communities, and ecosystems. So please get in touch if you have a story to share. You can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.