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Outdoing Americans at their own game

From Invercargill to Chicago, New Zealander Daniel Thomas is outdoing North Americans at their own game through his Christchurch-grown communications agency Time Zone One. He talks to reporter Teuila Fuatai about doing business with the 'big boys'.

Like a true Southlander, Daniel Thomas doesn't seem to notice the below-freezing conditions as he smiles for the camera.

A world away from his original hometown of Invercargill, the 41-year-old is today standing at the foot of Chicago’s famous Wrigley Building.

“Honestly, I don’t mind the cold all that much,” he says as people in large overcoats buzz around him in the city’s downtown district. 

Thomas, who moved to Chicago 10 years ago, is a true example of New Zealand ingenuity making its mark on the North American stage. 

As owner of communications and marketing agency Time Zone One, Thomas is in charge of 52 employees across three countries. 

The company, which he took over five years ago from its original Christchurch founders, specialises in tourism marketing. In that time, it has gone from strength to strength. Last year, it received a clear acknowledgement of its place as a serious player in the market when it won the public relations contract for the Illinois Office of Tourism. 

Thomas proudly recounts how Time Zone One was chosen over international PR and marketing heavyweight firm FleishmanHillard.

At the time, Time Zone One had just 32 employees, Thomas says excitedly. 

“It was us against the big boys - FleishmanHillard has 60,000 people around the globe.

“Traditionally, they’d had a very old-school public affairs relations model. We decided to flip that on its head.”

Thomas and his team focused its pitch around the involvement of media and journalists, rather than just consumers, in promoting the state’s tourism attractions and culture. That strategy was a winner for the company, which is now 18 months into the contract. Interestingly, Time Zone One takes a special approach to coordinating work between its main centres. About half its staff are based in Christchurch, and half in Chicago. Two people are located in Toronto.

“Sixty percent of our staff in New Zealand actually work on promoting Illinois,” Thomas says.  

"We will never not have our New Zealand office. We are smart, innovative global marketers, and because of the work/life emphasis in New Zealand, its got some big, global brands and tends to attract high calibre creatives. For us, that’s part of our success.”

Thomas’ personal success, and path to his adopted home city of Chicago is another interesting discussion. He rattles off a series of jobs with Air New Zealand, beginning as a wide-eyed 17-year-old in sales in Invercargill. His 12-year-career with the airline, which included a role as part of the 20-strong Ansett and Air New Zealand integration team, was the beginning of a lifelong love for tourism and people, he says.

“I really cut my teeth and learnt my tourism skillset and the base knowledge that I had through the lens of aviation. I left Air New Zealand as a very well-equipped individual.”

Thomas then relocated to Auckland to manage the Sky Tower. After a two-year stint heading tower operations, an unexpected opportunity to manage Chicago’s John Hancock Observatory (now called 360 Chicago) came up.

“I’d never been to Chicago and I had a misperception that the city was a bit of a concrete jungle. I didn’t appreciate there was water, and rivers, and even summer,” he says. 

“I originally just came up here for three days...but at the end of that, the owners [of the John Hancock Observatory] said to me that they wanted to explore a path of me moving to America.”

“Five months later, here I was in the US with a green card. I had resigned my position at Sky Tower ... and accepted a position running one of the premier tourist attractions in the city of Chicago.”

Thomas came across Time Zone One through his work at the John Hancock Observatory, and employed the company to complete the external signage around the building.

“The rest is history,” he says with a big grin. 

“On the New Zealand side, some of our clients are Wanaka, Destination Queenstown and Whale Watch Kaikoura. There are also others outside the tourism space like Interflora and Christchurch Airport. We are also responsible for marketing the United States of America in its entirety to all of Canada. We are essentially Brand USA in Canada.”

Looking back at how things have developed, Thomas believes there is plenty of opportunity for his homegrown company to expand in North America. With Air New Zealand’s direct Auckland to Chicago route beginning at the end of the month, he also expects New Zealand’s profile in Chicago, and the “midwest”, to increase. 

Thomas: “I’ve had some of the best business learning in my career in America. Despite all of the Trump-world stuff that is going on right now, America is still the land of dreams and possibility. If you work hard and have the right attitude in this country, this country can be very kind to people like that. And they love New Zealand - it’s fascinating to them. We now have an opportunity to really put New Zealand out there.”

Reporter Teuila Fuatai travelled to Chicago courtesy of Air New Zealand. 

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