Tony Laker and his wife Tracey pictured at the Laker House of Travel last year. Photo/Otago Daily Times
It was one of those phone calls you dread getting.
“Hey Mate, do you want to organize my funeral?”
The caller was Tony Laker. The son of a lowly Bluff fisherman who went on to become New Zealand’s top travel agent. And for most of the past three decades, we have traveled New Zealand and the world together; a friendship forged by agriculture and football.
I first met Tony Laker in 1995 when he was Air New Zealand’s new representative in Invercargill. Previously, he worked as a bank teller. Although, in real life he was far more interested in playing football for his beloved Old Boys club and experiencing that age-old Kiwis rite of passage, the UK/Europe OE. It honed her lifelong love of travel.
Later, when he had made his fortune and made his way onto the celebrity speaking circuit, he dined on his exotic entrepreneurial stories of selling watermelons on a Greek nudist beach to the congregated beach girls. For some reason, he was very excited about the melons! Like all good storytellers, he may have embellished the tale a little, but a well-told story is worth repeating. And Tony did that for a number of years on the motivational circuit, raising much needed funds for Southland Hospice. Sadly, some of his last days were spent there.
But back to 1995. Tony was the Air New Zealand guy who flew the Hokonui Gold ‘Scream Team’ of Lee Piper and myself around the country to commentate Southland ‘away’ rugby games. He always insisted on coming with us, under the pretext of having a sponsor’s eye on us. Also, his tall primary schoolmate from Bluff and All Black, Paul “Ginge” Henderson, was on the team at the time and ended up joining us on the mic when he hung up his boots. Those were our happy days.
However, it was not all easy at first. By the late 1990s, Tony and his wonderful business (and life) partner Tracey had ventured out on their own, establishing Laker House of Travel. One of his first gigs was arranging a one-day round-trip charter flight from Invercargill in Hamilton to Fieldays in Mystery Creek.
Things were going wonderfully until after lunch when it started to rain heavily, and more than a few of the 120 farmers on board foolishly adjourned to the bar for the afternoon, rather than brave the soggy conditions. To make matters worse, the guide (yours) fell asleep on the late night flight home, only to suddenly wake up, tell an inappropriate joke about the in-flight audio system, before quickly dozing off again. But you learn from your mistakes, don’t you?
And that’s what we’ve done ! After a few trips around Tasmania for All Blacks tests and rock concerts, we decided to spread our collective wings and take on the world. We were all set to take an agricultural tour of the UK and Ireland in 2001 when foot and mouth disease hit. We finally did it in 2003 and the dice were cast for future tours. Take a good bunch of farmers, throw them on a plane and see the world.
The agricultural and football tours that followed allowed us to follow the All Blacks to Argentina in 2012 and South Africa in 2014. There was the absolute euphoric joy of being in England and Wales for the final of the 2015 Rugby World Cup at Twickenham, followed by utter desperation to bow out. in the semi-finals at Yokohama Stadium four years later. But damn it, we had a great time touring Japan and China, spending time with Kiwi companies, like Fonterra, Zespri, and Silver Fern Farms, along the way.
Tony’s positivity and humor stayed with him until the end. When the Covid lockdown hit in March 2020, the Lakers lost 95% of their revenue stream overnight. The best company in town has become the worst. Undeterred, Tony sought out a silver lining, declaring himself better equipped than ever to speak on the motivational chat circuit. After all, he felt, who better to talk about resilience than a travel agent with terminal cancer!
If the measure of a man is the shadow he casts, then Tony Laker was larger than life, seemingly bulletproof with his eternal optimism. He was never content to see his glass half full. His was full to overflowing with positivity.
And that’s how I’ll remember my great pal, the great travel agent, who just walked through the gates for the last time, having delivered his last one-way ticket.