July 26, 2021 | By Bronwen Largier
When Christchurch endured its devastating earthquake in February 2011, ChristchurchNZ’s new Head of Business Events, Megan Crum had a conference underway at the old Christchurch Convention Centre with about 800 delegates.
“Most of them were staying in the Crowne Plaza, which was the hotel right next door to the Town Hall which…isn’t there anymore either,” she says.
“So…their suitcases and bags and everything was in this hotel and, of course, no one could get in so we had their stuff stuck in this hotel for about 14 months.
“It was a ridiculous amount of time.”
It’s just one of the micro realities of a huge natural disaster, which killed 185 people, and, according to the New Zealand Government’s historical archive, resulted in the demolition of two thirds of the buildings in Christchurch’s central business district. The Government also bought 8,000 suburban properties which were irreparably damaged and razed them. Much of that land will not have houses built on it again.
Originally Australian, Crum has lived in Christchurch ever since she moved to New Zealand three decades ago. She’s passionate about the city and excited for her new role, which she officially took up on July 19.
She says after ten years of think tanks and rebuilding – “we got to pretty much design our city” – Christchurch is now ready for business events.
“Christchurch is really open for business. It’s not next year or the year after – we really are ready.
“It’s just been so incredible to see the things that were talked about starting to come to life. And it really feels like they’ve come to life in the last year or so,” she says, pointing out that Christchurch was a strong business events proposition before the earthquake, due to its international airport and compact size.
“It’s just going to be better,” she says.
“If you want new, Christchurch is the newest city. It is a city that has totally reinvented itself.”
Heading to Christchurch on a pre-famil as part of MEETINGS 2021, everything Crum says is true. But the experience of visiting a city on the rise, in every way – not just for business events, although this year will be a pivotal moment for the industry with the opening of the city’s new convention centre Te Pae – is even more than that. It is to hear incredible stories of endurance and perseverance, and to witness something extremely rare – a freshly built city with a history attached and a glimpse of potential still to be realised. One anecdotal suggestion that 20 percent of the city’s land has yet to be rebuilt upon. The experience is humbling, fascinating and deeply felt.
Many of the venues we see have now been restored to their former glory – or better, with earthquake proofing added – but to hear their stories of closure and repair, is to gain a tiny understanding of how much of an achievement it is for the people and the city to have reached where they are today.
The ornate and opulent Isaac Theatre Royal was closed for more than three and a half years after the earthquake. Damage was extensive, including partial collapse of the walls and ceiling in the foyers and auditorium and uplift of the floor and flooding of the orchestra pit due to liquefaction pressure. The building was painstakingly restored, at a cost of NZ$40 million, with all of its original heritage elements retained.
Today the theatre is open for business events, with up to 1,292 theatre seats across three levels. It is also possible to have an intimate dinner for up to 30 people in the luxury of The Grand circle foyer on the top floor or cocktail parties or dinner events for up to 350 and 220 respectively on the theatre’s stage.
The city’s expansive art gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, was also closed – for five years – after the earthquake. A store house for the city’s cultural and artistic history, today the building is not only one of the most earthquake-proof art galleries in the world – as part of the repairs 140 base isolators were retrofitted into the basement, allowing it to “float” during future quakes – but also a striking building for offsite dinners for business events in Christchurch, including in its Bayleys Knight Frank Foyer with its soaring glass facade, which has capacity for dinners of up to 300.
It’s also possible to have private tours of the art gallery, to further uncover stories of the venue and the city, for example of the very distinctive chicken / man, commissioned by the gallery from sculptor Ron Mueck, whose show the year before the earthquake was the most attended exhibition at the venue to date. With his piece being the last of five commissioned to commemorate the number of years the gallery was closed after the quake, Mueck was given the theme “cautious optimism” and his work became part of the city’s visual history.
The Christchurch Town Hall – a major event venue for the city which sustained major damage and stability issues due to the earthquake and accompanying liquefaction – was originally recommended for demolition. However, after careful restoration works between 2015 and 2019, the venue reopened eight years and one day after the quake. Featuring some of the world’s best acoustics, the venue’s theatre and auditorium spaces are substantial with the larger Douglas Lilburn Auditorium able to seat 2,250 theatre style in a bright, grand, yet surprisingly intimate, space.
A venue which sprung up because of the 2011 quake is the NZ$80 million Riverside Market, which opened in late 2019. Eight months after the quake, the Re:Start Container Mall opened on the site of the market, as a temporary solution to the retail vacuum created by the natural disaster. Riverside Market was developed in the same location in the following years and now brings an ultra cool, paddock-to-plate kind of a vibe to the centre of Christchurch. With a slick designer-rustic market on the ground floor and a polished cooking school alongside a series of restaurants, additional space and a collaborative attitude upstairs, the market is ripe for event use, from cocktail parties running through all the interconnected restaurants on the second floor, to casual dinners through the market and team building activities in the kitchen, great for small groups who can forage their ingredients amongst the stalls downstairs. A whole venue takeover can accommodate between 2,000 and 2,500 people, while dinners for up to 700 can take place on the second level.
Another stunning offsite venue we visited during our famil was The Tannery – a little out of town by Christchurch’s standards, an eight-minute drive from the centre of the CBD. Just over a decade ago, the site used to be a leather tannery, now it is a charming indoor shopping mall with a definite sense of grandeur to its long central atrium which can be used for dinners of up to 400 or cocktail parties of up to 600.
Of course, the pinnacle of the change to the business events offering in Christchurch in 2021, is the opening of Te Pae Christchurch, the city’s new convention and exhibition centre and an anchor project of the city’s recovery.
The first in a new generation of convention centres for New Zealand, opening in October, the venue boasts a 1,400 seat tiered auditorium, 24 meeting rooms for 50 to 1,500 people, a banqueting capacity of 1,800 and up to 3,300m2 of exhibition space. To further heighten its appeal, the centre is being managed by ASM Global, who have a strong track record in Australasia, with ICC Sydney, Darwin Convention Centre and the globally award-winning Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre and Cairns Convention Centre in their stable. In fact, the centre’s GM is Ross Steele who was at the helm in Cairns before moving over to Christchurch to oversee the opening of Te Pae.
The centre also has strong sustainability credentials, with 60 percent of its food and beverage offering to come from within the immediate Canterbury region, a commitment to process all of its food waste on site, 85 percent of the building’s energy being drawn from renewable sources and a commitment to working towards being a plastic-free venue.
“It feels like Christchurch…and Te Pae is everywhere I look at the moment,” says Jennie Harrison, Head of Events NZ at Harcourts New Zealand, a fellow famil delegate, who I catch up with a month or so after MEETINGS.
Harrison, based in Auckland, has been to Christchurch a number of times, including since the quake and says she found our time there “much more uplifting than I thought it would be”.
“Every time I’ve been to Christchurch it’s kind of been a bit sad or a bit in between, a bit in limbo, but it’s starting to feel like it’s actually coming out of that.
“And I just think the stories of what they’ve been through to get to where they are – like that gallery shutting for [five] years was pretty eye-opening and those are the kind of things that make me want to go there and…get more money into Christchurch. They’ve put in their hard yards,” she says.
Harcourts is taking their New Zealand conference to Christchurch next May and intends to really showcase the city, including the new convention centre, in ways they wouldn’t usually – including allowing Te Pae’s distinctive flowing architecture to be front and centre, rather than imposing their own branding on the new building.
They’re also considering little touches like using one of the city’s iconic trams for registration, a solution offered by the organisation behind the trams, Christchurch Attractions, alongside things like delegate transportation with a difference and cocktail functions aboard their vehicles.
Lyn Meharg, Global Sales Director for Australia, New Zealand and Asia at ConferenceNational, says Te Pae is putting Christchurch back on the map for conferences.
“[Christchurch has] got a lot to offer, in terms of, it’s got some really good conference venues, supporting accommodation venues, but [it’s] also got some unique social event venues, so it’s kind of ticking all of those boxes,” she says.
Accommodation options include the Sudima Christchurch City, like almost everything else in Christchurch, a relatively young property, having opened its doors about two years ago. I find out while we’re there that the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is staying on the same floor as us, and if it’s good enough for her, it’s certainly good enough for me.
We also have dinner at The George, one of the few remnants of the old Christchurch – the luxury hotel survived the earthquake and, like the rest of the city, has its own stories to tell about the time, including having guests spend the night in the lobby of the hotel on the evening after the earthquake, a stark image for an accommodation offering so upscale.
We also take an illuminating helicopter flight with GCH Aviation out to Peppers Clearwater Resort, getting a glimpse of the incredible landscape in which Christchurch sits en route. Peppers is located with its own golf course – although we have a glorious time hitting golf balls into the lake from the dock of one of their self contained apartments – and offers yet another proposition for business events groups – from a pre-event golf tournament to smaller team building activities like the one we did, as well as having the ability to host conferences of up to 150 outright.
So, things are looking up in Christchurch. In fact, in New Zealand generally, with the nation’s three largest cities all currently building convention centres. But Christchurch, New Zealand’s second most populous city, is set to have a prolonged moment in the sun, with its purpose-built offering opening almost two years before either of the others.
And it is really the cherry on top for a city that has so many other strong drivers for destination choice – a picturesque, compact city, strong infrastructure with potential still to be tapped and everywhere you turn, an incredibly unique history and resilience – as problem-solvers and adversity-facers themselves, what event manager wouldn’t want that woven into the fabric of their next event destination?