June 17, 2021 | By Bronwen Largier

Going to New Zealand’s flagship trade show, MEETINGS earlier this month was a lot like catching up with a very good friend who you haven’t seen for a very long time.

One of those longed-for but not-quite-long-enough catch-ups that’s intimate and intense and leaves you feeling filled up somehow. Excited about all the things you’ve learned about the friend who has grown and changed and thought new things while you’ve been apart.

As I’ve previously written, the trip was also something of a glimpse of the future, one where the quarantine boat is a little less leaky – or perhaps just has fewer people in it – and everyone is able to relax a little more instead of being on edge waiting for the next unwanted fountain to spring.

It was almost strange to be in a crowd, in a country where venue capacity limits are not a thing. Strange, but wonderful.

MEETINGS was also an opportunity for scheduled and unscheduled encounters with information and experience of how the tumult of the last 15 months has played out in New Zealand – a country famous for its success in handling the pandemic, and now home to the world’s most liveable city because of it – and the progress being made across the country to bolster its business events capabilities while the pandemic rolls on.

What became apparent was that New Zealand’s business events story right now is one of growth. What other country in the world is currently building convention centres in its three largest cities?

As ChristchurchNZ’s General Manager of Destination and Attraction, Loren Heaphy, said to the media and much laughter, “Te Pae Christchurch Convention Centre is 100 percent definitely opening this year.”

 

With the opening now set for October, Te Pae’s General Manager Ross Steele flagged the venue as “New Zealand’s first new generation of convention centres” and pointed out that they already had a busy schedule locked in for the final quarter of the year. Looking longer term, 70 events have been secured by the Centre already.

“What we’ve got is a really flexible building that can do events from 20 to 2,000 and cater for all different types of events,” said Steele.

“It’s also a highly technical building.”

Christchurch’s continuing rebuild was also a highlight of my time in New Zealand – that’s a story to come in the next few weeks. As Heaphy said, it’s a city “on the precipice of great change”.

New Zealand’s capital city Wellington is the second in line for a completed new convention centre, with their venue Tãkina set to open in mid-2023.

“A couple of weeks ago we were very pleased to pass the halfway point in the build a little ahead of schedule,” said David Perks, WellingtonNZ’s General Manager of Regional Development, Destination and Attraction.

“The investment in Tãkina made by the ratepayers of Wellington has every intention of making Wellington a better place to live through driving economic and societal impact,” said Perks at MEETINGS.

“We will work with convention organisers to help them plan programs that are positively impactful for their members but also for Wellingtonians.”

He also talked about how the pandemic has caused them to rewrite the plan and been a cautionary tale for “putting all your eggs in one basket”.

“Convention business for cities in the past has been almost 100 percent about attraction,” said Perks.

“We realise now that we must learn far better how to retain business for our city and how we must grow business from our city. We must both support our clients to grow their events but we also must become an event creator.

“Aotearoa New Zealand is enjoying a unique moment in the sun. This time it’s not about our scenery but about New Zealand’s approach to life.

“Our resilience through earthquakes, terrorism [and] pandemics has become an extraordinary story in other places.

“Our acceptance that we carry each other through crisis has become a progressive social agenda that is turning the perspectives of people everywhere.

“So now we have a chance to convert industry in our place and what we’re doing here into business, into the extending of innovative and progressive thinking through attracting global audiences to our convention events.

“We’re going to have to work together and fight tooth and nail to bring events to New Zealand; we’re going to have to use every trick in our collective book. And because we have these much bigger pieces of infrastructure, we are going to have to learn some new tricks too.

“We’re going to need to make sure that everyone understands the benefits of hosting conventions in New Zealand.

“Together we must invest to make sure our three racing car convention centres never run out of gas and always win the race,” said Perks.

 

Meanwhile Auckland Unlimited’s General Manager of Destination, Steve Armitage eschewed talk about Auckland’s convention centre in the making to give a fascinating insight into the strategy of the recently merged Council-controlled economic and cultural agency which is also the destination marketer and convention bureau for New Zealand’s largest city.

“One of the things we’re trying to do much more of is bring a much closer relationship to what we do from a major events attraction perspective and from a business events perspective,” said Armitage.

“We’ve already made a move in that regard, by bringing business events and the convention bureau in under our Head of Major Events, Richard Clarke, and sharing some of the functions that those teams were actually running in parallel for a period of time.

“From a feasibility point of view if we’re looking at bringing a particular major event into Auckland…we should also be thinking about what business events complement that international major event.

The city has already put this challenge in motion for Ocean Race which is set to return to Auckland in the (near-ish) future.

“We’ve challenged the event organisers and operators to work with us around the development of a unique concept, at the moment, around an ocean summit that would be hosted here in Auckland and we’re now looking at how to use that as an aggregator to bring in a whole lot of other…business events around the space.

“From a New Zealand offering point of view, we need to continue down this path, we need to create more than just a single event in the hope that people will get on a plane – if there’s a stronger pull, if they get knowledge…benefits and they can extend their stay by being part of a major event but also upskill themselves while they’re here, that’s what we should be doing more of.”

Meanwhile the Chief Executive of Tourism New Zealand, René de Monchy, put another new spin on things, talking about turning tourism and business events a little inside out, to use the visitor economy as a tool to better life in New Zealand for those who live there.

“Everyone in this room knows that business events attract high value visitors – international experts in their field, top researchers, business leaders and the information shared and the decisions taken at conferences and events can profoundly change communities and New Zealand,’ he said.

“As Tourism New Zealand’s Chief Executive, I’m committed to ensuring that tourism truly enriches Aotearoa and the people that live here.

“Tourism New Zealand’s Conference Impact Aotearoa Program is one of the clearest ways to demonstrate and measure our commitment to enriching New Zealand,” said de Monchy, adding that his team was working to encourage business events organisers to measure the impact and goals of their events as “it ensures we harness the power of those meetings and help improve the social, cultural and economic and environmental wellbeing of New Zealand”.

Plenty of food for thought and a lot to look forward to for Australia’s nearest neighbour which is firing on all cylinders as far as business events is concerned and showing us the way back to that which we’ve missed, which we won’t take for granted any time soon and which feels new all over again – the art of bringing people together.