By Laura Bradley

At first, the idea of a virtual famil sounds a bit unexciting. You no doubt picture people gathered on Zoom in their pyjamas, half paying attention to a destination video, with their minds fondly recalling the good old days of site inspections that included handshakes, wine and take home gifts. I certainly thought this, until last Thursday, when the first instalment of The Virtual Famil (TVF) took place and had me eating my words (as well as some delicious double brie, that was kindly delivered to my door by organisers the day before).

The Virtual Famil (TVF) is a new venture developed in response to the COVID restrictions that have prevented event planners from travelling to destinations. The three minds behind it: Deb Gee from Higher Perspective Consulting & Events; Alison Nolan from The Longshore Drift; and Ganessan Suppiah from GSA Hospitality; developed TVF to give the industry a taste of places around New Zealand during isolation, through a combination of digital showcases and high-quality memorabilia from operators.

The first virtual event saw myself and six event planners ‘fly’ (through Zoom) to Rotorua and hear all about its offerings for the luxury, incentive group and special interest group markets. The day before the meeting, each of us had an Experience Box delivered to our door, with an array of exciting gifts located within. These included such things as ingredients to make buckwheat crackers, courtesy of local dining attraction Terrace Kitchen; a candle designed to inspire, delivered by the TVF team; and a bottle of rosé handpicked by Volcanic Hills Winery. The delivery of the box to my door was an above-and-beyond personal touch, and instantly placed this event above every other webinar I’d attended during isolation. I was officially ready and eager to hear from Rotorua’s operators.

The group sampled some rosé from Volcanic Hills, a winery in Rotorua.

The first representative the group heard from was Brent, a winemaker from Volcanic Hills, who said the team is looking forward to re-welcoming Australian MICE groups for corporate wine tastings once travel restrictions ease. Brent urged us all to try the wine from the Experience Box, which he picked due to the fact that New Zealand rosé is ‘vastly different’ to that in Australia (I have to agree, it tasted far less sweet), and the fact that this particular bottle had no sugar and almost no preservatives. Any excuse for a sneaky midday wine in my living room is a win in my book.

With some non-sweet wine in the backs of our throats we moved onto the next operator, Terrace Kitchen, whose chef, Timo Dicker, demonstrated how to make buckwheat crackers from the ingredients in our boxes. Like Brent, Timo also said that the renowned dining attraction is awaiting the return of Australian groups. The venue offers three event spaces available for private use, including its light-filled and monochromatic Dining Room.

The cooking demonstration was succeeded by a series of videos from local operators, which collectively showcased the best of what Rotorua has to offer. These included Volcanic Air, which provides scenic flights around the region; Polynesian Spa, AKA New Zealand’s most awarded day spa; and Rotorua Canopy Tours, which allows groups to explore a forest which is more than 1000 years old, through ziplines, swing bridges and treetop platforms. The videos combined to provide an enticing snapshot of the region, particularly in terms of its natural beauty, and brought the travel bug lying dormant in my belly back to life.

Rotorua Canopy Tours was one of the operators featured in the video.

Sales coordinator for Destination Rotorua, Katie Neely, then took to the screen to answer any questions the group had about hosting groups in Rotorua. From my observation, the guests seemed to ask questions a lot more freely than people typically do in person, and, thanks to Zoom’s handy chat feature, no one was talking over the top of one another.

Through Katie’s answers, the group learnt that a new hotel is slated to open in Rotorua next year, and it will be made completely from local forest wood and offer 139 rooms, with an international chain currently looking at it; the past year has seen Novotel Rotorua Lakeside, Sudima Lake Rotorua, Millennium Hotel Rotorua, and Distinction Rotorua Hotel & Conference Centre undergo refurbishments; that it is possible to bring an international charter flight into Rotorua; and that the region can cater for larger incentive groups, with its largest one to date being 1600-pax.

After each and every question was answered, we were logged off and done – no transfer to the airport, no lining up in a check-in line, and no crowding around a luggage conveyor belt back in Sydney. But the excitement wasn’t over just yet. The next day, a representative from TVF dropped off yet ANOTHER box of goodies! This one was from Polynesian Spa, and included a Manuka honey moisturiser and lip balm, a mud mask and bath salts. I felt very spoilt indeed, and my dry and neglected skin felt very appreciative.

If this is what future TVF instalments are going to be like, where can I sign up to the next one?

The gifts kept on coming. This box, courtesy of Polynesian Spa, was delivered to our doors the day after the virtual famil.