New Zealand: Is the kettle on and have we got any biscuits left?

While attending New Zealand’s main exhibition & conference for business events last year, MEETINGS, we managed to speak with some of the key people driving this success story.

After many phone calls with a helpful press secretary and several emails later, I manage to get squeezed into the schedule of one of the New Zealand government’s most interesting ministers. Kelvin Davis is minister for Tourism, Minister for Corrections, Minister for Crown/Māori Relations, and Associate Minister of Education portfolio (Māori Education)—he’s also the first deputy leader of Maori descent. Previously a teacher & school Principal he is a man who’s proud of his Maori heritage. With such a broad portfolio and interesting background Kelvin Davis proves to be exactly what you would expect—principled but realistic and with a human touch.

You can’t help but feel that this man wants to engage in a conversation, not just give sound bites. Our 10-minute interview rolls into 20 minutes and an anxious press secretary politely reminds us that we’re running over time. “Don’t worry, we can make up the time” says the minister.

“Tourism is the face of New Zealand, and it’s the people that make the difference” says Davis. He points out that tourism can learn a lot from Maori culture, which has hospitality as one of its three core values. “Hospitality isn’t just about asking someone round for a cup of tea,” explains Davis. “There’s not much point if the kettle’s not on and you’ve got no biscuits.” With the number of people expected to visit New Zealand rising from 3.7 million to 5.1 million over the next four years, his simple but to the point analogy neatly sums up the challenges New Zealand needs to come up with answers for to successfully manage this expected growth in tourism and increase in business events.

Numbers don’t lie

There’s no doubt that New Zealand is on a roll with a buoyant economy and thriving tourism industry. Despite a rising NZ dollar, the country has been increasingly successful in persuading Australian organisations and executive assistants to run their conferences, executive retreats and other business events in New Zealand rather than domestically.

A report by the Government, The New Zealand Tourism Forecast, predicts a continual boom in arrivals to the nation. Visitor numbers are expected to reach over five million by 2024, which will bring an estimated extra NZD 15 billion worth of income. The majority of these arrivals will continue to come from Australia.

This boom in the coming decade will bolster New Zealand’s tourism industry (and GDP in general), but rapid growth requires careful planning. The nation’s government is committed to managing the influx of tourists and business events, writes Eileen Basher, General Manager of Research, Evaluation and Analytics, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, in the report.

“With international arrivals and spend expected to continue to grow in the coming years, the government is focused on encouraging visitors to explore not only our iconic destinations, but also lesser-known regions across New Zealand.”

“The Government is also working to encourage and support the sustainable use of New Zealand’s resources for tourism and to manage impacts from rapid growth.”

A big chunk of these visitors will be for business travel and events. The 2018 Executive PA Corporate Event Organiser Survey indicates that “the proportion of respondents who have organised corporate events in New Zealand in the past two years have significantly increased.”

The survey reveals a 15 percent increase in Australian EAs and corporate organisers planning their events in New Zealand. Organisers are also spending 10 percent more than last year, despite a rise in the NZD’s value and cost of living.

The growth in business events and travel is without a doubt a positive for New Zealand. The industry represents a significant portion of the nation’s income, and a lot of attention is paid to make sure it runs smoothly. However, with the growth that is projected there are a number of difficult issues that the government must tackle to make sure the boom doesn’t do more harm than good.

Overtourism is a key problem in this space. Across the globe, overtourism creates tension between locals and visitors. While New Zealand is famous for it’s hospitable people, a flood of visitors every year can create stress on many key resources such as transport infrastructure, the environment and even the price of rent and groceries.

Auckland is by far the largest city in New Zealand, with a population of 1.7 million, and as a result feels the acute effects of growth, both positive and negative. Luckily, there are many key players that are invested in the future of New Zealand and are proactive about finding solutions to potential problems.

Mayor with a plan

Getting a time to chat with the Mayor of Auckland, Phil Goff took some time. Eventually, after a few weeks of emails and phone calls I got the busy civil servant on the line.

Phil Goff strikes me as a pragmatic man. He’s an old school Labour politician, with a deep-rooted history in New Zealand’s government, and was once the leader of the Labour party and leader of the opposition in the national parliament.

However, his extensive political resume doesn’t show in our conversation. He delivers his plan for sustaining Auckland’s growth with a logical tone. I ask him what he thinks some of the hurdles that New Zealand’s largest city will have to jump over to deal with the influx of overseas visitors in the coming decade.

“We have the problems that growth brings to a city. One of those is when you struggle to keep up with the infrastructure to cope with growth,” says Goff.

He has a pragmatic approach to infrastructure. Instead of passing the buck and blaming the opposition for past mistakes, the Mayor takes a refreshingly long-term look at the problem.

“You need to keep people on side. Part of the allure of Auckland is that generally people come here and get a friendly response, and they are welcome. We want to keep that, it’s vital to whether you feel good about visiting a place.”

“That means that we need to reassure Aucklanders that the way in which we are managing this is not at the expense of our environment, or is not adding to the already great pressures that they suffer in terms of the ability of infrastructure to cope,” he continues.

“We need to assure Aucklanders that built into our strategy are plans for managing those wider factors of the industry. We need to ensure that the industry remains welcome to Aucklanders, who in turn extend their welcome to the visitors to their city.”

Phil Goff seems to have a very clear idea of how he wants this industry to look in Auckland. He sums up his perspective with a simple statement.

“Managing growth is better than the alternative—managing decline. It puts pressure on, but it’s welcome.”

The man on the ground

Steve Hanrahan has had a dynamic career. Originally from the UK, he knows the pull of New Zealand better than most, as I ask him how it all began. “The people I worked with invited me over for a holiday to New Zealand, brought me around Queenstown and I got hooked. I quit my job and six months later I was out here on a working-holiday visa.”

After working as a hotel concierge in Queenstown and earning his Les Clefs d’Or keys, he grew tired of being cooped up behind the desk in a hotel lobby.

“The idea for Concierge Queenstown started coming into my head because I’d see all these holiday homes, all these Airbnb properties and corporate groups coming in with no-one looking after them. If they’re not coming into hotels, then whose looking after them?” he recalls.

Steve’s company, Concierge Queenstown is a mobile concierge service. He is the ‘man on the ground’ for visitors, corporate groups, and executive assistants; he organises, plans and helps execute trips to the iconic South Island destination.

For corporates, he plans the entire experience before the guests arrive. Being a local, Steve has the ability to roll with the punches, and deal with any interruptions or roadblocks. In many ways, Steve is similar to an EA. He relies on his network of contacts and local knowledge to solve the unsolvable.

“The biggest thing is being on the ground. Being here, in the right time zone, being able to shuffle activities around and to smooth out the bumps,” he says. “It’s about reading people and understanding what they want. It’s the same as how EAs read their bosses and understand them, their experience and what they are trying to achieve.”

Working in the field has given Steve a look-in to the growth of business events in the town. “There’s going to be so many more reasons to come here soon, and Queenstown shows no sign of slowing down,” he says. “You’ve got so many different corporate venues opening up now.”

“We do quite a lot of work at the airport, and we see a lot of corporate groups getting picked up. I think incentive travel is definitely on the rise.”

Steve and I spoke at length about New Zealand’s many attractions, and it became obvious why the country has been so successful in attracting events and visitors from across the world. New Zealand is a unique destination, and friendly, passionate locals such as Steve are the backbone of its success.

The data & digital CEO

Stephen England-Hall is a man who keeps his cards close to his chest. Nevertheless, he’s an interesting person to meet and with a background in data and digital technology, he provides a useful perspective about its use in promoting New Zealand to the rest of the world and how it can help maintain sustainable tourism.  His career so far has taken him to London as CEO of a major digital marketing agency; Toronto and Portland to work with big brands like Coca Cola and Diago; back to his native New Zealand to work with Government on digital strategies; then as CEO of Loyalty NZ, the owner of Fly Buys; and finally, to his current position as CEO of Tourism New Zealand.

The link between all his jobs is digital & data, and with Stephen England-Hall describing himself as a self-confessed computer geek, you may wonder what all this has to do with tourism. It’s the smart use of data that’s going to provide some answers to the challenges New Zealand faces in managing the high levels of growth in tourism in the coming years.

New Zealand’s Marketeer 

Lisa Gardiner is the Head of Marketing & Sales, Premium and International Business Events at Tourism New Zealand. I ask Lisa Gardiner the reasons for New Zealand’s spectacular success in attracting Australian organisations to take their business events offshore.

“One of the reasons is that we’ve managed to overcome the old misconception that it’s difficult and expensive to come over, but the reality is completely different. There’s little or no difference for an Australian-based organisation to run their event in New Zealand, as it is to go interstate.”

A big draw to New Zealand over the past 17 years has been the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, which was filmed on the South Island. One of its legacies was the movie set Hobbiton in Matamata. That by itself doesn’t account for the increase in visitors, let alone the growing number of business events that would otherwise have taken place in Australia. Lisa Gardiner points to initiatives like the Conference Assistant Program (which executive assistants can discuss with tourism New Zealand executives), low airfares and the increased number of flights to and from Australia as additionally having an impact. Oh, and don’t forget a world class marketing campaign.

Tourism New Zealand can assist Executive assistants and office managers who are organising conferences for over 200 people, and incentive programs for over 50 people.

Auckland Ambassadors

Steve Armitage is the General Manager of Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development (ATEED), and Anna Hayward reports to Steve and heads the Auckland Convention Bureau—the organisation responsible for attracting business events to the region. Besides providing plenty of information, my interview with them is relaxed and fun.

During our interview I point out to Steve Armitage that the Auckland Convention Bureau seems to have done a great job attracting Australian businesses to take their events across the water to their city, and he agrees. “So, do you intend to increase your presence in Australia?” I ask. “We’re looking at it,” is the guarded reply, but seeing Anna Hayward’s grin, I can see that my question has given her ammunition on what may be a hot topic of conversation between the two.

The increase in the number of business events taking place in New Zealand has been felt more in Auckland than anywhere else. And whilst it would be tempting to produce fancy graphs showing huge growth curves, Auckland has been the first region to acknowledge the social problems associated with such phenomenal growth.

A kiwi dynamo

There are talented people but once in a while you meet someone who is best described as a phenomenon. Sue Sullivan falls into the latter category for her seemingly endless energy and drive. She has an MBA, has been a teacher and travelled around the world in a role that expanded a kiwi tourism business. During a two-year period in her life she managed to move country, open an office in Australia and gave birth to three children. Sullivan is now the Chief Executive of Conventions & Incentives New Zealand (CINZ), who organise the MEETINGS conference.

Her extensive commercial experience and seemingly endless energy have been put to good use. CINZ is at the heart of what is one of the biggest booms in business tourism that New Zealand has experienced. Rapid growth can be an extremely stressful process to manage and I ask how she has been able to achieve that.

“People are what make it work, it’s good to have experienced team members but it’s vital to get young people on board too,” she says. “The next step is to keep them motivated.” As part of that process she has set up a mentoring scheme within the organisation and despite her own breadth and depth of experience, has had her own mentor up until very recently. “It’s something I started early on in my career and will continue to do so.”

I ask who her next mentor might be, but that’s something she would prefer to keep under wraps. I can only guess it must be someone with a very high profile.

If you are considering New Zealand as a destination for your next event, Conventions & Incentives New Zealand can assist executive assistants who are organising conferences for fewer than 200 people, and incentives for less than 50.

Heritage hotels experiences bookings boost

This year Heritage Hotels have seen a significant increase in booking inquiries, in line with the growth of corporate events making their way to New Zealand in the last few years.

Heritage Hotels Director of Sales, Conference and Incentives, Shelley Eastwood says they are excited about the growth in the market, and are keen to put their offerings on show at MEETINGS, a key event industry conference in New Zealand.

“Our enquiries are up by 32 percent across our key hotels from last year and we thought it time to really put the ‘Highlight on Heritage’ at MEETINGS. We have gathered our wide ranging and versatile hotels in a ‘one-stop-shop’ for the convenience of our customers,” says Shelley.

“This year we want to have as many of our team with us for customers to put faces to names and strengthen these valuable client relationships,” adds Shelley.

There are also valuable destinational and hotel updates. For example, the newly built South Wing at Heritage Collection Waitakere Estate, is experiencing growth in corporate meetings.

“Heritage Queenstown’s business remains steady with a strong repeat customer base sitting at 20 percent. The hotel’s award winning team and the appeal of the uninterrupted lake and mountain views from the Icon Room are a great combination,” says Shelley.

“We are seeing many groups wanting complete hotel buy-outs. In August, Heritage Queenstown is booked by an overseas wholesale retail company for four nights.”

New Zealand’s success is undeniable. They have thrust themselves into the hearts and minds of anyone looking for their next event destination, particularly Australian businesses. There’s no doubt they have done the hard yards, promoting, advertising and marketing this unique nation. But managing the growth of this industry is not a set-and-forget game.

Making sure everyone in New Zealand feels the success is a huge task, and it’s down to people like these to make sure that, as Kelvin Davis puts it, the kettle is on and they have biscuits ready.