Getting onto the international conference map

In the year to June 2015, 540,000 delegates attended 5,500 local and international business events in New Zealand and that represents a lot of economic benefit to the cities and towns where these conferences are held. But how well does New Zealand stack up internationally for the burgeoning business sector? By Patricia Moore.

International eye specialists, legal eagles, cyber security researchers and veterinarians – just some of the people who’ll be flying in to meet, learn and network in New Zealand over the next few years.

Conferences and conventions are big business and the volume is growing. They’re also very much on the agenda for corporates who understand the value of bringing their people together, away from the distractions of the day-to-day work environment.

Figures from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment show that in the year to June 2015, 540,000 delegates attended 5,500 local and international events here, up on the previous 12 months (501,000 delegates at 4,900 conferences).

The good news for the economy is that every one of those delegates represents dollars; for international delegates it averaged out at $1,991. Conferencing kiwis, whose stay is shorter than that of overseas delegates (2.9 nights versus 4.5 in the event region and 2.1 nights elsewhere in the country) spent an estimated $491 per night.
So are we suddenly the go-to destination and if so, what’s driving the interest?

Tourism NZ’s efforts in positioning New Zealand as a major tourist attraction, combined with those of Air NZ, Conventions and Incentives NZ, and major players in the industry such as hoteliers and the Convention Bureaux have really put New Zealand on the map, says Conventions and Incentives New Zealand CEO Sue Sullivan. The flow-on effect has been awareness of what the country has to offer the conference market.

It’s no longer just groups from across the Tasman that are coming here. We’re attracting conference business from other markets, says Sullivan – North America, China, India, South East Asia and Japan.

“We’re on the radar, ready, willing and able, positioned as a destination that’s open for business, be it conferences or business events.”

The experience people can have in New Zealand matches that of any country in the world, she says.

“We have some strong unique selling points. Nobody can touch our culture or manaakitanga. The way we host people is quite unique. There’s a shift to embrace our culture across many aspects and what we do in conferences is no different.” (A Maori welcome to Meetings 2015 in June this year so impressed an associate editor from United States based Convene magazine, she discussed the focus put on every facet of a hui in a later article.)

“Our food and wines, our cafes and restaurants are sophisticated; add to that our unique New Zealand experience and you have an offering that can’t be matched,” says Sullivan.

Corporate conferences have evolved from what were once “huge affairs with much merriment and destination activities thrown into the mix,” says Visit Whanganui’s Lyn Cheyne. “It was often rare for a national organisation to get their team together and networking was important.”

Driving change is an expectation for conferences to be smarter and deliver more in terms of outcomes.

“I believe people now weigh up the benefits of attending conferences and events and want to be assured there is value in attending. This is where it’s very important we work closely with conference organisers to deliver a customised and relevant experience,” says Cheyne.

That’s echoed by Sue Sullivan. “People no longer just want to sit and be talked at. They’re looking for a lot more engagement, a lot more relevance; a lot more education. They’re after something new – new venues; new relevant speakers and MC’s, technology you don’t have to be in the room to access; keynote speakers who can be available for workshops or one-on-one conversation outside that one session.”

A key focus at a recent Auckland conference was creating programmes that allowed delegates a greater degree of participation.

There’s more onus on presenters to be relevant, she says. “They need to be well briefed on their audience – you can’t come in and deliver a speech you’ve used before. What you deliver has to be relevant.” And, as one high-profile individual learned recently, presenters also need to be sensitive to their audience.

Connection’s more important than ever – but it’s happening in different ways, says Stu Freeman of Promag Publishing, specialists in the conference and conventions sector and publisher of Meeting Newz magazine. “There’s a lot of social media going on. Twitter walls, dedicated apps; and rather than detracting from face-to-face, I think it’s adding to it.”

Success also depends on conference organisers engaging with their clients – understanding what the objectives and desired outcomes are. “It’s not a jolly. There’s got to be a real economic benefit,” says Sullivan.

Growth in the business events sector has real economic benefits for the country; conferences bring in high-spending visitors, generally – and importantly – in the off-peak season. They also bring in people with new and world-leading ideas and allow New Zealanders to share their expertise with the world.

But there’s a big fly in the ointment; a lack of venues capable of accommodating huge international conferences and conventions – or multiple events simultaneously.
The talking goes on – and on – in Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown, all of which have great plans, but until the earth’s turned, there’s not a lot for organisers to commit to, says Sullivan.

Auckland’s “desperate” for a convention centre says Stu Freeman. But, because relatively large conferences are already being attracted to the city there’s a perception we don’t need anything bigger. “That’s a silly argument. Large international conventions, particularly for sectors like medicine, software and education are not coming here because they can’t fit. If they could they would.”

The situation in Christchurch is even more pressing; Freeman, who was there recently for an industry event his company organises, Convene South (held at the Wigram Base) says it was significant that the people representing the Christchurch Convention Centre Precinct had a full list of appointments – including some from overseas visitors – wanting to know more about a facility that’s not even built yet. “They’re now talking about 2018.”

He points out that Australian cities like Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and the Gold Coast have built international centres – and expanded them.

“Sydney’s knocked theirs down to build a new flash one; if they didn’t work why would they be doing that?”

Part of the problem is that the centres themselves don’t exactly generate huge amounts of money, says Freeman. “But the businesses around them do well; the economic benefit goes far beyond the venues. Cities with large conventions centres attract hotels, restaurants and cafes, taxi companies; many have learning facilities built around them,” he says. “They bring investment.” 

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