- Huge demand for face-to-face meetings is driving a surge in conferences and business events
- But competition for delegate dollars is strong, and overseas destinations are offering cash incentives to win conferences.
Cathedral Junction barber Conrad Fitz-Gerald was sceptical when customer and Te Pae convention centre boss Ross Steele told him the new Christchurch facility would generate business.
After opening in May, Te Pae already has more than 100 events scheduled this year, well ahead of expectations, and delegates nipping out for a quick trim have become regulars in the barber’s chair.
Business Events Industry Aotearoa chief executive Lisa Hopkins says the strong bounce back is happening nationally following two years of cancellations, size restrictions, and virtual gatherings that starved people of face-to-face contact.
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“It’s made people realise what they’ve been missing out on.”
More than 400 Australian and domestic event organisers last week attended Business Events’ Meetings 2022 trade show at Te Pae, and Hopkins heralded the removal of pre-departure testing this week as a game changer that will help turn interest into confirmed bookings.
Despite the obvious advantages of a new high-tech building capable of hosting up to 2000 delegates, Te Pae general manager Ross Steele says competition for business is fiercer than ever, and across the Tasman cash incentives are on offer to secure prime events.
“Some cities are giving $100 per delegate up to 500 [delegates] to bring a conference.
“Some venues in Queensland are able to get local council funding, as well as state and national funding for events, so when you add that together, we’re in a very competitive environment.”
The $1 million Tourism New Zealand (TNZ) conference assistance programme puts together bids for big international events, and it aims to increase this year’s 58 bids to 100 over the next two years.
“The reality is that other destinations pay money for conferences, and we don’t really tend to do that in New Zealand, and I don’t think we need to,” says TNZ business events general manager Bjoern Spreitzer, who believes great venues, topnotch experts, and good holiday packages can outweigh the money factor.
Australian events management company Arinex has 20 New Zealand events in the pipeline over the next year, and has plans to reopen an office in Auckland.
Managing director Nicole Walker says cash incentives are part of the mix because during the pandemic many associations lost members and cancelled annual conferences, both important sources of funding, so financial support can help swing the case in favour of a particular location.
Even so, tourism attractions and potential for pre- and post-conference travel are still key when it comes to choosing a conference destination, and Walker says more Australian delegates are tacking on family holidays using money they have saved over the last couple of years.
Binh Nguyen manages conferences and events for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons which has just chosen Te Pae for a five-day meeting in 2024 in a deal that includes confidential financial and logistical support.
About 1400 delegates will attend with an average spend of $5000 per head for international visitors, and Nguyen says the options for accompanying partners and families to get out and explore were a big drawcard.
Pre-Covid-19, the New Zealand business events industry was valued at $1.45 billion per year, and employed an estimated 22,000 people.
Economist Benje Patterson agrees the industry is likely to recover more quickly than initially expected because people are so desperate to interact in person, but he also advocates a healthy dose of scepticism when it comes to claims about the big dollars generated.
He says events often lack good systems to capture exactly what delegates spend, and that can lead to “generous assumptions” when organisers self-report back to public funders who may have helped finance a bid.
The main conference season from March to October helps fill hotel beds at a time when occupancy rates are lower, and Spreitzer says he is confident there will be plenty of work for Te Pae, Wellington’s Tākina centre opening in 2023, followed by Auckland’s New Zealand International Convention Centre two years later.
Having recently attended Imex, the world’s largest trade fair for the business and events industry held in Germany, Spreitzer says slightly small gatherings are in demand, and New Zealand facilities are well suited to cater for them.
“In the past organisations might have one large conference, but people might now go to a mid-size conference, and add smaller online conferences around the world.”
The Conference Company founder Jan Tonkin says Zoom meetings have changed delegate attitudes regarding the presence of speakers.
“[Before Covid] If they didn’t have someone in person, they felt cheated, now they get that some speakers may be coming in virtually.”
Because so many events were postponed during the pandemic, finding venue space can be a problem.
The pressure is being felt in Auckland as a result of delays to the new convention centre, and Hopkins says there are serious concerns about the threatened loss of the large exhibition area at the Auckland Show Grounds which is the subject of a High Court decision due out soon.
There has also been a surge in demand from the incentives market as businesses wanting to reward employees start looking further afield.
A repeat of the 2018 visit by groups of more than 6000 top Chinese Amway sellers is unlikely until travel restrictions from mainland China are lifted, but TNZ work on attracting groups from North America and South East Asia is well in hand.
Last week scouts from Malaysia made a site visit to Hamilton ahead of bringing a group of 150 next month, but much smaller centres are eyeing up this lucrative market.
Encounter Kaikōura business manager Lynette Buurman says the October opening of the 120-room Sudima Kaikōura hotel will attract incentive and corporate groups the town had previously struggled to accommodate, and she had a lot of interest from Australian buyers at Meetings.
“It was so hard in the past, and now we are there as a potential player”.