NZ risks losing big events despite Covid restrictions being lifted

The summer events calendar is getting into full swing, drawing in huge crowds all across the country. But while things look back to normal, there are concerns that without a mix of good money and even better ideas New Zealand could lose out on some big major events, and with that vital tourist numbers that are key to the nation's economic recovery.

The head of major events at Tātaki Auckland Unlimited Chris Simpson says in the last three months the Super City has seen an "abundance" of events.

In 2023 one of the biggest events on the nation's event calendar is the women's FIFA World Cup, at a cost of $25m in taxpayers' money. Simpson warns events like these were budgeted for prior to the pandemic, so unless new funding is found, the calendar will soon begin to look empty.

"FIFA is going to be huge for New Zealand, but within the next 12 months after that, we might be falling off a bit of a cliff if we can't find the right funding sources.

"There's a number of events where the commercial requirements and hosting fees are getting up beyond our budget."

Since 2020 Tātaki Auckland Unlimited has not been able to take advantage of the Accommodation Provider Targeted Rate. The borders saw that shut as the source of revenue, and its return has been blocked in court pending the outcome of an appeal by Auckland Council.

Funding it received from the Government's national tourism recovery is also running out.

But he says the competition for lucrative international events that draw in huge crowds is heating up, as countries look for ways to boost their economies post-Covid.

"It's extremely competitive, and our neighbours across the ditch in Australia have really put a lot of money into major events, they are recognising it's a critical aspect to economic recovery.

Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Simon Bridges says there are lessons to be learned from how Australia has managed to draw in the big events. "Melbourne spent something like $15 in getting Adele," he says. "Well some would say that's a rip-off, but actually done well, it's a massive multiplier effect of additional money coming in."

Both Simpson and Bridges say the solution is not for local and central government alone to pick up the tab.

"We don't want to be reliant on ratepayers' funding," Simpson says. "We are looking at other international models [for solutions]."

But he says investing in events offers a genuine commercial outcome. "If you spend $1 it'll bring back $4. It's not only the economic benefits, but it's the social, and the global exposure that major events provide to New Zealand."

The Chamber of Commerce head says the solution for the events sector needed to be clear and innovative.

"What's really important is not just bureaucrats dreaming [a solution] up in a backroom. What we need to see is a plan that the private sector can own and have confidence in," Bridges says. "Because in the end that's where the funding is going to come from."

A full calendar would help the struggling tourism sector too, where guest nights remain around half of what they were pre-Covid.

Hotel Council Aotearoa's James Doolan says it's been a tough two years, and even though the borders are now open accommodation providers are still struggling.

"Hotels aren't earning the same levels of revenue they once did," he says. "And you're being hit by a lot of increasing costs."

Economic development minister, Stuart Nash, acknowledges it's been a tough time for the industry, but he expects to see a boost in visitor numbers over summer, with pre-Covid levels of tourists returning within another two to three years.

"We can provide no guarantees. We can't haul people off the street and send them to New Zealand," he says. "But what I can promise them is that we are doing all we possibly can to target the key demographics who will stay in hotels."

The minister says Tourism New Zealand has also been given $130m to market Aotearoa as a destination. "Obviously during the pandemic they couldn't tell people to come to New Zealand, because the borders were closed, but what they've done is a magnificent job of keeping that aspiration alive."

The Government also encouraging organisers to look locally and build on the Kiwi brand.

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment's manager of major events, Kylie Hawker-Green, says there's up to a million dollars of funding each year for those wanting to transform regional events into big calendar events.

"[We] are looking at creating home-grown, genuinely Aotearoa events. We run an incubator programme... to support those events that may start off as a smaller regional event, that could build to a level that is nationally, but also internationally significant."

* The headline on this story has been changed to reflect the fact that, although nearly all measures related to Covid-19 have now been lifted, the pandemic has not ended.


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