New push to attract more conferences

By Graham Skellern

When it comes to the summer season, the Western Bay visitor market is well sorted with thousands of holidaymakers from around the country heading for the beaches and the sun.

But one sector of the local market is underrated - conferences and incentives including activities and team building. The Western Bay has more conference venues than meet the eye and Tourism Bay of Plenty, covering the coast, is making a new push to ensure the region becomes an even more popular conference destination.

More conferences and meetings will help spread the visitor spend over the whole year, not just in summer.

Trudi Peet, convention bureau and events manager for Tourism Bay of Plenty, said Western Bay had been seen as somewhere to go for a holiday or retire - it hadn't been taken seriously in the conference department.

"But we do have the facilities and infrastructure, and we can match the services of other areas. People are now excited they have a new region to consider for their conferences. We are right on the edge of becoming a funky destination," she said.

"It's so good for the local economy, especially in the quieter months when conferencing takes place. It fills the period when the tourists aren't around."

According to the Convention Activity Survey (CAS) figures, Western Bay is the fourth busiest region for single day events, ahead of the Waikato and Rotorua, but it slips in multi-day conferences.

For the year ending June, Western Bay had 1453 single-day events, behind Auckland 4309, Wellington 2348, Canterbury 1381 but ahead of Waikato 1360 and Rotorua 766.

Auckland tops the multi-day conferences with 1238, followed by Wellington 824, Canterbury 305, Rotorua and Queenstown both on 270 and Western Bay 210.

Overall, Western Bay is the fourth most popular conference destination with a total of 1663, just behind Canterbury 1686 and adrift of Wellington 3172 and Auckland 5548. Waikato had a total of 1598 and Rotorua 1036.

Western Bay hosted 100,100 delegates - 87,790 for single day events and 12,310 for multi-day conferences. The delegates would directly spend about $20 million a year in the region.

The local region, however, is lagging in numbers for multi-day conferences. Waikato hosts 93,530 delegates, Rotorua 41,540, Manawatu 52,329, Nelson 21,405 and Queenstown 17,811.

Western Bay is known more for its small to medium-sized conferences (up to 150 delegates) than hosting the larger ones.

The New Zealand Juice and Beverage Association held its annual conference of 110 delegates at the Sebel Trinity Wharf Hotel last November. They held a master blender competition at Classic Flyers and had a progressive dinner through three restaurants downtown - and they liked the new destination so much that they re-booked this year.

"We are going after the association conferences but you have to bid two to three years in advance," said Mrs Peet.

The new TECT Arena at Baypark has also opened up the local market for hosting some of the biggest conferences. But Tauranga still needs more accommodation to handle them.

"If we are filling 300 rooms for accommodation during a conference, then we are pushed to the max," said Mrs Peet. "We have to spread the delegates between the hotels and apartments at the Mount.

"Having another internationally-branded hotel would be fantastic - it's the key that opens us to the professional conference organisers and event players."

The city council is talking to an Auckland developer about building a 180-room hotel in downtown Tauranga - a move that would take the city into a new league of hosting conferences of about 400 people.

At present, there's more than 30 conference venues in the Western Bay catering for a range of audiences - from 20 to 380. Among them, Sebel Trinity Wharf Hotel handles 380, Baypark Suites 369 and more in the three-court arena and conference centre, Armitage Hotel 350, Bella Vista and Bureta Motor Inn 250, Kiwi360 200 and Hotel on Devonport 120.

Waimarino Adventures has just completed a 200sq m conference centre on the edge of the Wairoa River capable of hosting 175 people. Owner Blair Anderson is in no doubt the Western Bay can become a bigger conference destination.

"People are over Rotorua and Christchurch is struggling. We have a wide range of facilities and activities to attract conferences but we need more accommodation from one of the larger hotel chains. We can spread people but not too much - the delegates do like to stay in the same hotel," Mr Anderson said.

Waimarino invested $500,000 to build the Waverly Room and it has already hosted an Asian New Zealand Foundation conference with 80 people. When it's not being used for conferences, the new facility can be used for weddings and for Waimarino's after-school care and holiday programmes.

"I guess there's not many businesses around willing to make an investment in a recession but we wanted to and we did it," said Mr Anderson.

Waimarino has now become a conference hub and has the ability to organise team-building activities on site through its adventure park and kayaking on the river.

At other sites, the adventurous conference delegates can experience jet boating, blokarting and clay bird shooting, racing CanAm Spyders, taking an aerobatic flight in a Russian fighter plane and beating the aerial obstacle course at Adrenalin Forest.

Mrs Peet joined Tourism Bay of Plenty last September and set about restructuring and increasing the membership of the convention bureau. She now has 70 members, from 24, who are prepared to work together to increase the region's conferencing profile.

The membership represents conference venues, accommodation, activities and team building, catering, transport, entertainment and cultural experiences.

Mrs Peet recently organised a Meet in the Bay expo for local businesses encouraging those with national affiliations to bring their conference/event to town.

Tourism Bay of Plenty will hold a similar expo for the public in September and, last week, it was at the Great New Zealand Touring Route Expo in Auckland.

Its next big date is Meetings in Auckland in June where conference and event organisers check out the latest offerings, and the local region will be well represented with 12 bureau members, as well as Tourism Bay of Plenty attending.

"We will have one-on-one appointments over two days," said Mrs Peet. "There's a definite interest in the Bay. People are getting tired of going to Auckland, Rotorua and Wellington and because of our proximity - two-and-a-half hours from Auckland - we are well placed to become a fresh and exciting destination."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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