Despite technological advances that make virtual interaction easy, more businesses are staging face-to-face conferences and conventions than ever - and New Zealand, and especially Auckland, is reaping the rewards, writes Greg Fleming.

Last year in New Zealand over 500,000 delegates attended more than 5000 conferences or conventions, and this year's calendar is looking even busier, says Sue Sullivan, CEO of Conferences & Incentives NZ (CINZ).

"This is very much a relationship-based industry. There's a lot of networking and sharing of ideas. Some parts will be tech-based, where you can log in and hear a speaker, but there's still a requirement for that face-to-face contact."

She says that a further problem with virtual conferences is that in our increasingly connected world attention spans are short. People are likely to wander away from their desks, or get distracted by another screen in front of them.

Forward-thinking companies can justify the cost of a venue-based destination conference because employees who attend are more likely to get value from the experience, the networking and bring back ideas to share with colleagues.


The situation is helped by the (currently) low Kiwi dollar, good facilities, staff who go the extra mile and the increasing visibility of New Zealand on the world stage.

Indeed this year is booking fast and late-comers are finding it difficult to get space in venues because demand has been high, says Sullivan.

"Remember a meeting is an experience not just an exchange of information," she says. "And what we as New Zealanders do in this industry is provide a unique experience and it's one which visitors love.

"We talk about Manaakitanga. It's our style of hospitality that visitors comment on when they leave.

"It's how we greet people, how we welcome them to our home, how we engage them and share ideas. And that starts from the first communication, as well as the cultural and regional aspects we bring - be it imagery, food, fittings, activities, wine or the building itself.

"We're punching above our weight. We're up against big destinations with big budgets, but our point of difference is that New Zealand story, and the easy way we have with people."

And that success is easy to measure.

"The feedback we're getting is that people who conference here love New Zealand and plan to come back - often for a family holiday."

Construction on the New Zealand International Convention Centre began in February and will be completed in 2020. The $700 million project will create an estimated 1000 jobs onsite during the build plus an additional 2000 jobs in associated industries flowing on from the construction project. The 300-room five-star facility will be a big drawcard for international businesses and bring millions to the New Zealand economy.

"The new centre will enable us to capture some of those big conferences and conventions that we currently don't have the facilities to host," says Sullivan.

"What happens with these huge conferences is that groups will splinter off from the main conference. They might go to the Hawkes Bay or Taranaki or Queenstown.

"Additionally part of the conference might have an incentive aspect attached to it. Attendees may have won awards, so they'll be taken away on a reward programme so it won't only be Auckland that benefits.

"It also gives us the opportunity to tell a bigger story. We work closely with Tourism NZ, Air New Zealand, the hotels, councils, and the Ministry of Business to ensure their memory of New Zealand is a good one.

"At the moment the only thing we don't have is size - but overall we're doing really well. English is the international language of conferencing so we're good there," says Sullivan.

"And the perception abroad of New Zealand as a green destination is another positive."

And the tyranny of distance, ironically, often works in our favour.

"Actually we have big businesses wanting to come here because it's so far away. American companies see us as exotic," says Sullivan, "and with new air routes opening every month we're easier to get to. Out of the States it's just an overnight, out of Sydney it's quicker to come here than go to Western Australia."

She says attendees can step off the plane and arrive to state-of-the-art facilities, world-class cuisine and a wide range of activities and accommodation options.

Keeping standards high and adding more facilities is key, says Sullivan.

"If a business has a good experience with a venue they are more likely to return and the pressure is on conference organisers to ensure that their event is not just more cost effective, but also relevant to the attendees."

The next big opportunity is Asia.

"We do get business from Asia but that's a sector we want to grow because they are a big conferencing and incentive tourism market. Yes, there are cultural differences but remember these people are educated and experienced travellers. Travelling to an English-speaking country is often not new for them.

It's an exciting industry to be part of," says Sullivan who's been in the job just 18 months, "but it's hard work. The event might look glamorous but the lead up to it won't be. Our people are the last person standing - up early and the last to leave and they're there at the end waving that bus off with a smile."

While Auckland's the big player, the regions are important too. Sullivan says that thanks to the strong economy and positive business outlook domestic conferencing is strong.
"Hamilton/Waikato is a great destination, close to Auckland with a great, versatile centre at Claudelands and that's really getting some traction," says Sullivan.

"The location tells a beautiful cultural story and there's a lot of industry that's unique to the area - you've got the Avanti cycling arena, the horse breeding, Mystery Creek and a big aviation industry. Rotorua, Wellington and lately Christchurch are also popular.

"Christchurch is great because the new venues they're building are multi-purpose. The Hagley Oval and Pavilion was built for cricket but you can also host a conference there. The Isaac Theatre Royal is a beautiful venue and we've hosted a very successful dinner there."

"Last year was very busy domestically - Wellington companies going up to Rotorua, people from Christchurch going up to Blenheim or Nelson, Hawkes Bay companies conferencing in Taupo."

The incentives industry is also growing. Essentially this is where companies award employees for a job well done.

"Out of Southeast Asia we get big incentive travellers of 800 people. They'll be enjoying high-end hotels, they'll be down at Hobbiton or Waitomo or up in Northland, but they'll use Auckland as their base.

"Then you've got you smaller, elite incentives of say 20 people. They'll be at Cape Kidnappers, Kauri Bay, at the Hilton in Taupo or down in Queenstown at Blanket Bay. Often these sorts of incentives don't want to be known as a public event - they like to fly under the radar and we're happy to facilitate that it's another growing market."

Sullivan is looking forward to June's Meeting event at the ASB Showgrounds, Auckland.

"We have over 200 exhibitors on the show floor and more than 500 buyers from here and all around the world. It's our chance to showcase to the industry the best of what we have on offer - in food, wine, entertainment and venues."

Of MICE and meetings

• Conventions and Incentives New Zealand (CINZ) is the official, membership-based association of New Zealand's conference and business travel industry with more than 380 members across a broad range of sectors.
• The eight key New Zealand conference destinations are Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin.
• MICE - an acronym for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (or Events), usually group tourism dedicated to planning, booking and facilitating conferences, seminars and other events.
• Conferences are shifting from multi-day affairs to shorter, sharper events with the focus on experience and engagement.
• CINZ Meetings in June is New Zealand's only national business tourism event. It brings together buyers and sellers of conference and incentive travel products and services to grow business opportunities and share knowledge and ideas.