The AIMS Games could be described as the pinnacle of many New Zealand intermediate-aged children's sporting careers. But it is not only the young athletes that benefit from the event. With thousands of the contestants and their families flooding Tauranga city, the local economy gets a welcome spike. Reporters Kiri Gillespie and Caroline Fleming spoke to sector and community leaders to see what they are expecting for the biggest games yet.
Millions of dollars are expected to be pumped into the Tauranga economy over the next few weeks as the city braces for the biggest Anchor AIMS Games yet.
The annual tournament will run from September 8 to 13. More than 11,500 athletes will come from 369 schools, from all over New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji.
Last year, 10,800 athletes from 320 schools took part.
Anchor AIMS Games tournament director Vicki Semple said things had "really started to ramp up over the last month or so".
She said it was easily the "biggest AIMS Games yet".
The event began in 2004 as a four-sport contest between Tauranga, Ōtumoetai, Mount Maunganui and Te Puke Intermediate schools.
Within a few years, it mushroomed to become a national must for most schools and in recent years it has included students from overseas.
"When we first started in 2004, we could've held the code coordinator meeting in a phone booth! This year, we needed KPMG's biggest business boardroom and even then, we needed to bring in extra chairs," Semple said.
After 16 years, the growth of the event has been reflected in a surge of help from the Tauranga community.
"People are so warm and giving; they cheerfully put up with extra traffic and the massive influx of visitors and each year, more and more people are offering to billet or give up their homes to host competing schools."
The event has also gone "paper-free", which had been a game-changer for the annual event, she said
Tauranga City Council general manager of community services Gareth Wallis said the growth in the number of people taking part in the games was reflected in visitor expenditure.
In the latest AIMS Games economic impact report from 2016, the event generated more than 47 thousand visitors nights and added $3 million to the local economy through accommodation, food and beverage and retail shopping. And the figure was only expected to grow more.
This year, the event received $74,000 plus GST from the council in operational funding. This was $14,000 more than in 2017 and nearly $10,000 more than last year.
Hospitality New Zealand accommodation sector Bay of Plenty chairman Tony Bullot said the event was the "biggest week of the year" for many accommodation providers.
A high number of motels and hotels were already booked out by schools and families, however, there was still the odd room available, he said.
The unpredictability made it difficult for some providers as teams would be forced to pull their entire accommodation if they failed to qualify for the event, he said.
Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Matt Cowley said the AIMS Games brought "great pride" to the city's business owners.
Cowley said the event also helped shape people's perceptions of Tauranga "that perhaps the city has changed".
"The old cliches are no longer true, of it being a sleepy little town. We are a growing, vibrant city," he said.
"We are very thankful the organisers are incredibly loyal and want to stay here. And we are very lucky that they want to keep it here."
Hospitality New Zealand regional manager Alan Sciascia said the games had grown strength-by-strength over the years and the hospitality industry had reaped the awards.
Some schools had already booked out some restaurants for the week, he said.
Tauranga Intermediate principal Cameron Mitchell said his school had 370 students involved in every sport code in the event.
The pupils had been training hard and were excited, he said.
The school was providing extensive accommodation for a number of schools, with an intermediate from Christchurch being billeted with students and intermediates from Gisborne and Wellington staying on site.
In the lead-up to the games, the school was being treated to a visit from Jemma and Richie McCaw on Friday to discuss mental preparations.
Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless said AIMS Games brought people from all over the country and Pacific to Tauranga which brought a certain buzz to town.
"It also brings young people and older people together. Some of them stay with folks who board them in retirement villages. They just love it. I think it's fantastic."
"It's wonderful to see something you've supported grow into such an important event."
Western Bay of Plenty Mayor Gary Webber said the games put "Tauranga on the map" and allowed upcoming athletes to shine.
The Western Bay community had embraced and supported them all and the city did a great job at accommodating so many people, he said.
Both councils have co-funded a free park and ride bus service between the main AIMS Games venues for all people, he said.