Rotorua is cashing in on booming conference and corporate event markets - with the sector busier now than pre-Covid-19.
It's a welcome boost after the industry was devastated by lockdowns that abruptly halted conferences and meetings.
As bookings were crossed off calendars, those making a living from the sector wondered if they'd ever get the business back.
However, Rotorua Lakes Council's venues say bookings this year are already 15 per cent higher than in 2019 — and next year is looking even busier.
Hotels and other non-council venues were also reporting a boom.
Rotorua's popularity is due to businesses not being able to travel overseas for conferences and incentive trips, and a lack of conference facilities in other main centres.
The increase in bookings was also due to cancelled bookings from last year being re-booked on top of events already planned in 2021.
Council business events and Energy Events Centre manager Joelene Elliott said the business events sector contributed about $50m to Rotorua's economy each year, of which the Energy Events Centre contributed more than $15m.
Elliott said there were currently 22 conferences booked at the Energy Events Centre for 2021, which would host more than 12,000 delegates this year - up 15 per cent on 2019 numbers.
Nine of these conferences would host more than 500 delegates and three would have more than 1000 delegates each. Next year's bookings were looking to be more than 2021, she said.
"We are, of course, in discussion with a number of other conference organisers and we look forward to confirming and welcoming even more conferences to Rotorua in 2022."
Elliott said the reasons for Rotorua's boost were varied but cancelled bookings from last year moving to this year was a factor.
"Secondly, there is a limited supply of conference infrastructure around New Zealand at the moment and Rotorua is well-known for the quality experience it offers for business events. Finally, with limited outbound travel possible, businesses that may have historically chosen to hold their events offshore are now staying in New Zealand."
When asked if there were difficulties finding accommodation for the delegates given Rotorua now had three Managed Isolation and Quarantine hotels and more than 40 motels housing emergency housing clients, Elliot said that was a concern.
"What we tend to see is that the majority of business events travel is during the week so it helps to balance out the domestic preference for weekend leisure travel."
Novotel and ibis Rotorua Lakeside conference sales manager Vanessa Price said business events from all over the country had increased in the last six months.
"Companies still need and want to conference. We are fortunate that our country can."
She said the challenge was the short lead-in times and finding accommodation for all delegates.
"The balancing act of our business events, school holiday demands, domestic and international tourism are all factors that are increasing by the day."
"It is very important for our hospitality industry to rebuild. This is a critical industry to our city. The economic impact affects us all in one way or another."
Five years ago, the hotels committed to only employing locals.
"We had a strategy to continue a diverse workforce that wanted to make the Bay of Plenty their long-term home. This has now worked in our favour as we have retained staff."
The challenge now was finding more staff, she said, a struggle all hospitality businesses were facing.
"We are employing as fast as we can. Experience is not always necessary, as we are aware that there have been so many changes for people in their lives."
Event Impressions director Jacqui Alexander said there were very few industries affected by the lockdowns in such a dramatic way as the business events industry.
"It is amazing to see the heartbeat of business events once again warming up our Rotorua venues. For us, that means we too rejoin the working world.
"This year has seen incredible growth for our business, with an almost standing start. We have moments when we pinch ourselves as we see our efforts in 2020 rewarded with clients returning, new business inquiries and work from here to Auckland keeping us on our toes."
She said the team had relished returning to work with their colleagues in the hotels and event centres.
"There is still a way to go statistically to be back to pre-Covid19 demand, but the signs are all excellent. When the vaccinations kick in we are looking at a really positive future."
She said if Rotorua wanted to keep up with demand and continue to be a leader, the city needed to look at the event infrastructure.
"The onset of Te Pae Convention Centre in Christchurch opening in 2022, followed by a new convention centre in Wellington thereafter, then the opening of the New Zealand International Conference Centre in Auckland will see a natural pull by business events. Rotorua should not rest but be investing today in dedicated conference facilities to compete."
Craig Murray from Instinsic Events said with the number of events on his books, he was able to fufill his dream of running his own company full-time this year. Previously he was also the business events manager for Rotorua Economic Development.
Murray said the hold up in Christchurch's Te Pae conference centre opening had worked in Rotorua's favour as well as all the new business that was cropping up from cancelled events last year.
"The beauty of business events is that there are winter and mid-week bookings. Everyone is busy, from AV companies, production agencies to musicians. Businesses are also realising they have to do something for their staff and they are hitting the go button. The shorter lead-in times might become the new normal."