Making all the venues shine out

00:24, Apr 03 2012
Craig Woolliams
Craig Woolliams enjoys a challenge.

Craig Woolliams intended to sit back and enjoy life on his property in the Ruapehu region when his last job finished.

Then he stumbled across a job advertisement he could not resist applying for.

"I wasn't actively looking for a job. I intended to take time out for a while with my wife and family and do some work around the property, but when I looked at this job description, I thought, 'That's me'."

Just months later, he has his feet under his new desk, as Positively Wellington Venues' facilities and operations director.

It's a new position for a new venture, the result of an amalgamation of the Wellington Convention Centre and St James Theatre Trust.

Positively Wellington Venues is in charge of Wellington's six leading venues - St James Theatre, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington Town Hall, Shed 6, TSB Stadium and the Opera House.


Not one to pass up a challenge, the words "new organisation" and "ambitious plans" had Mr Woolliams chomping at the bit.

"I just thrive on challenges. If I don't have lots to build and concentrate on, I get very bored, but this is a huge and exciting opportunity to be part of an exceptional leadership team that is going to ensure that Wellington's top venues are world class."

As his title suggests, facilities and operations director means it is his job to ensure that each of the six venues are in good shape, with top- notch operational support so they can secure events.

"Operations is all the back-of- house stuff, setup, technical expertise, ushers, duty management, and facilities means working with the Wellington City Council, which owns the venues, to make sure the properties are up to standard.

"We've got a lot of building to do as a new organisation. I want to ensure we're delivering a distinctly Wellington experience that our customers aren't able to get anywhere else in the world. We need to be unique and different to anything else out there."

Therein lies Mr Woolliams' challenge. "Wellington has a huge opportunity to get on the global events map. We just have to be very competitive, especially against the increased competition coming from Auckland with its new infrastructure and proposed National Convention Centre. But we have to play to our strengths.

"We have to market to our niche and not try to beat them at their own game, but that's exciting for me. What spins my wheels is building stuff and having the opportunity to influence decisions. It's the perfect role."

His first priority is security and health and safety, ensuring all six venues have good emergency management plans in place should disaster strike. That involves building on the processes already in place to raise the safety bar even higher.

"You never know what's around the corner, especially after Christchurch, but I want to make sure in my own mind that we have good robust processes and systems in place at all venues to manage any emergency event. That way there's synergy across the entire business."

H AVING had more than 30 years in hospitality, tourism and facilities management, Mr Woolliams knows the business of operations inside out.

It's an industry he grew up in. His parents owned Rotorua tourist attraction Hell's Gate, and later Fairy Springs, now Rainbow Springs, and Waimangu Valley.

Even though he spent his school holidays working within those tourist businesses, his father balked at the idea of him entering the hotel industry.

"He'd just spent thousands of dollars on my education - I went to boarding school - and when he asked what I wanted to do, I said to go and run a hotel. He looked at me in horror and said, 'Over my dead body'.

"In those days, though, his perception of hotels was pubs. It's not like today, when people see a future in managing tourist hotels."

Unfazed by his father's response, Mr Woolliams started from the ground up, washing pots and as a waiter in a Rotorua hotel after leaving school.

He obtained a management traineeship with the then Tourist Hotel Corporation, a former state- owned enterprise that ran several hotels throughout the country.

Within five years, he had worked his way through most of the THC- owned hotels and was seconded to manage the remote Milford Sound hotel.

"I was the youngest general manager ever at the time, in my early 20s, but then 30 years ago, there weren't a lot of people looking to get into the tourist hotel business."

From there, Mr Woolliams won a year-long scholarship to Cornell University in the United States, renowned for its hospitality programmes, and then headed off on his OE, getting a management job helping set up a chain of American- themed restaurants, designed around TGI Fridays, in London and central England.

"I got quite involved in venue development and audit, but my biggest interest at the time was computers. I clearly remember reading about Steve Jobs building his first Apple in his garage and I wanted one."

After buying his first computer and creating budgeting spreadsheets on the first Excel programme, he returned to Auckland to work for a technology company that sold and developed systems specifically for the hospitality industry.

"We were one of the first to sell these point-of-sales systems to restaurants through to reception desks. Everything was on big floppy discs in those days, but it was pretty cutting-edge technology back then.

"It was hard work. There was an awful lot of resistance in those days because computers weren't commonplace.

"There wasn't much technology around and they were big money, just like anything else when it first comes out," he said.

Next came the move to Wellington to manage what is now the Mercure Hotel at the top of Willis St.

"During the week, we would have huge occupancies with corporate and government workers here, but occupancy levels at weekends sometimes fell to single figures - 20 per cent was good.

"But then Fran Wilde came along. Initiatives such as allowing cafes to set up tables and chairs on the street, bringing in the temperature gauge from the airport to increase the temperature two degrees, free weekend car parking and marketing campaigns came along, which helped us to lift our occupancy levels to 80 to 90 per cent."

To cater for the overflow, he and his wife bought an adjacent hotel, which they ran for 12 years, before they made a lifestyle choice.

"We had a young family, the kids had bikes they couldn't ride on the footpaths, the business was 24/7, so we ended up buying a property on State Highway 1 near Waiouru and my wife set up a cafe. But it wasn't enough to keep my interest as well, so I went in search of a challenge, and eventually wound up deputy mayor of Ruapehu."

That led to his involvement in the council's regional tourism organisation's 10-year strategic plan. He was also a member of the Ruapehu, Wanganui and Rangitikei Major Regional Initiative (tourism) Strategic Committee.

"I can put hand on heart and say I was very much a part of the move in Ruapehu, Whanganui and Rangitikei to develop a brand regionally, plus locally with Ruapehu, and it went on in 2010 to win a New Zealand tourism award for local government helping visitor industry. That was a highlight."

Mr Woolliams is also proud of his achievements in his last role at Transfield Services, the company previously charged with managing the non-core business of the New Zealand Army's Waiouru Army training facility.

He started out as hospitality manager, but for the past three years has been business manager for the multimillion-dollar business, responsible for the relationship and business development, risk, contract, asset and people management.

"That was my most challenging role to date, and also the most enjoyable. I had 210 staff and we ran a hugely diverse business, looking after everything from weapons, ammunition and roading to catering, the water treatment place and the security of fence lines which ran halfway to Napier."

He is proud of the fact that during his time there, staff attrition rates were reduced to single figures, less than 5 per cent per annum, in what was a difficult and extreme working environment. Financial returns were significantly and consistently ahead of budget too, and the safety culture dramatically improved, with no lost time injuries (LTIs) in 24 months.

"The army is very, very interested in safety, but they have a different value around safety in the field, where they're teaching people for live combat where their lives are at risk, as opposed to industrial needs, where wires might be left across the floor.

"So to change people's behaviours, getting them to continually look for potential hazards in the workplace and report near misses, was very difficult.

"It took a long time to turn them around, but we did eventually by me taking accountability."

Taking in all his experiences thus far, Mr Woolliams believes his biggest lesson is learning from his mistakes.

"When you make a mistake, don't get down on yourself. Instead, fix the broken stuff promptly. Mistakes are how we learn, and how we grow."

The Dominion Post