Council-run events: What is the payoff?

Are council-run events worthwhile?

Last updated 10:00 08/02/2014

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It's almost a fortnight until the Ellerslie International Garden Show opens, and this is a crucial year following consecutive financial losses and criticism. BECK ELEVEN asks whether such events bring ratepayers enough bang for their buck.

The streets were fair buzzing. Not often does Christchurch come alive with such diversity but there they were, in bright uniforms, 1000 athletes taking part in the opening ceremony of the IPC Athletics World Championships. World-class sportspeople with disabilities, their carers and coaches, media and local spectators caught in the hum.

Of course, you'd be forgiven for not remembering what that week was like, because this was in January of 2011. When Oscar Pistorious was better known for being the Blade Runner rather than a possible murderer. And it was before the quake eclipsed Christchurch's ability to attract big things.

In a highly competitive market, cities (even countries) bid to stage events such as these. Events bring in vital tourism dollars, they encourage the building and revamping of amenities and make a city feel exciting. But to bring events in, we must have a landscape that appeals, great venues and the city has to be functional and accessible.

While many events are put on by private companies and promoters, the Christchurch City Council is heavily behind many of the larger ones and supportive (financially and in a practical, mentor-type sense) of smaller ones. The question is, can Christchurch emerge as an event town to be reckoned with as it rebuilds?

The upcoming Ellerslie International Flower Show is on a promise this year. The show was purchased in 2007 by the Sir Bob Parker-led council and its $3 million price tag revealed only in 2009.

Though many considered it a costly outlay, it performed well in its first year, making a profit of $224,000 with about 75,000 visitors, an estimated 40 per cent of whom came from outside the city. Visitor numbers dropped to 55,000 the following year and in 2011 the show was cancelled because of the earthquakes.

Still, both council and organisers were determined to get it back up and running but attendance dropped, and last year the ailing show lost $325,000.There was widespread criticism and a survey showed it met the expectations of only 45 per cent of visitors.

This is crunch year. Changes have been made but if it cannot perform, it might be dropped.

Mayor Lianne Dalziel says the importance of events should never be understated but, as with many other things in this city, it is time for fresh eyes and a full evaluation.

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She says the previous council made the pledge to evaluate the show so even if it were not "duty bound" to look, the council would have done so anyway.

"Very carefully," she says.

Since Dalziel's term began, the council has been taking a close look at its finances and reviewing the way it operates in regards to Christchurch City Holdings Ltd and council-controlled organisations Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism and Canterbury Development Corporation. If it suspects a different business model would work better for the event calendar, changes will be made and the type of business model run by Auckland Council may be used.

Dalziel recognises that change is putting this city on the map.

"If you look at why Christchurch ended up in the top 10 in Lonely Planet and in the New York Times, it wasn't because of the traditional tourist market, it was because of that slightly edgy, younger, quirky interest that the transitional projects are generating."

As a case in point, she refers to the RISE street art exhibition with its "record turnout and outstanding success".

"Taking a punt," is something to be capitalised on, she says.

Richard Stokes is the council's marketing and events unit manager. He says the city's 10-year events strategy, set out for 2007 to 2017, was going full steam until it was derailed by the quakes barely four years into it.

"Now we have to look at what we will have and what's emerging, like the Avon River Park. Cities are for living in, not just existing in. A shared experience is crucial now that we live in front of screens. We want to give people a reason to come here and take a look."

The marketing plan for Christchurch's events anchors on at least one major event per season, so we have Ellerslie, the World Buskers Festival, relative newcomer New Zealand Ice Fest, and the enduringly popular big one for Canterbury - Cup and Show Week.

The most recent festival to grace the city was the Buskers. While 300,000 pairs of eyes take in various shows and make Christchurch a vibrant city, it does not drive economic boom. The February time- slot means tourists are here anyway. They wander the city and watch shows rather than taking advantage of the various sights. Therefore, the i-Site does not hit its monthly target. Tour coaches, the gondola and the like are not as booked as the season would suggest.

It's a catch-22 situation, Stokes says. "They come across the buskers largely by accident and go away singing Christchurch's praises but it does not drive dollars."

Cup and Show Week, on the other hand, is the most successful event. It comes on shoulder season so there are plenty of accommodation options and a council-commissioned economic impact report shows it brought an extra $15.4m to the city. Ellerslie brought in $5.5m. Before the quakes, that figure was an estimated $10m. In 2012, the Golf Open brought an estimated $1.36m and the 2009 Coast to Coast brought $1.4m.

Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter says Cup and Show Week "nourishes the city for eight days on the trot" and draws in a rural crowd plus visitors from Australia and the North Island.

"Ice Fest . . . has pull with a scientific crowd and cements the relationship between the city and the Antarctic programme. It's not a big puller of visitors yet but appropriate for the city."

However, advertising campaigns to lure visitors from other parts of the country are not quite under way.

"In Australia we run ads about Christchurch. Just like Kiwis have seven or eight places they like to choose from in Australia, now we are competing with other Kiwi cities like Queenstown and Auckland for the Australian visitors.

"There was so much negative media after the quakes, the rest of the country is a bit over Christchurch. People might come and spend an extra day to have a look around but we are not yet advertising directly to other centres. Events are important but they have to be powerful enough to convince someone to get on a plane."

Lack of venues is another problem.

Chloe Dear, in the council's events development team, is mostly responsible for bringing events to the central city. A location she rightly says is "not a particularly easy environment" with ever- changing road works, demolitions and the safety regulations that go alongside such things.

But events are taking their toll on Hagley Park, and luring people back to the CBD is important for the rebuild.

"For some people, an event is often the first time they've been back into town instead of giving it a swerve."

The council's latest event plan is called "Ever Evolving Events" and is almost like a pilot season, testing the waters with new and exciting ideas.

"We also like to support the creativity that has come up from Canterbury over the last couple of years.

"This weekend is the Good Night Film Festival and we have Audacious, a festival of sonic art coming up."

But while everyone spoken to by The Press said events were a vital part of city living, there was some criticism that the council, due to its numbers and formal structure, is unwieldy and unable to quickly respond in the way smaller event companies do when problems arise. One source said the environment doesn't attract risk-takers and another said Ellerslie could do with a creative director not so bound to the horticultural industry.

Jo Blair, an event organiser who formerly worked in the council events team, says the seasonal strategy is clever but is due for fine- tuning and more accountability.

"There is a new pulse to the city and the demographic is changing, so events and the direction that they are taking need to reflect that vibrancy.

"In a realistic world, events don't make much money. The industry is famously pressured and you don't make millions, but it is passionate and filled with entrepreneurial people who want to create for a greater good.

"We need to get the big events right to give confidence to our community.

"Ellerslie has been kicked around a fair bit - then we can cluster smaller ones around them.

"Commercial event managers are often motivated by fear of failure so they are incredibly agile.

"Ellerslie still has the greatest potential to succeed, more so now that we are in the new Christchurch. It's even more reason to be agile and cutting- edge."

Other councils across the country employ different business models. Manager of the Wellington City Council's business development events team, Jamie Delich, says it runs a "mixed model" where some money for larger events, such as the sevens, comes from central city businesses - a targeted rate known as the "downtown levy". If the hospitality, accommodation and retail businesses profit from such large events, it makes sense they pay for it.

"It works well for us and we don't have a big war chest like Auckland but I think we punch above our weight when it comes to events."

Auckland Council operates differently again, with a separate corporate entity tying events and economic development together. ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development), is a council- controlled business.

Chief executive Brett O'Riley says the structure makes sense because it allows them to leverage every possible angle and show measurable economic return. They have a bidding team, a feasibility team, production and delivery teams.

"For every dollar the council invests, we try for a dollar from the private sector, we invest it and partner with other sponsors and other players. With our model we have everything under one roof, so we work hard but it's easy."

But despite the vast size difference, O'Riley is confident Christchurch can emerge as a competitor if it plays its cards right. "Canterbury has a great opportunity to have a fresh look.

"Decide what sort of events it should go for and purpose-design facilities upfront, it's far better than retro-fitting. It's got great geography going for it, so you need to decide its attributes and leverage as hard as you can. You've got the Port Hills, the rivers. It could be ideal."

Like any other industry, event management seems to develop its own lingo, so there is talk of brand potential, net visitation and methodologies around surveying events.

Essentially ATEED wants to know, not guess, how many extra international or domestic visitors have come to the city for a particular event and how much money they and the sponsors spend.

They want to know people are talking about and positively reporting on the city and what tangible assets each event might leave behind.

For example, when Auckland won the bid to host the V8 street car races, the Pukekohe raceway was upgraded. They have state-of- the-art training and athletic fitness facilities and they have recently secured their largest event, the World Masters Games in 2017.

"There are niches, we have found ours is the ability to give good access to the central city.

"The Iron Man event allowed access over the harbour bridge which went down well with the athletes and certainly would have looked impressive as it was filmed.

"You need to look at what you add for athletes or for the touring band.

"A lot of the events market is about hard cash but so much of it is the intangibles. What special facilities can you find for top-class athletes to train in? What can you show them of the city while they're not playing or performing?

"People have a lot of choices about what they are going to do with their discretionary spending money. You have to be consistent but consistently changing. Doing the same old thing doesn't cut it these days."

The Christchurch City Council events team produces:

Summertimes - New Year's Eve, Classical Sparks, Kite Day, Lazy Sundays, Sunday Bandstand, Summer Theatre

KidsFest

Guy Fawkes Fireworks

FrenchFest

New Zealand Ice Fest

Ever-evolving events programme - providing support to events such as Open Streets, Kids in Town and Audacious Sonic Arts to make these happen in the central city.

Marketing and promotion of New Zealand Cup and Show Week.

Other events to receive council funding in 2013 were:

World Buskers Festival

Christchurch Arts Festival

Canterbury A&P Show

Diwali

Christchurch Writers' Festival

Christmas in the Park

Santa Parade

Carols by Candlelight

Chinese Lantern Festival

Festival of Flowers

Coast to Coast

Japan Day

Le Race

The Body Festival

NZ International Jazz and Blues Festival

Christchurch marathon

Lyttelton Festival of Lights

Cultural Festival

SCAPE

TEDx Christchurch

Big Band Festival

FESTA

NZ Women's Golf Open

Tri Series

Elite Road National Cycling Championship

Ocean Swim Series

International Athletics Track meet

World Bowls Champion of Champions

National Schools Triathlon

International Masters Rugby League.

Many other local or community events receive council support through community grants.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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