Promoting post-quake Chch across the ditch

TIM HUNTER AT THE ARTS CENTRE: There is no doubt the earthquakes have materially changed our tourism proposition in the inner city.
TIM HUNTER AT THE ARTS CENTRE: There is no doubt the earthquakes have materially changed our tourism proposition in the inner city.

As a new campaign gets under way to lure Australians back to post-quake Christchurch, Tim Hunter explains why it is important to market the region to visitors.

Over the past month or so there has been considerable debate about the merits of marketing Christchurch as a visitor destination to potential international and domestic visitors. The naysayers feel that Christchurch is too broken, but our tourism sector, who have suffered substantial economic losses, just want their livelihoods back. In the past year Christchurch City has attracted 55 per cent fewer international visitors staying overnight than in the pre-quake period of 2009-10.

Marketing is seldom effective unless two basic requirements are met. The first is that the marketing proposition must be plausible and honest; the second is that the experience must meet customer expectations.

Until now, Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism have taken the view that we should go light on pushing Christchurch as a destination until we could be sure the visitor proposition was acceptable.

Last year we worked on keeping visitor flows strong into Canterbury with a strong communication strategy that focused on "South Island Road Trips" being some of the best in the world. Our primary goal was to keep the traditionally strong leisure market from Australia visiting our region. Christchurch was commonly benefiting as an overnight stop in these itineraries, but was not pitched as the centre of the proposition.

So what has changed? Recent research tells us there are particular traveller sectors who are enjoying their Christchurch experience and have high interest in what has occurred here. Lonely Planet writers exposed this fact earlier this year, and since then the visitor reaction to the city's bold attempt to recreate retail, hospitality and innovative art and entertainment like Gap Filler and the Art Gallery's Outer Spaces has really captured the imagination of independent travellers.

In the background is the fact that nature is still delivering us a glorious garden city and all but a few of our large commercial tourism activity operators are operational again. As luck might have it, the majority of our bigger tourism businesses do not operate in the CBD and the day trips that can be taken from Christchurch are still very popular.

There is no doubt the earthquakes have materially changed our tourism proposition in the inner city. Whilst we still have the natural assets of the Avon River and Botanic Gardens (the most visited of all city attractions pre-earthquake), it will be many years before visitors can again muse their way around the Arts Centre or enjoy a new-look Cathedral Square.

The challenge now is to offer a range of different experiences that are not just a substitute for what we had, but are relevant to the altered and scarred inner-city environment.

What the post-earthquake visitor perception research is telling us is that visitors are not just intrigued by a city that can function without a CBD but they want to hear the human side of the earthquake events and our recovery story.

Let us not be defined by perfection but by genuine human interest. Hence the recent resurgence in demand for city sightseeing tours, many of which are now getting excellent customer feedback because of the richness of narration on a city that is in a constant transition.

Add this to the fact that visitors still think our natural garden city is magnificent, and the end result is that for many incoming visitors a day or two in Christchurch actually works.

The "pop-up" bars and the Restart Mall also add new elements of interest and define a city of people determined to get their lives back. It might not fit the "heritage" or "English" dominated proposition of the past, but it is certainly interesting. We are not trying to market Christchurch as it was. That is simply not possible any more.

Those who claim that there is nowhere to stay need to consider we have just on 8600 beds available across the city to visitors in more than 270 commercial accommodation outlets. The real challenge is not a shortage, but more about not having the right mix of accommodation categories.

The demand pressure is fundamentally focused on hotel and backpacker accommodation. But relief is in sight over the next 12 months with the Ibis Hotel reopened, three other existing hotels under repair, and the Latimer Hotel (our first complete new hotel build) under construction.

We are now seeing encouraging market signals that more international visitors are prepared to include Christchurch in their New Zealand experience. In the last quarter, 10 of our top 15 country markets have demonstrated consistent arrival growth into Christchurch compared to last year.

The one market that has not been demonstrating recovery is our largest market, Australia, where the perception of Christchurch as a broken city has prevailed. The sensational reporting of aftershock activity has been the major cause of the "stay away" factor.

After 18 months of watching our share of Australian arrivals erode, we have now responded with a marketing initiative to re-image Christchurch with real-time images posted by visitors. It is essential that we show Australians what is currently being enjoyed by holiday travellers in Christchurch.

Some 111,000 of these holiday travellers visited here in the last year; that's over 2000 per week. We know from the Australians who have shared their travel insights with us that while they are sad about what has happened here, they leave well satisfied and particularly appreciate the warmth of the welcome. It is these insights that give us the courage and impetus to start marketing our city once again.

Tim Hunter is chief executive of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism.

The Press