Christchurch airport spreads its wings past passengers and planes
In a Shanghai hotel function room under a glittering forest of crystal chandeliers, smart young Mandarin-speaking tourism marketers talk up the South Island.
Yesterday it was Beijing, tomorrow it will be Guangzhou.
Christchurch International Airport's Kia Ora South event is doing its annual swing through China wowing 500-plus travel sellers with glorious scenic images and rousing kapa haka performances.
West Coast Wildlife Centre owner Richard Benton was there pushing a new tuatara attraction at his Franz Josef live kiwi exhibit and chick hatchery, grateful for a $25,000 grant from the airport and mentoring to help him break into the China market.
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Benton is confident that assistance will significantly increase his Chinese customers, even if managing their photo-op expectations proves a challenge.
"People pay hundreds of dollars to go to China to touch and be photographed with a panda, but we're not permitted to do that, mainly because our kiwi go back into the wild and we don't want them to become tame."
Kiwi v panda
Airport chief executive Malcolm Johns also uses the bird and bear comparison in relation to securing direct Guangzhou-Christchurch flights by China Southern, the world's fourth biggest airline.
"If you think of a kiwi and a panda standing next to each other, there's a huge size differential and that's the reality of the China market for us.
"We're the 271st largest destination they fly to out of about 280."
The South campaign is part of the airport's $5 million annual spend on tourism development with a focus on Australia – still our largest market – and Asia.
The formal marketing alliance includes all 13 South Island regional tourism organisations, key players such as Ngai Tahu, Skyline and Real Journeys, and Tourism New Zealand.
One of its aims is a more even spread of visitors who since the earthquakes have increasingly been funnelled through Auckland and Queenstown.
Johns says the upshot is tourists are visiting fewer regions than they were a decade ago and that's a real concern.
Statistics show an international visitor who flies into Auckland will spend just 1.5 days in the South Island, compared with 7.5 days if they fly direct into Christchurch, which is why the growing China connection is so important.
Although the city's 511,185 total international arrivals for the year to June were still below pre-earthquake levels, things are improving, and Christchurch is now the fastest growing entry point for Chinese visitor arrivals into New Zealand.
Johns says it's also significant that about a third of the 44,000 China Southern seats into Christchurch last year were non-Chinese passengers en route from places like the US and Europe.
Wooing the Chinese
Winning the direct service took five years of carefully cultivating relationships, and the tipping point was a joint venture with top Chinese travel agency GZL which offered South Island packages and established the demand for flights to Christchurch.
But Johns says mayor Lianne Dalziel's trips to China, two of which the airport paid for, helped clinch the airline deal.
As an aside, he worries the city is failing to capitalise on Chinese interest in investing here by penny-pinching on official travel to the region.
"If the [mayoral face] is not presented regularly, then it's taken in quite a negative way.
"Here in New Zealand business can operate at arms length to politics, but in China if the politics doesn't go first, the business never follows."
When it comes to political issues Johns, a former member of the Tourism New Zealand board, is not afraid to stick his neck out.
Along with the chief executives of Air New Zealand, Auckland Airport, and Tourism Holdings Limited (our largest campervan rental company) he commissioned a report on ways to fund much-needed tourism infrastructure.
He is satisfied it generated debate, even if the Government did not adopt their call to raise $130m a year through a $5 increase in the departure levy, and a 2 per cent national bed tax.
Holding hands on tourism
For six and a half years post-quake Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism enjoyed rent free accommodation at the airport's corporate offices.
Johns says the strong relationship will continue following CCT's rebirth as ChristchurchNZ, the city council's new tourism, events and economic development body.
The two will have different approaches with the airport concentrating on an arc from Tokyo to Melbourne, and ChristchurchNZ looking after areas like North America.
"The city will invest in where the visitors come from, we'll invest in where the planes come from."
Major events are often touted as a way of boosting domestic tourism and Johns doesn't rule out putting his hand in his pocket.
Last year the airport contributed $50,000 to the Penrith Panthers versus Warriors rugby league game, which gave them access to the Panthers fan database to market self drive tour packages.
"We did it because we could create an example of the private sector running a successful event."
However, financing new city visitor attractions is not on the cards, despite the airport's purchase and later sale (at no gain or loss) of the Antarctic Centre to ensure it survived the immediate post-quake slump.
But Johns would welcome investors prepared to build "visitor services", a cinema for example, in the airport's Kitty Hawk Park to the east of the Antarctic Centre.
Property investment sitting pretty
The airport's financial strategy released in 2014 had the lofty ambition of creating 10,000 new jobs and adding $1 billion in new gross domestic product by 2025.
Since then the annual dividend paid to shareholders (the council and the Crown) has jumped from $7.6m to $33.4m on the back of the tourism boom.
About 20 per cent of revenue comes from development of the airport's extensive Harewood campus, home to 240 businesses employing 6000 people.
But dabbling in development has seen the airport company cop flak for investing $90 million in close to 500 hotel and backpacker beds.
Central city businesss argued that, unlike Auckland where the airport company owns a stake in an on-site hotel, the Christchurch CBD is a mere 15 minute car ride away, and building accommodation close to the passenger terminal just encouraged visitors to "fly in and flee."
Johns is unrepentant. He says the investment was a direct response to feedback from international carriers who were reluctant to commit to Christchurch because of the lack of accommodation at that time, and in its first year the Emirates A380 service will bring 20,000 visitors.
Moreover, since the earthquakes, the city council and the airport had done the "heavy lifting," jointly spending something like $38m promoting the city.
"The primary beneficiaries of that are central city landlords and businesses. The private sector has spent zip," Johns says.
As for the airport's other property ventures, the Mustang Park rental car precinct is almost full and on Thursday Mainfreight officially opened its new superhub at Dakota Park.
Johns says they are actively seeking an anchor tenant for the proposed Harvard Park trade retail area instead of "just waiting for someone to knock on the door."
And work is underway on a new masterplan laying out development for the next 30 years.
Open sesame on a digital future
New technology will feature large in the plan.
The airport is trialling a driver-less electric shuttle and improving the current parking scramble is high on Johns' list.
"If you were driving to the airport and had prebooked parking, we'd be able to inform you before you left home which car park we'd reserved for you, how long the security queues were likely to be at the time, and give you information you need about your flight at both ends.
"Angry people don't spend money so the more we can keep people relaxed and make their journey smooth, they more chance we have of lifting retail sales to them."
The airport's most recent digital initiative involves Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and a programme to get more South Island tourism businesses to using the Alipay online payment system.
The airport is also spending $100,000 setting up a store on the TMall Global website available to South Island companies, and eventually North Island ones.
Chinese will be able to keep buying products they discovered holidaying here, and all those parcels will help fill the cargo bellies of passenger aircraft headed to China.
The data generated by Alibaba will provide real time information about what visitors are doing, where they are going and what they are buying; much better says Johns than waiting six months for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to publish their historic figures.
"You can sit back and just push the photocopier button on your existing business, and every time you make a copy the outcome will be a bit more faded than the one before.
"We're open to trying new things in the technology area."
The writer travelled to China courtesy of Christchurch International Airport.