Keith Newman suggests Hawke’s Bay needs more than rural charm, earthquake and art deco memories and the perpetual clink of wine glasses to ensure its fragmented tourism industry remains robust and relevant.

Hawke’s Bay’s half billion dollar tourism industry is at a critical crossroads as HB Tourism prepares to negotiate the next stage of a plan to reframe the region as a go-ahead, year-round destination in the face of parochial patch protection that accentuates the twin city divide.

While vineyard concerts, award-winning food and wine and 200km of cycle track have helped dispel the stigma of the Bay as a backwater, the exorbitant cost of flights and an anarchic approach to regional events and marketing are seen as impediments to visitor growth.

97,000 cruise ship passengers visit Hawke’s Bay

The bottom line is the Bay needs more visitors to stay longer and dig deeper, simply to break the five year accommodation drought and ensure smaller tourism and hospitality businesses survive despite increasing rents and rates, and the long cold shoulder when peak activity plummets.

While tourism has been in “a nasty slump”, HB Tourism general manager Annie Dundas, says international and domestic activity is on the move again and commercial and household surveys suggest spending is up, particularly as more mature visitors arrive with deeper pockets.

The challenge is to improve offerings at every level. “Every region in New Zealand is getting good at this stuff so we’ve got to get ahead of the game and keep things fresh and new,” says Dundas.

Over a million visitors came to Hawke’s Bay in the year ended May; 80% of them domestic, mostly from Auckland, Wellington, Taupö, Manawatu and Bay of Plenty, staying an average of just over three nights.

Earlier this year, assuming an average spend of $120 a day, local economist Sean Bevan estimated tourism delivered about $433 million or about 7% of local GDP, although new credit card data suggests it’s much more than that.

Associate Tourism minister Chris Tremain, reckons visitor spending increased from $479 million to $557 million between March 2009 and 2012. When 2013 numbers are released it may look even brighter.

To some, Napier is the poster child for Hawke’s Bay. And a concerted effort over the past decade to promote the territory from Waipukurau to Wairoa has been met with claims that this is diluting the destination message.

That argument is in full swing as Napier City Council hedges its bets, backing HB Tourism’s regional mandate while celebrating cruise ship success, presiding over the most significant refresh of its tourist assets in decades, and hiring an events manager.

Ship to shore satisfaction

Cruise New Zealand’s satisfaction ratings in September gave Napier 9/10; the top go-ashore destination ahead of Tauranga, Akaroa and the Bay of Islands.

Nearly half the 211,400 passengers visiting New Zealand got off at Napier, 97,000 of them spending an estimated $22.2 million in Hawke’s Bay. Cruise ship visitor numbers are up 400% since the 2004/5 season; fewer ships are expected this season but some will be bigger.

Prior to 1985 when the Art Deco Trust took the helm, Napier’s post-quake architecture was considered outdated. The Trust, believing this highest concentration of art deco buildings in the southern hemisphere was worth celebrating, created the annual February Art Deco Weekend.

Annie Dundas, Hawke’s Bay Tourism

There’s been rapid growth since 2006 and last year more than 30,000 people attended events, including the public parading of hundreds of vintage vehicles, aerial displays, concerts, and the Great Gatsby Picnic. Art Deco Week now adds around $11 million to the local economy.

In October the Government stumped up $530,000 to help raise the international profile of the 2014 and 2015 events, matched by Napier City Council in the hope of doubling international visitors to around 6,000.

Marine Parade make-over

Meanwhile the old Marineland site, where young families came in droves to see the dolphins perform in Napier’s holiday haven heyday, has a new designation as a glorified skate and scooter park with climbing wall, basketball court and other facilities.

The marine life has long gone, mostly relegated to the exemplary National Aquarium further along the coastal tourism strip. The $3.5 million makeover, scheduled for completion in 2015, will complement a tiered outdoor amphitheater and a passive Pania of the Reef themed recreation area.

It’s part of the wider redevelopment of the iconic Marine Parade, including a wave park north of Ocean Spa and walk-through shopping and the newly re-opened $18 million Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery (HBMTG) replacing the old museum which was at the centre of the city’s cultural life for around 150 years.

While everyone’s proud of HBMTG and the plans for Marine Parade, Shaun Lines, director of PR and events company Grow, suggests it’s simply a catch up rather than an answer to Hawke’s Bay’s tourism dilemma.

“We’re not providing a new experience, it’s just that it was so bad before. It’s like having a new supermarket that showcases things better … and the Marine Parade development is not going to see people coming in their droves.”

Regional rebranding

While Napier continues to memorialise the devastating 7.8 earthquake and the architectural achievements of the Great Depression, the region is struggling to tell a broader story that embraces vineyards, orchards, cuisine, art, cycling, scenery, beaches, events, sports and lifestyle.

The regional approach, under the aegis of Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC), had its genesis in the late 1990s with Vision 20/20 which morphed into Hawke’s Bay Inc and then Venture Hawke’s Bay.

As these efforts became increasingly tangled in bureaucracy, failing to communicate effectively with the business and tourism sectors, they blew budgets and bled cash – your cash, the $15 annual HBRC ratepayer tourism levy.

After Venture Hawke’s Bay, HBRC expressed doubts about its involvement in tourism until Sileni’s catering company owner Sam Orton, formed the Hawke’s Bay Tourism Industry Association (HBTIA). In July 2011 he enticed two former Tourism New Zealand (TNZ) executives to head up Hawke’s Bay Tourism as the new nonprofit Regional Tourism Organisation (RTO).

George Hickton, after a decade as chief executive of TNZ, became chairman and Annie Dundas, previously responsible for TNZ marketing to the global travel trade, became general manager.

With just enough budget to employ five people and gather the broken threads of past efforts, HB Tourism took on the daunting challenge to “promote and co-ordinate opportunities for economic growth and prosperity for the visitor industry in Hawke’s Bay”.

HB Tourism was signed up for a three year HBRC contract with an annual budget of $850,000 and around $160,000 from the industry.

In the rebranding the ‘Wine Country’ wording was removed from the decade old logo, with the deco sun rays now shining over ‘Hawke’s Bay’.

Food and wine connection

In season there’s no shortage of events showcasing the best the Bay has to offer; including at least 20 of the region’s 70 vineyards featuring some form of live entertainment.

Mission Estate, which pioneered vineyard concerts, attracts up 25,000 people in a good year, a high percentage from out of town.

Model of Te Mata Peak Visitor and Education Centre

While there’s growing competition, the seasonal challenge is to book the right mix of swan song artists to appeal to baby boomers and contemporary Kiwi acts to shine at Black Barn and other venues.

A clear statement of regional connectivity is made through the HBRC and the Rotary Pathways Trust cycling and walking tracks that effectively link suburbs, parks, rural areas and coastal villages.

The pathways have proven a real hit for locals and visitors getting fit, sightseeing and sampling food and wine and breaking down artificial geographical boundaries.

Although the 15-year-old Harvest Hawke’s Bay Food and Wine Festival was canned in 2012, HB Tourism moved quickly to create an alternative; the Food and Wine Classic (FAWC!) debuted in November 2012.

Early critics said it was too highbrow and costly; a dozen of the 58 events were cancelled through lack of sales. HB Tourism claims 4,000 tickets were sold; about 30% to out-of-towners, bringing in about half a million dollars.

A winter reprise in June attracted 1,500 ticket sales for 30 events and FAWC is now promoted internationally by Tourism NZ to showcase the region’s cuisine, with strong demand for the November 2013 event.

The Easter Big Easy 43 kilometer cycle trail around the sights and tourist traps attracted ‘hundreds’ of participants and has also become a calendar event.

Destination division

Despite the hoopla, Napier Tourism Association spokesperson David George, claims regional tourism is a failed experiment that has cost Napier and the region about $200 million over the past decade.

He wants to see Napier restored to centre stage as the traditional boutique destination it was before regional branding messed with its mojo.

Based on his MBA studies on destination tourism in 2009, he asserts the biggest damage has been to domestic tourism, as evidenced by a slump in commercial accommodation nights and family groups staying in holiday parks.

Destinations, he says, are defined by history. “It’s where people naturally gravitate and where accommodation and supporting commercial clusters spring up”…like Napier which has 70% of the beds.

He insists Taupö, Queenstown, Paris and London are the destinations not Waikato, Otago, South East London or France. “Hawke’s Bay has never been a tourist destination, it’s an agricultural region.”

George says Napier City Council needs to divorce itself from Hawke’s Bay branding, withdraw from HB Tourism and set up its own Regional Tourism Organisation (RTO), like Queenstown. “Regional branding is killing Napier as a destination.”

Havelock House proprietor Diana Arnold also favours Napier as the hub destination because it’s better known internationally and ultimately everyone benefits. She says Hawke’s Bay has many faces and a regional tourism approach has to “please too many pipers”, risking the message being diluted.

However, Tim Carthew, Hastings District Council communications and marketing manager, believes a Napier-only approach is flawed, presenting a narrow view of the world that doesn’t serve the region well.

A weekend cycling on the Hawke’s Bay trails, the wineries and beaches or a family visit to Splash Planet might be equally appealing as an art deco experience.

Napier tourism spokesman David George

He says visitors tend to consume one experience and move on to the next. “When we have been dealt a relatively good tourism hand in terms of the experiences we can offer, why would we focus on just playing one card?”

A holiday in Hawke’s Bay or “a weekend in the Bay” is part of the Kiwi vernacular, says Carthew. “By marketing ourselves as ‘Hawke’s Bay’ we are already talking a language that people understand and relate to.”

Pulling together

Annie Dundas gets frustrated with those who prefer to do their own thing. “There’s no iron curtain between Hastings and Napier. This sense of division is a local issue that gets in the way of presenting the region — visitors don’t care; they’ll go where they’ve had the best experience.”

While art deco is clearly a major drawcard for international tourists, Dundas says we have to be smarter about how we talk to domestic visitors who’ve been here before. “We need a bucket of things to talk about”.

“The travel sellers who put together itineraries, including those from the US, talk about the diversity of experiences we provide across the region which makes it worthwhile for their clients to stay for three nights,” says Dundas.

And that’s before HB Tourism’s nascent promotional efforts have even touched on the walks and scenic wonders of lakes Tutira and Waikaremoana or Wairoa and Mahia along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Talk about Napier forming its own group is isolationist, says Dundas. “I think they’d lose momentum if they’re not part of the regional strategy. We work well with the Napier Council, which runs a lot of attractions and we’ll look to do that better.”

Horses for courses

Things have come a long way since 2010, when Hastings openly admitted it lacked a strong, positive identity as a visitor destination and hoped to do better under its new ‘Heart of Hawke’s Bay’ branding.

Three years later the city seems to have happily embraced the regional marketing approach, although it doesn’t actually contribute to HB Tourism’s running costs.

It partners on projects such as the Big Easy cycle event, FAWC and the “Get me to Hawke’s Bay” campaign; contributing $26,500 in the 2012-13 year and by October, $9,000 for the current year, although there’s talk of Hastings raising a separate tourism levy for its own promotional, sports and tourism efforts.

Apart from the Opera House, art gallery, the Farmers’ Market, Splash Planet, the annual Blossom Festival, beaches, parks and reserves, and wineries, much of Hasting’s ‘tourism’ focus is sports-related.

Horse of the Year in mid-March brings in $12 million; the new Sports Park can host international events and the soon-to-be-completed hockey park has already scored the 10-year, eight nations international women’s hockey tournament starting in April 2014.

Peak performance

Much of the attraction in Hastings territory is on the eastern side of Havelock North, the boutique village boasting Keirunga Gardens and art centre, Birdwood Gallery and Arataki Honey Visitor Centre among its assets.

The village is on the foothills of the ‘sleeping giant’ Te Mata Peak offering panoramic views across Hawke’s Bay from its towering 399 metres. It’s surrounded by a 90 hectare park featuring native bush, rare flora and fauna and a Giant Redwood forest, and attracts around 200,000 visitors annually.

The proposed $4 million Te Mata Park Visitor and Education Centre at the main gates will further capitalise on this location.

In October the Hastings council approved a new hotel and retail operation for Havelock North and transformed the old Visitor Information Centre into a fully staffed i-Site.

Diana Arnold, involved with the English Tourism Board in a previous life, applauds Hastings for taking over the centre, which under private ownership was often closed. Locals see this as an affirmation of Havelock North as the gateway to Waimarama and Ocean Beach and some of the region’s top wineries and restaurants, including Black Barn, Te Mata Estate and Craggy Range.

Arnold wonders how HB Tourism plans to communicate with Havelock North, Taradale, the Cape Coast and other areas to ensure they have the right representation for their distinctive contributions. “Will there be a tourism officer responsible for this?”

A sharp turn left after the Red Bridge takes you along the winding road, hugging the Tukituki River to the eclectic and artistic Cape Coast community embracing Haumoana, Te Awanga and Clifton where Elephant Hill, Clearview wineries and restaurants and the historic Clifton Station and Café are located, along with the region’s most popular natural attraction.

The largest inland gannet colony in the world at Cape Kidnappers draws about 10,000 visitors a year; 70% from offshore, and hosts one of the world’s top golf courses and the five star lodge and restaurant, The Farm.

Pulling together

The theme of HB Tourism’s September conference and awards, ‘Let’s Talk Teamwork’, resonated with the subsequent National Tourism Conference in Wellington, which also focused on collaboration.

Dundas says the major tourism groups now have a national strategy for tourism and want the regions to reflect that. She’s hoping local councils will engage more actively with HB Tourism. “We need to share our marketing plans and present ourselves consistently.”

However, Shaun Lines at Grow claims it’s become too costly to host national business tourism events, trade shows and conferences in Hawke’s Bay.

“We ran a national not-for-profit event in Napier about three years ago and were told by people in Dunedin that it would have been half the cost if we ran it on the Gold Coast.”

Lines says getting people to the Bay has become uncompetitive, as has the cost of accommodation. Bed and breakfast at the 5-star Stamford Plaza in Auckland costs $135, but he says, you’d be lucky to get a night in a Hawke’s Bay motel for that.

Cost of belonging

In September, HB Tourism showered accolades on regional tourism pioneers and achievers, mostly those who’ve pushed the wine country and regional branding over the past decade.

David George and others spoken to by BayBuzz suggest it’s a self-serving group, promoting the objectives of its own board members and those with the deepest pockets.

“While HB tourism turns out lovely press releases and holds awards telling us how well they’re doing, the fact is they aren’t doing well, it’s all based on PR and spin.”

High membership fees and the cost of promotional opportunities hasn’t helped, although a more inclusive sliding scale membership fee – $250 to $1,250, instead of the $550 baseline – should help. HB Tourism wants to quadruple membership from around 300 to 1,200.

Diana Arnold applauds the lowering of the bar, and while everyone gets a free web listing, she says advertising in the Visitor Guide, placing brochures at the airport and multiple i-Sites plus conferences and trade shows can still add several thousand dollars to the mix.

She’d like to think HB Tourism will run more courses to help smaller businesses improve customer service, learn how to turn inquiries into bookings and do a better job of marketing. Dundas is working on that.

Funding the future

HB Tourism is also up against commercial realities, attempting to represent the region on what some might call a shoestring budget.

Annie Dundas says there are “disparate pots of money in different places” that could be better used. “I’d love to see a more shared approach…on how we use the available funds.”

While quietly confident HBRC will renew HB Tourism’s contract at the end of June 2014, she’d like funding boosted and is completing a proposal for the next three years, citing the need for further research and development of specific tourism opportunities.

“We’re proving we can get things done with FAWC and The Big Easy; we’ve hit all our KPIs and we’re doing really well from an international perspective, but we can’t keep doing this on the same budget.”

Dundas is confident her group is up for the challenges ahead, including promoting the Cricket World Cup being hosted in Napier in 2015, and developing better resources to target the Chinese market.

Chinese visitors to New Zealand increased 27% to the year ending August 2013 making it the country’s second-largest tourist market and a boom in middle-class Asian tourists, 76% of whom travel in groups, is expected over the next decade.

Tourism HB is translating material into Chinese and gearing up packages including farm and garden visits, trips to Arataki Honey and Pernell Fruitworld and appropriate architectural and cultural tours.

On her most recent visit to China, Dundas says art deco was top of the list because of its uniqueness. “We don’t want to compete with everyone else; while wine is a sub-set, art deco is the hero.”

Culture is a much misunderstood term that can embrace everything from wine and food to music and museums, but there’s been little evidence of how prominent Mäori culture is in Hawke’s Bay outside the annual Matariki and Waitangi Day celebrations.

Dundas says the recently installed Ngä Pou o Heretaunga in Hastings CBD helps people understand that “we have some stunning Mäori cultural product”. While cultural tourism has “a huge appeal to an international audience”, it requires finance, people and resources to develop and market.

For example, she says Waimarama Mäori Tours, which includes the Te Mata Peak experience, are doing “a brilliant and authentic job” and consequently is included in Tourism NZ promotions.

Better stories to tell

HB Tourism is urging everyone to be “doing more”, particularly around drawcard events, and off-season sports tournaments.

Tourism is an important component of Hawke’s Bay’s economic recovery but it needs new technology (see Techfocus, p 40), fresh ideas and innovation to innovate and move ahead.

Access remains a key issues and discussions around a second airline and extending the runway for larger aircraft and international flights are ongoing. Regardless of whether you get here, by road, sea or air, it’s only 15-20 minutes travel between the cities and villages and most of the wineries and local attractions.

As Dundas points out, the other obstacles are primarily parochial and likely to dissolve through research, strong business cases and improved relationships.

Everyone agrees on one thing though, there’s a need to get more people to Hawke’s Bay for memorable experiences and they require a bucket load of reasons to come back.

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