Just a few weeks ago, the Hawke’s Bay tourism sector enjoyed a rare ‘high’ when refreshed branding for the region was unveiled. High-fives spread through the industry.

With the birth of a new Hawke’s Bay Tourism organization; with a respected leadership team in place; with a financial stake toward future success provided by members of the industry itself; and with a reorg plan cycling through the Regional Council, promising three years of modest financial security for an industry-led tourism organization, there was indeed cause for optimism.

But leave it to the Regional Council to muck it up. HBRC seems to suffer some sort of mental seizure when it comes to creating commercially-oriented organizations – holding companies, investment companies, tourism agencies.

Yesterday, the Regional Council was considering what appeared to be an innocent enough proposition … which of two legal forms the new tourism unit should take. In both options, the proposal on the table called for an industry-led board for the organization – four members appointed by the industry, one by the Regional Council. Implicit in the proposal is three years of funding from HBRC (in the neighborhood of $850,000 per year … although you won’t find this made explicit in HBRC’s draft Annual Plan).

An industry-led board and three years of HBRC-supplied financial security, coupled with the commitment of $160,000 per year in funding from the industry, were the pillars of an agreement worked out between HBRC and the industry, with both parties needing to surmount the demise of Venture Hawke’s Bay.

But during yesterday’s Council discussion, HBRC CEO Andrew Newman threw out a bombshell, which taken at face value could blow apart the recent progress.

First, he resurrected the idea – rejected by every other observer of the fiasco that has been ‘Hawke’s Bay tourism promotion’ in recent years – of placing representatives of territorial authorities (Hastings and Napier) on the Board, arguing that it was those authorities, after all, who operated or sponsored many of the region’s main tourist attractions and events. Most observers have blamed political involvement of past years with mucking up any chance for regional promotion.

Second, he reckoned that, after the next three years, it should be up to Hastings and Napier, not the Regional Council, to provide any continuing funding needed by Hawke’s Bay Tourism. Huh?!

In other words … “Get me outta here!”

HBRC – instead of the district councils – has been funding the tourism promotion activity for the last two years. Why? Because: a) smart thinkers on the subject recognized that the brand to be most productively marketed is the regional brand – Hawke’s Bay; and b) years of mixed financing, where predecessors of Venture Hawke’s Bay and HB Tourism had to beg for monies from the five councils in the region (monies unpredictably supplied, and always with parochial strings attached), had failed miserably. It was a funding scheme doomed to hamstring any intelligent marketing of the Bay.

Remember how Mayor Yule stepped out in front on this and proposed the deal whereby Hastings and Napier would each charge their ratepayers $400,000 a year less, so HBRC could charge us $800,000 more, shifting funding responsibility and tourism promotion oversight to regional hands … an intelligent approach, to most observers. In other words, a better funding and governance scheme, at no added cost to ratepayers.

[Of course, the promise to ratepayers has been quickly broken. Both Hastings and Napier have predictably re-upped their own promotion spending … but I digress.]

So, now CEO Newman comes along and proposes a return to the good ole days … split council financing, political interference, and parochial district rivalries.

Since things turned sour at Venture Hawke’s Bay, CEO Newman has treated the entire tourism debacle as a boil on his butt. His remarks have always been to the effect that: a) this function has consumed enormous attention entirely out of proportion to its modest budget impact; b) it’s not a core function of HBRC anyway (unlike things HBRC does so well, like cleaning-up rivers); and c) the industry should pay its own way after all.

One could agree with each of these points to some degree, however, and still recognize that his bombshell of yesterday was just that … a bombshell.

Clearly it took the representatives of Hawke’s Bay Tourism by surprise. They have never represented that their organization could be self-financing in three years (or ever, for that matter). No regional tourism agency in New Zealand survives without regional government funding. And the idea of returning to the district council begging days has been so discredited it was presumed dead and buried.

I suspect more people will be surprised … and disappointed. Starting with the tourism industry angels who have committed three years of funding to what they were told would be an industry-run, regional-focused agency. Followed by the rest of the sector, who, it turns out, celebrated prematurely earlier this month. The logo is new; the politics remain unchanged.

Followed perhaps by Mayor Yule, whose grand funding deal would be jettisoned. [Of course, for him, there’s a silver lining – such a backward step would be one more illustration in the case he’s building for amalgamation.] And I can’t see Mayor Arnott reaching for her cheque book anytime soon.

Perhaps it’s unfair to call out CEO Newman on this. His remarks did seem to fall on eager ears with respect to his Regional Councillors. Some, like Councillor von Dadelszen, echoed his view that tourism promotion was not a core responsibility of HBRC and continuing funding was unlikely. Councillor Kirton predicted failure because the agency would be under-funded and once again fail to meet expectations. None seemed concerned about the CEO’s direction.

All in all, a picture of rats deserting a sinking ship. Better luck with the investment company, HBRC.

Tom Belford

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  1. Time to get rid of all Councils and bring on one "Regional Body" BRAVO Yule & Tremain – Unification more chance of Unity. United we are stronger (And its NOT just about savings – We need Regional Wide INVESTMENT.

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