Sometimes the best defence is a good offence.

That’s the tack taken by Venture Hawke’s Bay chair Neil Kirton in his article in the June/July BayBuzz Digest, where he takes on the renewed criticism of VHB following its recent reorganization.

Securing the Future of Venture Hawke’s Bay
By Neil Kirton

Venture Hawke’s Bay is the mandated economic development agency and regional tourism organization for the region and is a business unit of the Regional Council. Venture Hawke’s Bay took over these functions from the former Hawke’s Bay Inc. nearly one year ago on 1 July 2009.

Since then, Venture Hawke’s Bay has produced some top quality work across a broad range of tourism and economic development agendas. Criticism of Venture Hawke’s Bay ebbs and flows depending on the mood, political agenda and/or financial fortunes of a vociferous few. But I defy any critic to look carefully at what Venture Hawke’s Bay has delivered over the past year and reasonably assert that good progress is missing.

Just click to the web site and a nonpartisan observer will see a good regional portal, easily navigated and informative.  Staff has done a superb job in sorting out the mess of a year ago, installing a cogent and professional site. Credit where credit is due.

Venture Hawke’s Bay’s innovation and productivity staff have secured $832,960 from Central Government for research and development projects in the region over the past year. There is more to come. Staff have successfully supported the bid for national cycleway funding, achieving $2.6 million for this project, which will add importantly to the scope of activities available to visitors to the region.

The Grow the Bay project focuses local investors and entrepreneurs on business investment and collaboration opportunities right here in our region. The KEA project, which taps HB expatriates living and working abroad as “ambassadors” for the Bay, is innovative and successful for the region. Planning around the Shanghai Expo will assist to showcase Hawke’s Bay businesses to the world and in China in particular. The Apple Future’s project has substantially enhanced the marketability of the region’s apple crop. These things don’t just happen. They take a lot of effort and they cost money!

Despite the knockers, the “Everything Under the Sun” tourism promotion boosted visitor numbers and is set to do the same in the shoulder season. Marketing staff produced the visitor guide, were active in rugby world cup planning, as well as events like lake to lighthouse, road cycling champs, off-shore power boating and the national singing school. Assistance is being provided for the world Optimist yachting competition next year. The list goes on, for those interested enough to do their homework before commenting.

The Venture Hawke’s Bay board had to make some hard calls about the organization’s future. With Government-funded projects coming to an end it was entirely prudent of the board to move to meet this reality by sizing Venture Hawke’s Bay according to next financial year’s revenue projections. The decision was made to create efficiencies and downsize. There was no choice about this given the need to fund direct spending for regional promotion and our new events strategy, as well as to refocus our economic development activities.

This next phase of Venture Hawke’s Bay’s development is a natural outcome following the “sorting out” of the organization’s operating platform. Janet Takarangi did a superb job in achieving this result. But it is time to move on.

Focus on Events
The board of Venture Hawke’s Bay sees a great opportunity to develop the region as a top destination for events. The region has so much to offer with excellent climate and first class facilities. Events of all kinds drive visitor numbers and create momentum in promoting the region. People need to have a reason to visit Hawke’s Bay and we need to add to our iconic events such as the Mission Concert, Horse of the Year, Art Deco and Harvest Festival.

But events development takes money and focus to achieve the results. A project to look at the best possibilities and to see how other regions operate is part of a study just getting under way. The hard part is dealing with the old Hawke’s Bay problem of parochial localized interests getting in the way of coordinating events activity. This is an essential ingredient in achieving better visitor outcomes for the region.

Venture Hawke’s Bay is looking to invest heavily in events development in the coming year. By making the efficiencies we have, we do not have to go back to the ratepayer for such development.

Water a key to economic development
The board of Venture Hawke’s Bay has thought hard about where we should position ourselves around regional economic development. We could continue to operate at the “micro” level, supporting local businesses and trying to promote innovation and productivity at that level. Or we can turn our minds to the bigger “macro” picture looking at major drivers of our Hawke’s Bay economy. The reality is that we are predominantly a primary producer. The region has the land, water and climate to produce food and trees for the world. The demand for our quality product is plain and obvious.

So we are going to focus substantially on the “water” project, where the Regional Council is on the cusp of making a very large investment. The aim is to develop water storage reservoirs so that around 30,000 hectares of land are able to be irrigated.

The role Venture Hawke’s Bay is set to play is to help answer the question – we have got water but now what? There is a clear need to consider all the options for new and increased food production. The entire water project is premised on the promise that whatever is produced can be processed and marketed to the world. Venture Hawke’s Bay’s new task is to study the options and come up with answers.

The board of Venture Hawke’s Bay will press on, thinking about our role and setting the direction and deliverables of the organization. We do so undeterred by those with their own, personal agendas, who seek to knock what is being achieved at every turn.

Neil Kirton

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5 Comments

  1. On first reading the response that Neal is logical and correct, but the fundamental question that must be answered is why VHB are so poor at communicating when they are apparently so clever?

    The lack of an active communications strategy that engages with and builds the support of the wider community is essential if VHB do not want to be considered just another portal of local government who seem to consider telling us what they are going to do as meaningful dialogue.

    Ironically, the failure to communicate effectively has been cited by cuurent employees of VHB as part of the reason why they find themselves in their present predicament, although it is not an explanation for the rumoured budget blowouts that are yet to be made public.

  2. Mr Kirton takes considerable editorial licence when he expels the achievements of Venture Hawke’s Bay. Clearly, some balance need to be given to some of his assertions.

    • An independent review by any web developer and content specialist will disclose that the regional website has a many shortcomings, functionality which does not work, poor calls to action, poor content amongst other things, significant concerns which have been expressed by the visitor industry, but which have still not been addressed.

    • To date only $40,000 has been approved to undertake a feasibility study on the regions cycle trail proposal. The $2.6 million which Mr Kirton claims as having already being approved for this project is incorrect. The Ministry of Tourism, who are currently assessing the 13 feasibility reports which have been submitted, do not expect to make an announcement as to which cycle trails will be built until around October 2010. Is the current Venture deficit caused by accounting for these funds and incurring expenditure before the funding has even been approved?

    • Mr Kirton might like to disclose just how many investors have been engaged, what level of funds have been provided, and how many new projects have actually been commenced under the Grow the Bay project? What actual return has been achieved on the around $100,000 Venture paid for an Auckland academic to under take this project? We are reliably informed that the answer to each of these questions is nothing!

    • Whilst the KEA project in creating regional ambassadors overseas is an excellent initiative to sell the region, how many ambassadors have been signed up and what has it delivered in outcomes for the region?

    • Anyone operating in the visitor industry will quickly confirm that the “Everything under the sun” tourism promotion has not boosted visitor numbers to the region, in fact visitor arrivals since this campaign was launched in November have declined, while some other tourist destinations have experienced strong growth. The increase in guest nights to which Mr Kirton refers relates to two events held in January, a National Maori Golf Tournament and the U19 World Cricket Cup, neither of which were influenced in coming to the Bay by this campaign. January guest arrivals were in fact down 3.1% on last year.

    • Similarly, the shoulder campaign is not delivering an increase in visitors to the region, with visitor numbers continuing to decline, with some operators already questioning their future involvement in any future campaign.

    • The development of this new brand, “Everything under the sun” over promises and under delivers, placing the regions future growth at risk. A brand which is also undermining the strength of and diluting the high profile “Hawke’s Bay Wine Country” brand.

    • Leading marketing professionals have questioned who these campaigns target audience’s are, what are the region’s points of difference, what is it that they are trying to sell and what is the call to action?

    • Did Venture create, make the bids for, were visible at, or promote events like the road cycling champs, etc. or take advantage of these opportunities by leveraging off these events to promote the region? Quiet simply the answer is no. If you weren’t involved in the event you wouldn’t have known it was on. Who did all the work to bring these events to the region? The clubs involved, and their large group of volunteers, not Venture!

    • Tourism operators realise that events provide strong reasons for people to visit the region, and have been requesting the establishment of a regional events strategy for over 5 years, yet it still has not been established. What is Venture doing about it? Undertaking yet another study at a cost of $40,000 into what other regions are doing. For a change, why do we not just start being proactive looking for the opportunities, putting in bids, creating new or poaching events from other regions? While we spend all our efforts studying and watching what others are doing, if we are not careful they might sneak up behind us and steal one of our existing events.

    • What support has Venture provided to get in behind and promote these events? Harvest Hawke’s Bay use to be an iconic event, but now struggles to attract people when other similar events, like Taste Martinborough, sell out in minutes and attract much larger numbers. Why was it that the HBWCTA Chairman had to make the plea on behalf of Harvest Hawke’s Bay this year “use it or lose it”?

    Mr Kirton’s excuse that the problem is parochial localized interests getting in the way of coordinating events activity is just another excuse and rock to hide behind. What is needed here is strong regional leadership and a proactive will to make things happen which Venture Hawke’s Bay seems to completely lack.

    Mr Kirton fails to mention is that:

    • The region still does not have a visitor or events strategy despite repeated requests over a long period of time.

    • Guest arrivals and nights continue to decline, while other tourist destinations are experiencing strong growth.

    • International visitor numbers continue to decline, at a time when New Zealand has been experiencing record international arrivals, particularly from Australia. According to his own staff (as reported on this website) “recent research shows that 77% of Australians are not even aware of Hawke’s Bay yet they are our biggest international market”.

    • Venture refused to participate in AA Travel’s major “Great Kiwi Escapes” domestic and Australian marketing campaigns (which would have put Hawke’s Bay in front of 6.5 million Australians) in 2009 and 2010, without any industry consultation, as Venture considers that it can promote the region more effectively itself.

    • Visitor industry participation at trade shows has declined significantly creating an illusion, when compared with the presence of other regions, that Hawke’s Bay has nothing to offer.

    • What is the real magnitude of Venture Hawke’s Bay deficit? Is it as high as $500,000 that is rumoured?

    • Why is it that Venture Hawkes Bay, a business unit of the Regional Council, has to borrow money from the Regional Council to meet Rugby World Cup commitments? Isn’t this just the Regional Council lending to itself to balance Venture’s deficit?

    • What events and festivals are planned for the Rugby World Cup, and why have these not been communicated to the visitor industry, when enquiries are already being received from potential international visitors? Why are we advised these events are confidential and can’t be advised to the visitor industry? If we do not know what is planned how does Venture expect operators to encourage visitors to extend their stays in the region? For these visitors to become potential regional ambassadors and sell our region when they return home after the WRC, we must deliver an exceptional events and festivals experience while they are here.

    • Why was there no Hawke’s Bay branding at the NZ Maori vs England match, which would have been visible to the large TV audience? Another opportunity lost to promote the region!

    As a region we must concentrate on achieving outputs (not in measuring and celebrating inputs) and on how to effectively allocate our limited financial resources. For too long we have spent far too much of the ratepayer contributed funding on salaries and administration costs, rather than on promoting this fabulous region. This imbalance has to change in order to turn the region’s woes around.

    If we continue to do the same old things, we will continue to get the same old results.

    To be competitive with other regions we MUST CHANGE the way we do things.

    The challenge for Mr Kirton and his team is whether they can change, and regain the confidence and trust of the visitor industry.

    Unfortunately Mr Kirton you can fool some of the people some of the time and the rest of the people none of the time.

    Mr Kirton, if you cannot lead Venture Hawke’s Bay forward and deliver the outputs the region requires, perhaps it is time to stand down and give the opportunity to someone who has the requisite skills and experience to enable this region to grow, and who has the sense to seek input from and engage with those experienced in the industry within the region!.

  3. It is always rather interesting how these sorts of oragnisations tend to over promise and under deliver. In my time on Council we have the inept Vision 2020 and Napier only focused Hawkes Bay Tourism, which after their respective demise and failure was followed by another entity the name of which eludes me.

    However, I recall a very well grounded point made by the then Cr Dinah Williams, who said that if local Councils did not financially under write such entities; econominc development and tourism would continue regardless. And she was right!

    If there are significant issues with Venture Hawkes Bay, (irrespective of Mr Kirton's pre-election flag waving) then perhaps local Councils should step back from such an approach and rather leave it to Hawks Bay's business leaders, focusing more on proactively on being 'business friendly', whilst ensuring that Hawkes Bay is a great place to bring up a family by balancing business developing interests with environmental protection and enhancement.

    Time for a different approach?

  4. Well done Ben Dover – who ever you are…this is compelling reading and are the very questions everyone wants answered without political spin.

  5. Venture Hawke’s Bay has now had to go to their parents at HBRC for a $250,000 loan to cover the almost $300,000 they over-spent in the financial year. Along with a further $200,000 HBRC loan to assist in running Hawke’s Bay’s portion of the 2011 Rugby World Cup and staff reductions to help save costs I have to wonder: Just how effective can they now be?

    Other than the “Everything Under the Sun” potato people-campaign, news items on what they haven’t done according to accommodation and other tourism operators, or what they are supposed to do be doing according to VHB (including asking the aforementioned accommodation and tourism operators for advice and help), I can’t immediately think of anything from them that has stood out.

    With a lot less money and fewer staff to utilise what funds they do receive how can they significantly advance their cause?

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