Back in business

Christchurch’s conference buildings were destroyed but alternatives were found while rebuilding is ongoing

Five years after the ground shook, South Island’s largest city is ready to rock the MICE market once again, writes Rebecca Elliott

Caroline Blanchfield, manager of the Christchurch and Canterbury Convention Bureau in New Zealand has a very clear message: “We’re back”.

Monday, February 22 will mark five years since an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale devastated South Island’s largest city, killing more than 180 people and leaving behind a trail of destruction resembling a war zone.

Prior to the earthquake, Christchurch’s conference market was booming. It had 25 per cent of New Zealand’s international and domestic business and 40 per cent of the country’s share of the Australian market, with the only embedded resource in Sydney.

“We were rocking, excuse the terminology,” said Blanchfield, “So much so that we were extending our convention centre to meet the demand.”

Post-earthquake, 25 per cent plummeted to just two per cent. And that’s when Blanchfield, with more than 30 years working in the tourism industry, was called in.

“We had a mess on our hands. We had just printed our planner, but half the venues no longer existed. We had a lot of confusion as to what the offering was.”

Blanchfield concedes that while all purpose-built conference infrastructure was decimated, there was a core group of buildings that could facilitate business events. Given Christchurch’s pre-quake popularity with Australia, the decision was made to test the market by hosting a group of PCOs, but to no avail.

Blanchfield pulled out of all tradeshows and directed the bureau’s focus to the New Zealand domestic market, with its first job to create an online planners’ guide.

“We were probably one of the first bureaux to do that work because we had to. We were put in a situation where you have to think, how can we do it better?”

Three years later, Christchurch was up to a nine per cent share of the market and has remained fairly static, but what has changed in recent months, according to Blanchfield, is the increasing interest in the city.

“We’ve already got a long list of conferences waiting to contract,” she said. “We’re working on bids for 2021 and 2022 so we’re filling the funnel quite nicely and we haven’t even started. I definitely don’t think it would be out of the realms to take on equal share with Auckland.”

Blanchfield said Christchurch’s conference pipeline can be attributed to its key pillars of business.

“People go to conferences to learn, so we identified what was really different and what we were known for – earth science, health science, education, IT and technology, and building technology.

“We’ve won some amazing conferences working with Tourism New Zealand because they fit with the here and now.”

The bureau has also managed to retain its membership base close to pre-quake levels over the last five years.

“This industry is so connected to each other and I’m really proud of the way our whole sector works together. We’ve got a philosophy – keep it in Christchurch.”

Members will be on show when the bureau returns to AIME in Melbourne at the end of February after a five-year hiatus. And one thing is for sure – they won’t be short on new products to showcase.

The 4.5-star Rydges Latimer Christchurch hotel, purpose-built for conferences with 11 meeting rooms and capacity for up to 500 delegates, was one of the city’s first hotels to open post-earthquake.

Sudima Christchurch Airport opened in the latter part of 2015, while Chateau on the Park, with seven events spaces and a bonus of two hectares of lush gardens is set to open soon.

The partially-rebuilt Isaac Theatre Royal has been open since end-2014. With 1,290 seats, it will continue to serve as a stand-in venue for the Convention Centre, scheduled to open at the end of 2018. Located in the heart of the city, the NZ$284 million (US$185 million) state-of-the-art centre will have capacity for 2,000 delegates, complete with hotel and residential accommodation, F&B outlets, and retail and office space.

While Australia is the immediate target for the bureau, Asia is well and truly on the horizon, but not until the right infrastructure is built, said Blanchfield.

“A number of five-star hotels are on their way, but you don’t go into Asia and the incentive space until you have the product or are at least nearly there,” she remarked.

Reflecting on the last five years, Blanchfield concludes: “You can look at it as glass half empty or glass half full. We’ve got stories to tell that we didn’t have before so people have more motivation to come back.

“I believe Christchurch could be the best boutique conference city in Australasia.”

Christchurch’s MICE market has what it takes to be on
equal footing as Auckland

Tracey Thomas, director of Conference Innovators

Tracey Thomas, director of Conference Innovators, suggests three activities to do in and around Christchurch

Gap Filler Walking Tour

Gap Filler is a creative urban regeneration initiative that facilitates a wide range of temporary projects, events, installations and amenities in the city. This is a great conference social or teambuilding activity and there are lots of different sites. Just download the Gap app and latest map, and go! Make sure the last stop is the coin-operated, outdoor Dance-O-Mat – it’s great to show the footage the next morning at the conference!

Little River Rail Trail

This one-day cycle trip is a bit of off the track, but it’s easy. The Trail mostly follows the route of a 19th century railway line between Hornby and Little River, and takes you through a changing landscape that has seen a thousand years of human history.

Quake City

I know it may seem a bit odd, but Quake City gives you an overview of what Christchurch has been through with the earthquake. Coordinated by Canterbury Museum, Quake City is a unique, multisensory attraction aimed at informing, engaging and educating both New Zealanders and international tourists about the Canterbury earthquakes. Take a little quiet time to have a wander through.

A flexible multipurpose space

Tait Technology Centre is a boutique facility with a
260-pax capacity

The head office for a global digital wireless communication technology company may seem like an unlikely venue for a conference or meeting, but Tait Communications, just minutes from Christchurch International Airport, is proof of concept.

Opened in April 2015, the Tait Technology Centre is a boutique facility with capacity for 260 delegates.

Caroline Blanchfield, manager of the Christchurch and Canterbury Convention Bureau, said it reflects a “business on campus” or multi-use philosophy that many new venues in the city are employing.

“Tait is a world leader in producing radio communications so other like-minded organisations or tech companies will be drawn to that because they’re in an environment they like,” she explained.

The centre occupies the upper floor in a two-storey complex. The main conference room can be divided into two or three spaces with soundproof walls, each with complimentary, high-specification audiovisual technology and Wi-Fi.

The entrance to the building opens into a light-filled, spacious atrium, which is also available for hire and suited for registration, welcome functions and small exhibitions. The space has an industrial-chic feel with floor-to-ceiling windows, timber finishings and dotted with planter boxes. It is furnished in part by local social enterprise Rekindle, which has converted timber and other waste products from residential demolition post-earthquake into sleek tables and chairs.

Light catering is available from the on-site café, but for anything more complex, suppliers need to be brought in.

The centre is managed by local event management company, 360 Degree Events.

Managing director Karen Hamilton said the facility has experienced a steady increase in bookings over the last eight months with “several” conferences booked for 2016 and 2017.

She added that Tait Technology Centre has hosted many events for Chinese organisations.

“We will be reaching out to the Asian market via relationships with PCOs and target groups with a keen interest in the New Zealand marketplace. We are working closely with airport hotels, mainly the Sudima Christchurch Airport and the Commodore Airport Hotel, to ensure that we can offer the MICE industry a full package service,” she said.

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