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NZ events business booms as Auckland fights to retain access to historic venue
At the same time as New Zealand’s national events trade show MEETINGS 2022 connected a record number of exhibitors with over four hundred buyers, including over one hundred from Australia, suppliers in Auckland went to court to prevent the loss of the iconic Auckland Showgrounds as an exhibition venue.
New Zealand takes off again as a business events destination
A post-MEETINGS 2022 survey by Business Events Industry Aotearoa (BEIA) showed $107.5 million worth of business was provisionally secured during the two-day exhibition held at Te Pae Christchurch, an over forty percent increase on MEETINGS 2021 with four in five of all buyers saying they were booking business as a result of the event.
BEIA Chief Executive Lisa Hopkins says the numbers reflect the skyrocketing popularity of Aotearoa New Zealand as a business events destination and showed the huge demand for face-to-face meetings in inspirational settings, “This is an extraordinary result and speaks highly to the quality of the exhibitors and buyers who travelled from around New Zealand and Australia to Christchurch. Aotearoa New Zealand is wowing event organisers with cutting-edge new infrastructure across the country, air connectivity which continues to expand every month, incredibly diverse regional character, strong cultural values, and innovative sustainability practices.”
With pre-departure testing ending and international visitors returning, New Zealand firmly planted a stake in the ground in the global market for conferences, meetings, trade shows, and incentive travel. Yet at the same time the stark contrast between facilities in New Zealand cities was laid bare. With Te Pae Christchurch Convention Centre now open, and Tākina in Wellington set to open next year, Auckland lags behind. The New Zealand International Convention Centre (NZICC) remains under construction and the potential loss of Auckland Showgrounds as an exhibition venue was grabbing news headlines as MEETINGS 2022 came to a close.
Battle for the future of Auckland Showgrounds
A year prior to MEETINGS 2022, the Auckland Agricultural Pastoral and Industrial Shows Board that ran the historic Auckland ASB Showgrounds went into voluntary liquidation with debts estimated at $4.6 million due to the impact of Covid-19, coupled with increasing rent being charged by its landlord the Cornwall Park Trust Board (CPTB).
CPTB gained ownership of the showgrounds and issued a media statement announcing that the venue was set to continue operating as an events and exhibition centre under a one-year license agreed between CPTB and the NZ Exhibition & Events Company (NZEEC). CPTB proposed that this would minimise disruption to exhibitors and the public whilst a long-term solution was sought. CPTB chair Adrienne Young-Cooper cited it a “tremendous outcome” and NZEEC director Mark Frankham, who had managed the showgrounds for the previous operator, reassured exhibitors it was business as normal.
A year later and the license ended with CPTB embroiled in a High Court battle with a local exhibition operator fighting to stop the new owners from leasing the showgrounds to Auckland firm Xytech Studio Management. Xytech run X3 Studios and would use the venue for filming activities, potentially jeopardising Auckland’s multi-million dollar events and exhibitions industry. The High Court challenge was brought by XPO Exhibitions, the largest hirer of the Auckland Showgrounds, who argued a forty-year-old statute, the Cornwall Park Endowment & Recreation Act, dictated that the eastern portion of the showgrounds, about five hectares of the eight hectare site, were to be protected for use in hosting exhibitions and events.
XPO’s Managing Director Brent Spillane noted that Auckland Showgrounds had received a large amount of rate payer funding and there were no other centres that could provide the same facilities, including load-bearing floors which were essential for some trade shows, air reticulation systems and large access ways. Even when the NZICC was finished in 2027, it would still only provide about half of the area of Auckland Showgrounds, potentially resulting in the disappearance of the Food Show, Home Show, Easter Show and many other industry-specific shows from New Zealand’s largest city.
Justice Peters agreed with Spillane, ruling that the CPTB must stick to the intended purpose of that portion when entering into any lease, “Any filming or other activities on the eastern portion must be secondary to that use,” she said in her judgement. Peters acknowledged the financial burden the CPTB had suffered as a result of Covid-19. Scores of events and exhibitions were cancelled, and the Auckland Agricultural Pastoral and Industrial Shows Board went into liquidation after being unable to pay a major rent increase proposed by CPTB. She recognised that CPTB needs to pay for the upkeep of Cornwall Park which is not publicly funded, the only sources of income being leasehold properties near the park and the showground’s lease. As a result, she put her final ruling on hold for a short period to give CPTB, Xytech and the events industry a chance to see if they can work around the eastern portion provision.
Spillane declared the judgement a moral victory for the events industry and the many SME business exhibitors whose livelihoods had been at risk. He implored CPTB to get on with the task of leasing the site to the remaining compliant lease bid option on the table from Coast Group, a major player in the industry including Carlton Party Hire, Exhibition Hire Services, and Showlight & Power.
In a statement following the ruling Spillane dismissed CPTB’s claims that overdue ‘scheduled maintenance’ for the site currently prevents use as an exhibition venue. Spillane says his company XPO and other event organisers have been primed and ready to pay more than $1.35m in venue rent for a range of events in the coming six weeks alone if CPBT would simply re-open the gates, a figure that would pay for the entirety of urgent maintenance needed on what are currently certified compliant exhibition halls, “What is astonishing to our loyal exhibitor SME businesses is that while these buildings remain vacant, this substantial revenue for the venue will evaporate along with the recreational enjoyment of many tens of thousands of business and consumer visitors missing out on shows such as the Auckland Food Show this year.”
In the meantime, XPO has been forced to re-locate two smaller shows, The Baby Show and Spring Gift & Homewares Fair, to other venues around Auckland. Larger upcoming events have no such alternative in the Auckland area and The Auckland Food Show recently announced it would postpone to July 2023.
Spillane’s disappointment is tangible, “The upcoming shows normally scheduled at this venue are essentially sold out and visitor demand for our events has never been stronger, yet the venue remains closed. Our recent shows held prior to CPBT’s 30 June shutdown of the site had record attendances.”
Spillane himself has just returned from the US where he says exhibitions and events are similarly back and booming, “As an esteemed industry colleague pointed out, Trade Shows and Exhibitions have survived world wars, the bubonic plague, the Spanish Flu and many other epidemics and pandemics. Two decades ago, trade shows were going to be wiped out by the internet. They were not replaced by Guttenberg’s printing press, not radio, nor TV, not social media and they will continue as they have for eight centuries. People are craving a return to events. New Zealand needs this vital exhibition venue infrastructure back online as it has been for over 150 years.”
Will the shows go on – or not?
With a favourable High Court ruling under their belt, both Spillane and the events industry remain confident that sense will prevail and a lease to a compliant events-focussed lessee will eventually unfold. “With the greatest respect to Cornwall Park Trust and its esteemed Board and to the legacy of Sir John Logan-Campbell, it’s time to re-open the Showgrounds gates and let our communities reconnect with live events. Let the shows go on!”
MEETINGS 2022 culminated with the announcement that MEETINGS 2023 would be held in Wellington for the first time, at the capital city’s new-generation venue Tākina – Wellington Conference & Exhibition Centre. Meanwhile Auckland still waits to hear if it will retain its own celebrated exhibition space.
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