If you dug a hole in the middle of the pitch at Auckland’s Eden Park stadium and just kept on digging downwards, apparently you would eventually emerge about an hour southeast of Seville in Spain.
Sydney, the closest city with more than a million inhabitants, is 2,155km away – a near-four-hour flight. But such isolation has not been an impediment to sporting success.
Rugby union’s All Blacks, arguably the most feared jersey in the history of sport, have twice won a Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park and are unbeaten at the national stadium for more than a quarter of a century. New Zealand’s national teams also excel on the world stage in cricket, hockey, netball, rugby league, sailing and other pursuits, establishing an image of a sporting powerhouse that belies the country’s population of less than five million.
When such a sporting pedigree merges with a growing reputation as a tourist destination, New Zealand presents rights-holders with a unique and powerful proposition; and Auckland, as the country’s entry point for international visitors, will not allow geographical obstacles to dilute its event ambitions as it continues to punch above its weight.
New Zealand is blessed with spellbinding scenery. This was captured vividly in the early 2000s The Lord of the Rings films, which provided a catalyst for the country’s tourism industry, with the number of overseas visitor arrivals increasing from 1.5 million in 1999 to 3.88 million this year.
More than 150 locations across the country were featured in the films, portraying an otherworldliness that is a common feature of the landscape. For example, next year’s World Surf League Challenger Series will land at Piha Pro, the global circuit’s only black sand beach. The following year, the striking Hauraki Gulf will set the scene for New Zealand’s defence of sailing’s America’s Cup.
Such unique visual backdrops appeal to tourists’ sense of adventure, and Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), is keen to tap into that.
ATEED is responsible for attracting and facilitating major events on behalf of Auckland Council and works with local and national government agencies, as well as private-sector organisations, when bidding for events.
New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise will typically lead bids for national events, with ATEED focusing on regional aspects of the proposal. ATEED will often work alongside national government entities such as Sport New Zealand when a bid is led by national federations or event organisers.
In May 2018, ATEED launched its Destination AKL 2025 strategy, which is designed to guide the development of Auckland’s visitor economy. With this, a new major events strategy spanning 2018 to 2025 was launched, replacing the previous strategy that had been due to run from 2011 to 2021.
“New Zealand’s natural attributes play a role in our strategy as we tend to feature as a bucket-list destination for people. We have a very good reputation as a safe and welcoming place,” says Steve Armitage, ATEED’s general manager of destination.
“We’ve been very successful in attracting people here on the back of Tourism New Zealand’s international marketing campaign. However, we haven’t been particularly good at retaining visitors once they arrive. A lot of people bypass Auckland altogether, because we haven’t been great at showcasing what the city has to offer.
“We are trying to be smarter about theming. With the America’s Cup, we’re looking at what other marine and business events we can put on at the same time to provide another hook for people to visit. We’re also working closely with the Auckland Art Gallery and similar attractions so that the city can come to life in a much more coordinated way than before.”
The America’s Cup is an example of what Armitage describes as a “mega-event” for a city that readily admits showcases of the scale of the Olympic Games are out of reach.
“With the America’s Cup, there is an opportunity to profile Auckland and New Zealand not only as a visitor destination, but also as a centre of marine technology,” Armitage says. “A lot of our marine businesses have benefited from previous America’s Cups and we see 2021 as a key opportunity to build on these legacies.”
The aim is to deliver clear legacy benefits – and not just financial. For example, the America’s Cup will provide an opportunity to tackle local water quality challenges. Last summer, 12 of the city’s beaches were declared no-swim zones due to human and animal faecal contamination.
“We think by working with a wider group of agencies, the America’s Cup gives us a good opportunity to focus on restoring our marine environment and promote the islands as tourist destinations,” says Armitage, who adds that environmental impact has become an increasingly important factor in Auckland’s event-hosting strategy in recent times.
Another opoortunity for Auckland lies in a “clear focus” on women’s sports, says Armitage, who adds that the agenda of equal rights and social issues set by New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has “played well into our strategy”.
This ideal tallies with the likes of the World Surf League, which is returning to New Zealand in 2020 following a five-year absence with a three-year deal to stage a Challenger Series event.
“The WSL is one of first sports properties to take a stand on pay equity and having a level playing field, so hosting them helps to celebrate our leadership position in terms of equality,” says Armitage.
In 2021, Auckland will also play a central role during the women’s version of the Rugby World Cup and the Women’s Cricket World Cup, with both tournaments hosted by New Zealand.
Given the packed calendar, Armitage is aware of the significance 2021 could have on Auckland’s long-term event-hosting strategy – especially as the organisation is currently contending with a squeeze on funding that has necessitated a “targeted” approach.
“We have concentrated on working with central government agencies to ensure we’re playing to our strengths as a city,” he adds.
“I think 2021 provides us with a key opportunity, not just for us to demonstrate to the world how well we host people and stage events, but it can also work as a demonstration to the city’s leadership and citizens.
“If we can leverage the benefits from these events in the right way and show, beyond the short sugar hit, that there are lasting legacies that are positive for communities, that could potentially open up a conversation about funding (going forward).”
Auckland’s track record includes 15 matches during the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand – a tournament that attracted 133,000 international visitors – and the 2017 World Masters Games, which pulled in more than 28,000 participants.
Jennah Wootten, who was chief executive of the World Masters Games, previously served as general manager of destination at ATEED. She currently works as general manager of partnerships and communication at Sport New Zealand and is an independent director of Cricket 2021 Limited, the company established to deliver the 2021 Women’s Cricket World Cup.
She points out the different criteria used to assess the long-term impact of major events.
“If you look back at Auckland and Rugby World Cup 2011, that was an event that enabled significant redevelopment of our waterfront, transport and stadium infrastructure,” Wootten says. “There were a number of large, visible and transformational projects of which we are still enjoying the benefits.”
According to Wootten, the Rugby World Cup “set the standard” for Auckland’s major event-hosting strategy, helping to facilitate the success of future events.
“In Auckland, it also led to the development of a major events strategy and a NZ$100m (€58m/$64m) commitment to major events over a 10-year period,” she adds.
“With the 2017 World Masters Games, the legacy was quite different. There it was about doing whatever we could to give back to our national sporting organisations to support the continued growth of their individual Masters movement, as well as giving back to our local New Zealand Masters Games.
“When I was involved in the development of Auckland’s first major events strategy, we had a clear focus on major sporting events that could generate economic benefit and/or visitor nights, increase international exposure and enhance the liveability of Auckland as a city.”
As times have changed, ATEED’s event priorities have continued to evolve. Armitage says: “We are not just focused on driving visitation at all costs. We have to be able to demonstrate the benefits of an event to local communities and disperse events around the region so financial benefits of hosting are not just accrued in the city centre.”
Even beyond the city, reaching out beyond traditional geographical boundaries remains an essential part of Auckland’s strategy – and Antipodean links have played a crucial role.
New Zealand and Australia have co-hosted numerous events, including the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, for which Auckland’s 30,000-seat Mount Smart Stadium served as a host venue.
While Armitage stresses that ATEED’s wish is for Oceania-based events to be exclusive to Auckland, he does not “fixate” on such a goal.
“With a series of events or concerts, Auckland can often be an add-on to the Australian programme,” he says. “I think it’s easier for some Australian cities to have a conversation with us about an event property rather than each other, as they won’t be cannibalising their own market.”
Auckland has held a sister-city relationship with Brisbane since 1988 and the two have organised a number of events that have been held in both locations. Armitage adds that he would be interested in exploring collaboration opportunities in Western Australia, with Perth, equipped with the new state-of-the-art Optus Stadium, being an obvious option.
International relations have also been strengthened by the New Zealand Warriors National Rugby League club and the New Zealand Breakers National Basketball League franchise, both of which are the sole overseas representatives in their respective Australian tournaments. Additionally, Auckland’s Super Rugby team, the Blues, compete across the southern hemisphere.
The city is also home to the Northern Mystics and Northern Stars ANZ Premiership netball teams, as well as several sports venues, including the multi-purpose Spark Arena, ASB Tennis Centre and Eventfinda Stadium, as well as Eden Park and Mt Smart Stadium.
New Zealand’s national federations for cricket, hockey, football, netball and athletics are also based in Auckland, along with the New Zealand Olympic Committee and Paralympics New Zealand, making the city the de facto sporting capital of the country.
“The World Rally Championship is also coming back to Auckland in 2020 after an eight-year absence from New Zealand, and events like that and the World Surf League and others of that type keep us relevant on the world stage,” says Armitage. “We’re never going to host F1 or anything like that, but we can still show that we are an outstanding event destination.”