21 Apr 2020

Wellington hospitality sector looks to rev back into gear

5:30 pm on 21 April 2020

Wellington is planning new events to help the city's economy recover after the Covid-19 lockdown.

Summer in Wellington, Cuba Street. A man seeks shelter from the sun.

Cuba Street, Wellington. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Mayor Andy Foster said he wanted to start off with local activities to ensure their safety, before progressing in scale and size.

The move is designed to get people to spend money in their local economy, and draw customers towards cafés, bars and restaurants.

"What we're looking at is some smaller scale local type activities in the first instance," said Foster, "particularly ones that can be accommodated in existing hospitality venues, and that gives a reason for people to come to those venues, and also keeps us below 100-people type numbers."

"Obviously we won't be able to run larger events until we get to the appropriate level."

The idea would be to go through the gears, and eventually look at repurposing some events, he said.

While some of Wellington's top-drawer events - like World of Wearable Art, Cuba Dupa, and the International Film Festival - have been cancelled, others like the Jazz Festival have been postponed.

"Normally that will be an event that would involve international performers and larger audiences and it's usually held in the middle of the year, so clearly that's not going to happen this year," Foster said.

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"However, what we can look to do is do something that's domestically based in smaller venues, and that's the kind of thing that's being looked at towards the latter part of the year."

Looking out for hospitality and events

"What we're really keen to do is get people back into the central city," Foster said. "That's to support events, arts, hospitality, accommodation, restaurants, cafes, the lot."

Details of which events would be put on or when they would be staged were still unclear, but the plan had the approval of Roger Young, who own Fidel's cafe.

"We would be so supportive of that - we were really gutted when Cuba Dupa was cancelled," he said.

Fidel's cafe, Cuba Street.

Fidel's cafe, Cuba Street. Photo: Roger Young

"We saw, just before that, Newtown Fair - how amazing that was. So, I think as many events as possible would be beneficial for sure."

The hospitality sector is a huge part of Wellington's economy. It's a favourite fact that the capital has more cafés and restaurants per capita than New York.

Director of Corporate Affairs at Wellington Urban Consulting, Chamanthie Sinhalage-Fonseka said it was crucial to acknowledge that dependence.

"We rely so much on our hospitality, and our hotels and our accommodation, given we're a government town. But we're also a town that uses its food scene to sell ourselves to the rest of the country."

For that scene to stay alive, the city was having to make sacrifices now. Young said he was trying to find out just what service could be provided under alert level 3.

He said he was conscious they would not be making much money doing it.

"It's a real challenge to adapt, and when you've got such a large amount of staff, you've still got landlords not playing ball, so you've still got overheads going out.

"So for us, we're going 'well gosh, we've got to try and get some income coming'. A little bit of income is better than nothing right?"

Keeping coffee culture clicking

Wellington's coffee culture - and coffee dependence - will not end because of the lockdown, but there will still be damages.

While concrete projections have not been made, one city councillor suggested anecdotally about 20 to 30 percent of businesses might close down.

"They're already talking it could be quite a few businesses that won't re-open," said Young.

"Once things settle down, it's just in our natural instincts as New Zealanders, we'll get back to normal."

The council has created an economic recovery fund of $8 million to assist businesses, specifically looking at stimulating innovation and technology.

"They have to show they are creating new ways of doing things," Councillor Tamatha Paul - whose amendment directed the fund towards innovation - said.

"For hospitality, they're looking at contactless deliveries. An innovative solution to that is helping them develop their online platforms.

"Hotels and the accommodation sector - they can't even chat fact to face in their own hotels so they're also looking at contactless service."

Such an emphasis would also assist with future events - Wellington On A Plate, for example.

"It's innovation that will actually allow these events to survive. All these restaurants can think about: how do I do Wellington On A Plate by delivery, or how do I market [it]?

"If they're supported by some tech start-ups they can still do that, but they can do that in a better way, and probably reach more people than they would've before."

How the fund will be directed, and applied for, is also still to be finalised. Sinhalage-Fonseka agreed with the direction it went in.

"The solution is tech, so I think more and more there will be a look towards, well you want to keep your business open, to what extent are you looking to use tech to keep the doors open."

But tech mustn't replace jobs, she said.

"Say at restaurants, you want the tech to help with the payment, but you don't want the tech to replace the chef."

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