Wellington hospitality businesses ready to serve crowds

4:25 pm on 2 July 2020

Hospitality businesses in Wellington are calling for more major events to be put on in the city, in a bid to bring in people to spend money thereby helping them survive.

John David, owner-manager of Eat cafe-restaurant in Wellington

Eat cafe and restaurant owner-manager John David. Photo: RNZ / Harry Lock

Council is currently working on a calendar of events designed to stimulate economic recovery and support struggling businesses.

From the beginning of the lockdown, the events sector was marked by council as a way to get people back into the CBD.

However, the planning that was underway from the start of level 4 didn't accommodate for how quickly New Zealand went through the levels.

"We started off thinking about spring, but in fact we've come through the levels and come to the situation when we can have mass gatherings much earlier than probably most people would have expected," Mayor Andy Foster said.

"We've had to do some work to try and get what we can into the winter period."

Some of that work has already come to fruition - in the sound of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, which played live to 2000 people in the Michael Fowler Centre.

Even though the country had been back to no physical distancing for weeks by that point, it was still a significant moment.

It was an emotional evening also for John David, the manager of Eat - a cafe-restaurant directly opposite the venue.

"It was crazy - we had 10 staff on, and everyone was working, and everyone was pumping, before the show," he said.

"We were buggered, we had to have a drink afterwards, but it was just amazing to have all that amount of people coming through - it felt like the old days. Honestly, it was just emotional."

'Good for the soul'

Before the lockdown, 30 percent of Eat's weekly takings would come from those who were either heading to or coming out of the arts centre.

While service had picked up following the reopening of businesses in level 2, David said it was not the same.

He said he wanted to see the centre used more often.

"These events, not just for us, they're good for the soul of the people, and it brings joy to them, and that's what I feed on," he said.

"Of course, they come and eat, which is great. But definitely, more events during these hard times would be great."

Beyond a whole number of events around Matariki, the Royal New Zealand Ballet have four performances in the capital in August, while The Opera House is putting on three already sold-out shows of The Cat in the Hat next Monday.

Foster said because no one was expecting to be at level 1 at this time, they have had to adapt to the circumstances.

Matariki, for example, was meant to be a completely digital event.

"When it became apparent we were able to have mass gatherings, then you can start doing some physical things as well.

"For example, the Wharewaka is going to be having some displays of Māori culture, so we've been doing what we can to make sure we were as ready and as flexible as possible, to deliver things when we were going to deliver them."

That events such as The Cat in the Hat are selling out and shows the appetite for live art. It's spurring WellingtonNZ - the organisation which handles the events calendar for council - into putting on an ambitious agenda.

WellingtonNZ events and experiences manager Warrick Dent said they were trying to do it as quickly as possible.

"Things have been squeezed, things are being organised quicker than they have before. We're trying to put together a major events programme, starting in June, and having things happening in September, October, maybe even the end of August.

"Previously some of that work might have taken six or nine months."

The mayor and Dent remained tightlipped on what they described as some pretty big, exciting announcements on large-scale events, which are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

Events at the heart of plans to help businesses

While other councils, such as Auckland, have looked to make cuts to the events sector, WellingtonNZ said they were looking to ramp it up.

But with the major events programme not beginning until spring, there are fears some businesses might not be around to reap the benefits.

Classical on Cuba

Classical on Cuba was conceived in response to the cancellation Cuba Dupa as the country moved into alert level 4. Photo: Orchestra Wellington

Instead, Dent said more spontaneous, easily-organised events might be the short-term answer, such as Orchestra Wellington's Classical on Cuba programme over the weekend.

Cuba St bar The Rogue & Vagabond - which put on 11 performances over two days said it brought in between 300 and 400 extra people over the weekend.

"Having more of it would definitely be useful - I wouldn't say no," manager Lara Denby said.

"Even just a couple of days worth of music can really make a difference for some businesses.

"Especially something like classical music, or having a diverse range of events, that will bring out different types of people, who aren't normally coming out into those venues and spending money."

The Rogue & Vagabond in Cuba St, Wellington

The Rogue & Vagabond in Cuba St. Photo: RNZ / Harry Lock

It's not just Wellington that is looking to events as addressing some of the issues facing local businesses.

Yesterday, Christchurch City Council launched their Christchurch is Lit winter programme which will see 20 lighting installations pop up all over the city.

Meanwhile, in Auckland, major events over the coming months include the Auckland marathon, the Film Festival, and a number of concerts.

"After a challenging few months, it's been encouraging to see the events sector take the first steps to recovery," ATEED head of major events Richard Clarke said.

The staging of a number of events, from Super Rugby to the Auckland Marathon, was "a massive boost for our accommodation, hospitality and performing arts sectors," he said.

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