From the Regions: Venture Southland’s Warrick Low

The glowing skies of Stewart Island. Image: Southland NZ

Venture Southland’s Tourism and Events Manager, Warrick Low, on the challenge of ensuring his region benefits from the tourism boom, the investment flowing into the sector, the value of industry partnerships and the south’s point of difference.  

Warrick Low

Realising the tourism opportunity – that’s the challenge for us here in Southland. There is a lot of talk of tourism growth and the contribution it makes across the country in so many different ways but for us here at the end of the tail, sometimes those benefits are not realised as well as they are in other parts of the country.

We do have phenomenal natural assets here but a lot of places in New Zealand do, so for us here at Venture Southland, it is about recognising and developing our offering, getting the message out, ensuring people are receiving it, and working with agencies like Tourism New Zealand to help us cut through.

However, it is a very competitive marketplace for tourists here in the south. If you look at places such as Dunedin, Queenstown or Te Anau, they all have an excellent range of products for visitors to enjoy. So, when it comes to attracting people down here and getting our message out there, it means we have to be a little bit different, and that we have to have a unique offering.

Obviously, budget counts when it comes to campaigns. When you see your bordering Regional Tourism Organisations drop an amount of cash into one campaign that equals your entire marketing budget, that makes it challenging to compete. Not to worry though – Southlanders love a challenge and we are very fortunate to have what we have!

More importantly, the key issue is getting everyone on board and getting the involvement of agencies like Tourism NZ and Air NZ, which can build our profile internationally and provide support to help differentiate our region from the rest of New Zealand.

Tourism New Zealand’s recent Northland campaign targeting Australian travellers is a good example. Seeing that they were looking to push their regional dispersal agenda and to do so by producing a single-region promotion is pretty exciting for regions such as ours. The targeting that Tourism New Zealand have done there, investing in the Australian marketplace and opening up that Melbourne gateway to Northland via Auckland, has been very interesting.

It has prompted us to have a look at the opportunities and partnerships that we have and an example is being able to partner with Invercargill, Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin airports. These partnerships allow us to encourage visitors who arrive at those airports to come down to Southland too, particularly repeat visitors.

We have recently received some insights in the US which tells us that people admire and are attracted to our rugged, authentic nature. The next challenge is connectivity, that is, making it easier for those people to come here. We do not have the same level of transport options that other regions do and although we are not a huge distance away from places like Queenstown or Dunedin, it is another challenge for people arriving in say, Christchurch, and travelling south.

We do have some great products here though. We are working on a new campaign around our food story, which is not just about developing new product, it is about connecting our current propositions with markets. Our local farmers’ market is a very good example of something which has come along in leaps and bounds. Invercargill can confidently claim to be the classic motoring capital of NZ, the Catlins coast is the top driving route in the country, and Stewart Island is on everyone’s bucket list.

Recently, the product offering has been about big investment and there has been a lot of work done by the government, the Richardson Group’s Transport World and Dig This attractions, and the community at Curio Bay, which is building a new visitor centre, Stewart Island’s Rakiura Heritage Centre and the new Church Hill Lodge to name just a few recent developments. And I have to mention the announcement of the new hotel for the heart of Invercargill, a great complement to the existing stock, that will no doubt act as another attraction.

We could always do with more though because if you ask, ‘what does one do in the evening here in Invercargill that is different’, I am not sure we have a satisfactory answer. In summer, it does not matter so much because it is light until 10.30pm and people can be enjoying the outdoors until late. Outside of that period though, what is out there selling the region during the evening? We have a great array of hospitality outlets, as does the rest of NZ, so unique activities for the evenings could offer a chance to grow our proposition.

We do not have the large scale operators which are catering for the big tour groups but we do have people here who know the region and they are the glue between the arts, the heritage, the food and the outdoor recreation offering – those operators are the people who will be out there everyday hunting the business down. That is important because it is not just an RTO or a council saying ‘come on down it’s great’ but real people with skin in the game going ‘let me tell you a story’. That is really starting to develop here – storytelling by the people, not just by a marketing campaign.

The RTO here sits within the Economic Development Agency and has done so for a number of years. The regional development strategy is driving change and that change means we have a mandate to be growing sectors of our regional economy. Tourism has been identified as one sector that is a real pillar for our community and being part of the EDA ensures we have a robust plan not just for the next five years but for the next 25 years.

What does tourism mean to us here? When you have such a large geographic area, from Stewart Island to the Catlins to Fiordland up to Kingston, then you know you have some very distinct places with very distinct stories. Pulling that all together is something that is fundamental for the future of Southland tourism and for New Zealand too.

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