Following a year of COVID-19-related event cancellations in 2020, Whakatāne’s events industry suffered a further blow this month with the cancellation of The Classic Car & Caravan Show and the Surf Lifesaving New Zealand national championships. Together, these events expected to attract over 4,000 visitors to the district, contributing approximately $1.5 million to the local economy.

Whakatāne District Council Tourism Events Coordinator Kim Fort said while it was difficult to accept losing two of the biggest event weekends in over a year, the events sector remained positive about the future.

“It really hurts our accommodation sector, hospitality and retailers when we lose events that attract a large number of visitors. However, we also feel for those who give up their time to run great events. The driving force for hundreds of event volunteers is to see all their work come to fruition and events come to life. So when something is cancelled at the last minute, it’s difficult to keep going, especially when we’re not out of the COVID woods yet.”

“However, it has been incredibly heartening to see event organisers forge ahead and come together to ensure the events sector not only survives, but thrives,” she said.

Whakatāne District Council is working with event stakeholders to workshop ideas for events sector recovery, following the impacts of COVID-19. Ms Fort said an events strategy is in progress, focusing on events that highlight the district’s unique points of difference.

“We had an incredible turnout at the first workshop and the room was buzzing with ideas. It turns out that great minds think alike, with the large majority interested in similar themes.”

Market-style events are growing in popularity and have the potential to become visitor attractions in their own right. Naomi Biddle, who recently took over the management of the Whakatāne Sunday Market, has grown the market from 10 stallholders each week to 40. Due to community demand, a monthly Saturday market has also been introduced.

The Food Truck Village – created by a group of food truck operators – held three evening events at Wharaurangi (The Gap) on The Strand, Whakatāne in January and February. The concept proved popular, with vendors selling out every time. Due to demand, additional space was required for the Food Truck Village and with that came increased regulatory requirements and costs which can be challenging for small, community-based event operators.

Ms Fort said a solution-based approach between event stakeholders has resulted in a way forward to meet regulatory requirements.

“We realised that there were multiple groups wanting to achieve the same thing, so we decided to collaborate in order to achieve the best way forward. The combined efforts of stakeholders from the Sunday Market, EPIC, the Food Truck Village and Whakatāne District Council will see a series of festival-style events held in Whakatāne over the coming months, assisted by Innovating Streets funding.”

“So effectively we’ve created something that’s bigger and better in a more efficient way,” she said.

Events have the ability to transform local economies. Regional areas around the country, such as Taupō, have grown into event hubs, significantly boosting the economy and community wellbeing.

Based on pre-COVID figures, events held in the Whakatāne District have the potential to inject over $7 million into the local economy each year.

Classic Car & Caravan Show Event Manager Mark Inman said hosting events was not only good for the local economy, but it also had many social benefits.

“Fundraising isn’t necessarily the main driver for events we run, it’s more about the feel good factor and supporting local communities. This far outweighs monetary value an event brings. Bringing communities together, ensuring there is no barrier for attendees, and showing off our place are invaluable.”

Mr Inman said community engagement was important for event sponsors to consider too.

“It is possibly easier for a sponsor to just donate directly to a charity. However, by being involved in an event, the sponsor is expressing community spirt,” he said.

Similar sentiments came from Rebecca McKay, Event Manager of the Eat + Be:Long community festival recently held in Kopeopeo.

“Eat + Be:Long caused us to consider just how impactful a community-led event can be on our people, as well as the tourists who found themselves in the middle of a vibrant street party and celebration.”

Events in Whakatāne this weekend include; The Sunshine Street Fiesta on Saturday from 2-11pm on The Strand, Zespri’s Whakaari/White Island fundraising rugby match kicking off from 2:15pm at Rugby Park, Whakatāne, and the Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiairangi 2021 graduation parade.

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