Small shindig becomes huge party

The 2014 Queenstown Winter Festival started last night with a spectacular fireworks display. The $1 million event will draw an estimated 45,000 people and inject about $57 million into the local economy - a far cry from 1975, when the festival was run on $1500 and targeted 5000 local residents who had nothing to do in winter, Tracey Roxburgh reports.

In 1975, a couple of Queenstown blokes thought it would be a good idea to throw a bit of a party for the locals and skiers to celebrate winter.

At the time, Queenstown was a small village with lean business for operators from May to June - jet-boating and rafting companies closed for the winter months, as did many motels.

It wasn't long before musician Peter Doyle and local pub manager Laurie Wilde had a committee of keen tourism operators and the whole town behind their idea of a winter carnival, providing the opportunity for the locals to have some fun when the town was quiet.

Thirty-nine years on, their small shindig has morphed into the southern hemisphere's biggest winter celebration - worth more than $3 million in promotion for the resort, attracting about 45,000 people from around the world and injecting a whopping $57 million into the local economy.

Mr Doyle says that committee could never have envisaged how important their party would become to the resort, the district and New Zealand.

''You've got to remember that town back in the early '70s - there was nothing happening here. We didn't even have nightclubs.''

Their idea, however, quickly spiralled and the community came on board with ideas.

One of the most popular events - no longer held because of the regulatory requirements - was the Peak to Park relay, where 20 teams of 22 people raced from Coronet Peak to St Omer Park.

Beginning with skiing, teams then completed an on-snow wheelbarrow leg, a run down the access road to the Packers Arms Hotel (now Gantley's).

Tyre rolling, egg and spoon racing, skipping, biking and rugby ball passing had the entrants racing to the finish line, to women waiting in a row to knit ''peggy-squares'' and babies lined up to crawl across the finish line to their mothers.

The event also involved canoeists who had to paddle a section of Queenstown Bay and ''chicken plucking''.

Mr Doyle said the whole town started coming up with ideas - from cow pat-throwing to wheelbarrow and waiters' races.

The winter festival now features in daily and community newspapers, is beamed into homes by national television crews and covered by international media from countries including Australia, China, the United Kingdom and India, a far cry from the promotion in the 1970s.

Mr Doyle said the committee would utilise a Gestetner - an antiquated version of today's photocopier - to roll out that evening's festival results and the next day's events ready for personal delivery to every Queenstown hotel and motel.

There were no radio stations, fax machines, smartphones or social media, so promotion relied on the ''local party line'' from the Queenstown toll exchange, local newspapers and hand-copied paper flyers to carry information about the festival.

Mount Cook Group helped out financially, stumping up $1500.

Fast forward nearly 40 years and the cost to run the festival averages about $1 million, which includes funding from sponsors, and this year, for the first time, $120,000 from the Queenstown Lakes District Council events strategy fund, both in cash and kind.

Destination Queenstown chief executive Graham Budd said as owner of the festival, DQ's job was essentially to underwrite any financial losses - varying annually from about $50,000 to $100,000.

''We look at that as a marketing investment - while we try to break even, we kind of never do.''

Mr Budd said the importance of the next 10 days for Queenstown, the southern region and New Zealand could not be underestimated.

''It is, I think, the most important event we have in the year.''

Not only was the festival a ''community celebration'', it sent a message globally the resort was open for winter.

''It's critically important in that sense.

''It's also a significant marketing exercise ... whether people actually come to Queenstown or not, in terms of getting ... the Queenstown brand beamed around the New Zealand, Australia ... and the world, is hugely significant for us.''

Mr Budd said few events in New Zealand were still ''going strong'' after nearly 40 years.

''We need to be anchored to the core of this community event while still building and changing it each year to have new, fresh things.''

Mr Doyle, who ran the festival from 1975 to 1978 and reprised his role in 1989 and 1990, said the best thing about the winter festival over the past 39 years had been the community involvement.

''It was getting the town involved in something that we could be proud of.

''Every year, it's grown ... and now it's become a truly international festival that none of us would have ever dreamed about.''

However, he also lamented the loss of some of that community involvement and participation, particularly from the clubs and groups which had been involved from the outset.

''It was a great event, it continues to be a great event.

''I'm sure [in the future] there will be something - whether the Winter Festival continues in the same way, or whether there's something else that comes along to replace it, I hope there's always something happening.''

The 2014 Winter Festival runs until next Sunday.

Festival highlights
Golden Mile and Street Parade, CBD.
7pm: Ice Hockey: Southern Stampede v Dunedin Thunder, Queenstown Ice Rink.
7pm: Narnia Ball, Queenstown Memorial Centre.

Skin to Summit, Coronet Peak.
Noon: Day on the Bay including Birdman, Jet Sprints, Splash & Dash, Paddleboard Race, Undy 500, Queenstown Bay & Earnslaw Park.
7pm: Ice Hockey: Southern Stampede v Dunedin Thunder, Queenstown Ice Rink.
7.30pm: Comedy Debate: Forty is the New Thirty, Queenstown Events Centre.

'70s Disco Workout, Earnslaw Park.
7.30pm: Queenstown 2040: Where Will The Snow Be?, Queenstown Memorial Centre.