University key to conference tourism

The University of Otago has emerged as a key player if Dunedin is to keep benefiting from big increases in conference and event tourism.

The expertise and research at the institution may help the city in a market that will soon have some serious competition from other regions.

Work done with the university will result in nine bids put in for conferences this year, and more in future.

The Otago Daily Times reported last week the city was experiencing growth of about 30% this year in the sector, hosting more conferences in an area worth $55million to Dunedin last year.

But Meetings, a Conventions and Incentives New Zealand conference in Auckland last week, heard the massive $471million New Zealand International Convention Centre in Auckland was expected to be finished by 2019, and there were plans for others in Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.

Tourism New Zealand trade, PR and major events director Rene de Monchy said in Dunedin and Otago, his organisation worked best with the University of Otago.

"The university is a source of knowledge and expertise.

"We work very closely with them and the [Dunedin] convention bureau as a way of attracting business events to the region.''

Mr de Monchy said New Zealand had "really great momentum'' in a sector he expected to keep growing.

But Enterprise Dunedin business events adviser Bree Jones said Dunedin needed to make sure it had a sustainable market when the other conference centres began to tout for business.

Her organisation had been working with the university since it held a meeting with Tourism New Zealand, heads of departments and academics in April, explaining the help available from $34million of funding the government had given Tourism New Zealand in 2013 to help attract conferences.

Before that, Ms Jones had applied for funding from the Grow Dunedin partnership, a collaboration between the council, Ngai Tahu, the Otago Chamber of Commerce, the Otago Polytechnic, the Otago Southland Employers' Association and the University of Otago.

That raised money for a fixed-term role for a staff member, which had since been extended.

The staff member had started in March and was focused on international bids for conferences, and meeting academics to identify opportunities and explain the assistance available.

She was able to source funding for travel and "do the hard work'' putting together the bids.

"We used to sell Dunedin as a destination, but we're realising the importance of showcasing the area's expertise,'' Ms Jones said.

"We're showcasing the research [from] the university, the fact that we've got the country's largest medical school, the only dental school.''

The university also had more obscure claims that could be pushed, including a specialty in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.

There was an appetite for academics to host conferences ‘‘at home'' in Dunedin, and the result of the work was there were already five bids in, and another four expected to be filed by the end of the year.

Tourism New Zealand's target for the year was 80 bids from around New Zealand, so Dunedin would have a good percentage of those, Ms Jones said.

Destination Dunedin manager Ryan Craig said the conference bids were for events that would attract from 300 to more than 1000 people.

"That will be driving business from 2018 to 2022.‘‘It's all long lead-in business, but it's very important business.''

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