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It seems a bit strange to be talking about a winter festival in the middle of summer, but for Sciwi (Scottish-Kiwi) Rae Baker, the Queenstown Winter Festival’s new director, next winter is all she’s been talking about since starting her role in October.
Ms Baker was Edinburgh University’s head of entertainment and events for eight years, established and operated her own music festivals and worked on other major events, including the MTV Europe Awards and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. More recently, she has been working with the Tauranga City Council as its event delivery manager and is on the board of the Auckland Fringe Festival. She talks to Queenstown reporter Tracey Roxburgh about the challenges and opportunities facing the winter festival.
Tell me a little bit about your background — you’ve obviously got a huge amount of experience in events. What got you into this line of work?
All I wanted to do when I left school was get to New Zealand, which I did. I was living in Taupo, where I became the manager of a pub and got pretty involved with activity-based events there.
This created a great base for my career in events whilst also giving me solid hospitality and venue management foundations. When I got back to Scotland after four years, I went straight into the third year of an event management course, earning me a BA in a very quick nine months due to the experience I’d gathered. I continued running venues and their programmes, whilst also working as a contractor for larger events and festivals.
Full-time events employment followed that in various guises, and I climbed the ladder over a number of years to eventually work in strategic management, whilst always keeping my toe in the festival arena, either by running my own, or mentoring other festival directors. I’ve always loved live music, have a bit of a knack for organising chaos and it all just happened from there, really.
Still on your events history, what’s one standout event you loved and why?
Just like choosing your favourite band or movie, it’s impossible to pick one. Most recently, the boutique festival I run in Scotland with two friends is a firm favourite, as it comes from the heart and really reflects who we are. Working at MTV Europe in 2003 really whet my appetite for the industry, so that has to stand out. Lots of events have different meanings, some due to the people you worked with, some due to the point of your life you’re in. It’s amazing working on major events like the Edinburgh Fringe, but a lot of the time the standout events are the ones that are more personal to you. You’re a Sciwi.
How big of an influence has the New Zealand side of your heritage been in terms of your life?
Ha ha, yes, I am a Sciwi — and very proud of it. New Zealand has had a huge influence in my life. My dad was a New Zealander, and we were always brought up as such — jandals were always jandals, kumara was always kumara, we would often drop the odd te reo Maori word into conversation, in fact, Pokarekare Ana played at my dad’s funeral — being a Sciwi has consumed my entire life. I have my Kiwi whanau up in Mount Maunganui and am fiercely proud of the beautiful heritage I’m from on both sides of my family. I’m one of the lucky ones; you couldn’t find two more beautiful countries if you tried.
What is it that drew you to the Winter Festival?
The festival launches New Zealand’s winter! This means I can play festival games, talk about how wonderful New Zealand is, and benefit visitation in a beautiful region. Win-win!
Having lasted 43 years, the festival is very high profile across New Zealand and beyond — it benefits the community in many ways and celebrates one of the unique reasons we all choose to live in this region. It also happens to amalgamate a lot of my skills, which, hopefully, means I can bring benefit to the festival through my 18 years’ experience in the music and events industry.
You’re still pretty new to Queenstown. How is the resort treating you so far?
It’s always tough settling into a new place, but the job gives great opportunity to meet a lot of people, which has been lovely. Queenstown really is something else when it comes to its beautiful landscape and it’s a pleasure to admire it as I get the bus to town.
In terms of the next winterfest, what are your primary objectives for it?
There are many overarching objectives for winterfest. We provide a platform to market the region nationally and there is huge opportunity and exposure for Queenstown’s winter season in that. We are also a celebratory event, giving us a reason to party in an otherwise quiet time of year.
Personally, I’ve noticed a slight disconnect to festival within some parts of the community and I’d like to ensure our community understands the clear mandate of the 2018 event and celebrates with us just as it has for the last 43 years.
Winter festival is celebrated so widely in New Zealand, and it’s important to the 2018 event that the community feels part of that. We have big shoes to fill, but also big plans to fill them.
What do you think the biggest challenges are for the festival?
Unfortunately, there are many. Expectation vs budget being one — we are not a rich festival by any means, and with 2018 being the festival’s 44th year and emotional investment being so high within the community, it’s impossible to please everyone all the time. However, that emotional investment that I’ve seen from locals so far shows how important the festival is to everyone, and that has been a real highlight as well.
And where are the biggest opportunities?
We have a new title sponsor in local heroes Real Journeys, who have a fantastic attitude towards winter festival.
This partnership gives us a real opportunity for positive change, so we’re grabbing that opportunity with two hands and running with it.
In the coming months you’ll see a shiny new rebrand and we’ll be complementing that with an updated programme (still keeping those all-important legacy events), springboarding us into being more relevant, celebratory and vibrant.
• The 2018 Queenstown Winter Festival will be held from June 21 to 24.