THE FUEL OF LOCAL PROSPERITY

While destination marketing is sparking imagination worldwide – Wairarapa is already on fire.

Place branding has become a thing – and it’s no fad. Behind it lies a whole theory and a set of principles. It is also a growing marketing sector with many companies now specialising in it, making it their job to take towns and cities, give them a narrative and then bring in economy-boosting elements such as visitors, investors and new residents.

At the same time, places across the globe are realising that trading on their place name alone is no longer enough. They understand that their local economies need tourism, but for visitors to stop and stay a while they need to introduce a storyline with substance. The key to this lies in creating a distinct identity and building an authentic visitor experience. Many places are bringing in the big gun marketers; others, like Wairarapa, are doing it for themselves.

THE EXPERIENCE ECONOMY

Our Wairarapa towns are carving out their individual identities and offering visitors a genuine, distinct set of experiences. David Hancock, general manager of Destination Wairarapa understands this ‘experience economy’ and says tourism is absolutely all about experience. “It’s about providing packages to choose from; baskets of goodies that will take emotion into account and be memorable for all the right reasons. Wairarapa does this really well.”

He applauds each of the towns for the great work they have done – and are still doing – in defining themselves and delivering experiences that set each of them apart. He says that data from Destination Wairarapa proves that visitors enjoy the local diversity. This is evidenced by visitor spend which reached $188.5 million for the year ending August 2018, up from $134 million four years earlier. The target is $212 million by 2025 but projections already show that this could be achieved by 2022.

IDENTITY CREATION – A TALL ORDER

David acknowledges that it’s no easy task to create a distinct local identity. “Knowing where to start, who to ask for help and working out whether you have got it right is hard to gauge but our towns have more than scratched the surface.” He says the hard work and passion of the local communities and business groups has propelled each town to a point where they know what they are about and visitors know what to expect.

Adam Blackwell, owner of hand-built bicycle store, Blackwell & Sons, and the driving force behind the branding of Greytown as a country village agrees there are challenges. Trying to include everyone’s ideas is one. He says Greytown was fortunate in that the community put its trust in Greytown Village Heaven, the business group who led the branding project. “The group created a vision that would tell the Greytown story – and ultimately boost the local economy. Having the local residents trust our skills and expertise was crucial to the success of this.”

Introducing change is another. “Change isn’t always easy for people to accept and we know that some of the people who came to Greytown for the quiet life have found the marketing of the town a bit difficult.” Adam adds that change is inevitable and that the advantage of the Greytown branding project is that change is being managed rather than being allowed to run wild.

Greytown is thriving off the back of its ‘village’ branding. Photograph by Rebecca Kempton.

Adam says budget is a further challenge – in particular, managing concerns that ratepayers ultimately foot the bill. He is keen to explain that Greytown Village Heaven is entirely self-sufficient, with no ratepayer subsidies – just the funds provided by the people and businesses who believe in creating success for everyone.

Greytown is now thriving off the back of its ‘village’ identity. While still technically a town, presenting Greytown as a village has created a positive emotional association for visitors and a real sense of connectedness and community for businesses and residents.

And it is paying off. The main street is vibrant, business is booming (with boutique shopping a key activity) and there are more jobs for locals. Add to this a national award for being New Zealand’s 2017 ‘most beautiful small town’ and an award to Greytown Village Heaven for ‘most vibrant’ organisation at the recent Wairarapa Awards. Adam says the awards are great recognition and prove that the marketing campaign is working – and that Greytown is receiving good return on the small financial investment made.

FROM BOOK TOWN TO FAMILY TOWN… AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

Featherston too has started out on the identity trail. Once perceived as the somewhat poor relation to flourishing Greytown, a few years ago Featherston residents, business groups and developers decided it was time for change. They made great progress with the development along the main thoroughfare, the building of a new supermarket and car park as well as the introduction of town features such as the Wind Grass sculpture. This, in turn, has attracted new businesses (think C’est Cheese) and, importantly, new residents to the town. But it was the Booktown opportunity four years ago that really gave Featherston a chance of making a new name for itself.

Booktown is a global organisation which offers rural towns an exemplary model for self development as well as attracting tourists. 

Booktown has given Featherston something to hang its hat off. Photograph by Katie Farman.

In 2015 Featherston became New Zealand’s first Booktown and in October 2018 it was awarded full membership to the International Organisation of Book Towns (IOB).

Peter Biggs, chairman of Featherston Booktown, says Featherston is still creating micro-identities for itself – with the likes of speciality shops, accommodation and cooking schools – but Booktown has given the town something significant to hang its hat off.

“Booktown has provided Featherston with a platform for regeneration. It has put Featherston on the literary map and the town has shifted from being a pass-through place to a destination in itself. It’s a place where people now come and stay. Booktown has made us distinct. This has led to a new influx of visitors, which is helping boost the local economy.”

Peter says 5000 people attended the 2018 Booktown festival and more are expected at the 2019 event in May.

He adds that Booktown also creates a fitting link to the town’s historic tales, notably the Fell Engine Museum and the WWI military training camp. “The camp was New Zealand’s largest and it saw some 60,000 men pass through between 1916 and 1918. The story of the camp is phenomenal and Booktown events lend themselves well to the narrative being told.”

Martinborough’s tale is a different one in that the town started to establish a name for itself some 30 years ago when several entrepreneurial and passionate individuals realised the climate was perfect for wine growing. Martinborough then was an old service town for surrounding farms and coastal stations. Automation had rendered it nearly redundant and many considered the town a dusty backwater that would amount to nothing.

Martinborough: from dusty backwater to destination location. Photograph by Rebecca Kempton.

This is hard to believe given Martinborough’s reputation as an upmarket get-away destination today. Home to the highly acclaimed Toast Martinborough wine festival, Martinborough is a place where visitors flock to experience everything wine-related: from winery tours to cycling through the vineyards. Conor Kershaw, member of the Martinborough Business Association, says wine is still the backbone of the community, but visitors also come to soak up the ambience and colonial charm of the town centre. He says the town is unique in that it is a destination location. “It’s not a highway town which means locals and tourists have to make a conscious decision to be part of it.”

Carterton’s identity is a healthy mix of arts, culture and community. Resting pretty much slap bang in the middle of the Wairarapa corridor means that Carterton sits at the heart of Wairarapa. It is the gateway to the Tararuas – out via Waiohine Gorge and Mount Holdsworth – and the great outdoors beyond. It’s the Daffodil Capital too – self-named so in 1995 to mark the significance of the spring bulb throughout Carterton’s history.

Carterton’s identity is a healthy mix of arts, culture and community. Photograph by Rebecca Kempton.

But there’s another dimension to Carterton that is emerging – and that’s its sense of community. Carterton demonstrates ‘neighbourly’ and ‘citizenship’ very well, bringing people together from all walks of life – a likely catalyst for this being the completion of the architecturally outstanding Events Centre in 2011.

Longtime Carterton resident and local councillor, Jill Greathead, agrees and says this is demonstrated by the number of active local groups and organisations – including Resilient Carterton, Wairarapa Voice, 3Mile Co-Working Community and Carterton Sports and Recreation Trust (the group behind a $2 million sports hub proposal). “Carterton is physically distinct from the other towns and I think our identity is a healthy mix of arts, culture and community. I’d also like Carterton to be known for environmental sustainability in the future. Our wastewater project at Dalton Farm at the south end of Carterton is a great example. Here, we are discharging treated urban wastewater effluent on to the land and so keeping it away from the Mangatarere Stream that runs close by. This is helping to improve the quality of this important watercourse.”

At the other end of the strip is Masterton, Wairarapa’s largest district and turnstile to the north. “Masterton is our biggest and boldest Wairarapa town – and proud winner of New Zealand’s Most Beautiful City 2017,” says Masterton mayor, Lyn Patterson. “Historically we have grown as a service town to the rural sector to a thriving ‘little city’ full of surprises and an abundance of activities. Masterton is home to some of our biggest employers, great schools and healthcare providers – and we seem to be making a name for ourselves in the arts and innovation arena too.”

From a visitor point of view, data from Destination Wairarapa positions Masterton as a ‘family town’ with lots to do from the jewel that is Queen Elizabeth Park to the Trust House Recreation Centre, Aratoi Art Gallery, movie theatres, year-round events and shopping.

WHOLE OF WAIRARAPA AND THE SUM OF PARTS

While our individual towns are enjoying the success their identities bring, there is consensus that the region’s full potential is still to be reached. Peter Biggs believes this lies in ‘sharing more’. He says the sharing has started but that there needs to be greater connection between the towns, their events and their people. “We are all part of the visitor journey and we are all complementary. The next step in terms of marketing Wairarapa as a whole is that we all start to work together more and draw on each other’s expertise.”

Conor Kershaw thinks the same. He believes there is real leverage in the towns working closer together. “We must remember that we are not in competition with each other and that we actually share the same visitors. A visitor may stay overnight in Martinborough but that same visitor will also likely stop in Featherston, take a trip to Greytown and continue on through Carterton to Masterton.”

Adam Blackwell also advocates that “the power of a collective five is much more impactful than the power of five separate ones”. He says increased regional marketing and planning activity is essential to take the towns to the next level. “While there are groups and organisations who are already looking at the big picture, it would be great to have an overall plan – especially for big issues like infrastructure. We need to be able to cope with growth and increased visitor numbers over the long-term. Tourism is our ticket to improved economic prosperity. This is part of our future and we would be wise to start putting the thought into this now.”

Story by Lisa Carruthers