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Feed them and they will come

Wellington in winter a decade ago was not exactly a foodie haven attracting out of towners, with most locals also hibernating at home. But in 2008, change started to set in after the city’s tourism organisation was tasked with establishing a festival to invigorate the Wellington economy over the cold and quiet months.

From these beginnings as an intimate civic event developed to breathe life into the capital in winter, Wellington on a Plate has grown into New Zealand’s biggest culinary festival.

Eleven years on, festival founder Sarah Meikle reflects on the success of an event concept that has driven an entire industry to collaborate for the greater good of its region. 

“We were coming out of the recession, and with restaurants often closed in winter and accommodation providers really struggling, we knew we needed something to bring people out into the city again,” says Meikle.  

“I’d recently returned from overseas where I’d seen the popularity of restaurant festivals, and knowing the true caliber of Wellington’s hospitality scene, the concept felt like low hanging fruit.”

The first Wellington on a Plate was organised in just six weeks and cultivated a humble 12 events and 30 restaurants. 

“Then in our second year, we jumped from 30 restaurants to 80 restaurants.”

It was at this time that Meikle approached Visa to partner as title sponsor. Visa leapt at the opportunity to be involved and ‘Visa Wellington on a Plate’, or VWOAP for short was born. 

“It was a really natural partnership because the way we pay and the convenience of payments is an important part of dining out,” says Meikle.

Visa Country Manager for New Zealand Marty Kerr says the festival provides an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of convenient and secure payments to customer experience, ultimately helping New Zealand merchants to increase sales and grow their customer bases. 

“Going back to 2010, technology like contactless payments hadn’t even been invented, so over the years the festival has become a hub for Visa to showcase our innovation and help merchants learn what consumers want in a world-class point-of-sale experience,” says Kerr. 

Data from Visa’s global payments network VisaNet points to a growing international appetite in New Zealand’s culinary scene, with ‘restaurants’ and ‘food and grocery’ enjoying year-on-year international spend growth of 15 percent and 10 percent respectively, compared to 2017.

Ten years on the festival’s partnership with Visa still goes strong, with Visa and Wellington Culinary Events Trust co-winning the New Zealand Event Association’s Best Event Sponsorship award in 2014 and 2019.

“Visa’s commitment to the festival goes beyond simply being a sponsor,” says Meikle. “Visa has created a festival hub which brings fun, interactive culinary experiences for customers as well as a pop-up event space where VWOAP merchants can hold bespoke events, test out new ideas and collaborate with other merchants”.  It speaks to Visa’s mission of connecting individuals, businesses and communities to thrive.

This year, the festival has gone ‘next level’, says Meikle. 

“For the first time, VWOAP has extended its two-week format into a month-long celebration, hosting more than 20 international chefs as part of our Singapore Airlines Chef Collaboration Series, and featuring more restaurants, pop-up events and cuisine delights than ever.” 

VWOAP entices diners through a gamut of festival dishes, burgers, cocktails and events, showcasing Wellington’s dizzying array of restaurants, cafes and bars, culinary talent and regional producers and suppliers. 

VWOAP has transformed Wellington hospitality’s stagnant winter months into one of its busiest times of the year, with retail, tourism and accommodation players reaping the benefits of the region-wide calendar event. 

Maura Kelly, owner of Oriental Parade eatery, Beach Babylon, says VWOAP has evolved into a massive event on the Wellington culinary calendar, with every year getting busier as the festival’s profile and reach grows, domestically and internationally. 

“VWOAP and Beach Babylon started at about the same time, and we wanted to be part of it to showcase our food and get our name out there,” says Kelly. “We’ve been a part of it ever since, and have seen how the festival turned August into one of the busiest months of the year for us, enticing people out of hibernation.”

Mike Egan, owner of Monsoon Poon, was part of the small industry group that brainstormed VWOAP in its early concept. He says the festival has been hugely beneficial in cementing Wellington as the culinary capital of New Zealand, and on the global culinary map. 

“VWOAP is about showcasing our sector as innovative, vibrant, creative and passionate as any other significant industry group in our economy.

If Visa Wellington on a Plate succeeds, the whole hospitality sector benefits, and that success has a positive flow-on effect on the regional economy – hotels, shops and local activities. 

“The festival has gone a long way in solidifying the collaborative nature of Wellington’s hospitality industry. We don’t see ourselves as competitors. We compete with the disposable dollar – money that could be spent on overseas travel or a new car. If our sector is exciting, dynamic and has a myriad of dining solutions then we can all get a slice of that.”  

Participating merchants are not just confined to central Wellington but extend up the Kapiti Coast and over into the Wairarapa, encouraging more participants and stimulating sales into other areas often affected during the quieter winter months.

According to Marketshare research, merchant retail sales totaled $15.6 million during VWOAP 2018, up $3.0 million or 24% when compared to VWOAP 2017. *

Ongoing collaboration = success

Meikle says festivals like VWOAP only work if the community and partners are collaborative. 

“We have this mantra: ‘For the industry; by the industry’. It’s important we constantly consult the hospitality industry and they have the opportunity to feed back into festival’s future strategy. 

“That’s reflected in the changes we make each year. If it doesn’t work for the industry, then it cannot work for the consumers. “

Visa Wellington on a Plate runs from 1 – 31 August, 2019.  

* Source: “Visa Wellington On a Plate 2018, Market Assessment Report, Paymark Data”

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