Winetopia leads the way for food tourism experiences

by | Apr 21, 2022 | Opinion

Rob Eliott and his team are the driving force behind food events that you’ll know like Taste of Auckland and Winetopia. Rob’s also on the board of Eat New Zealand. Following on from our op-ed on food tourism, we spoke to Rob about what’s actually happening in the world of food events and how Winetopia is benchmarking food tourism festivals for the rest of the country.

Winetopia has become a national landmark event on the calendar for winelovers. In addition to attracting local audiences, people now travel to attend a Winetopia event outside their local region. While Winetopia launched in 2016 and has been a runaway success since then, the germination of the idea started in London 20 years ago when Eliott was working overseas. Weekend wine tasting festivals meant engaging with winemakers and storytellers while they poured delicious tasting samples and Eliott often wondered about what it would be like to recreate that experience in New Zealand with additional elements of entertainment and fun but without the experience devolving to a big, boozy drinkfest. By 2016, New Zealand had become a country of over 700 wineries, a far cry from 50 years ago when the wine scene was still emerging. The explosion of the wine industry in New Zealand and the building of a strong domestic market and significant food export story through NZ Winegrowers activity meant there was a direct connection for consumers – they could experience a range of tastes and products at a festival event and then continue that connection with the product through retail all year round. 

Rob Eliott, founder of Winetopia

“I got really interested in the New Zealand wine scene. Looking around events, there was no one showcase for all the great stuff that was going on. So we decided let’s create a wine event. When we sat down to create Winetopia, we decided we want all the great things about wine, and none of the bad stuff. We’ve all gone to sort of a more traditional wine and food festival, you know, I spent much of my youth doing that. And they serve a purpose but there is a point sometimes in those festivals where people are starting to look a little bit leery!  So when we set up Winetopia, we wanted to try and limit that as much as we could, and really focus in on the creativity, the really interesting personalities behind the wine and the incredible difference that you can find and across the breadth of the wine industry,” says Eliott.

“Winetopia was really a kind of a melding of traditional wine showcases, a festival and an engaging interactive event. We wanted a really upbeat, engaging, fun event to go to. And in my mind, whenever we’re creating an event like this, I always think about it as a sort of a Disney experience, right? You come through the gate and you go, wow, look at all this great stuff, I want to go there. And I want to do this, and I want to do that. So the event is talking to winemakers and tastings, but you can play some games in an environment that is fun and uplifting, It seems to have struck a chord and the wineries in particular, have been really wonderful. Because we literally can’t do it without them! And so the ones that have come along for the ride and, you know, believed in what we’re up to, it’s been a big part of the success.”

Recent conversations have highlighted the connection between food and tourism. Rob agrees that while Winetopia is a domestic festival, it’s still a tourism event. Developing really unique customer experiences is really essential to creating great food tourism experiences – especially when they can connect to broader products and regional experiences. Winetopia is a three dimensional experience uniquely laid out by region so you can walk through from Northland down to Hawke’s Bay and onward, highlighting the profiles and grape varieties happening in each region. It’s a chance to explore what’s special about each region without having to fly or drive. In many respects, the festival is a tourism product as much as a food experience which has been reflected in consumer and winery feedback. 

“When we set up the Winetopia events, we started in Auckland because our largest city didn’t have an exposure of our thriving wines. Then we asked all the wineries ‘where would you like to go to next?’ We were expecting, come on, tell us Honolulu, let’s do it. Let’s go. Resoundingly, the answer came back, Wellington. So that was our second stop, and then Christchurch where we’ve had to wait for the right venue to come around. What we’ve now seen is that people who’ve come to the Auckland event will go into the Wellington one or what have you. They’re using it as a reason to visit.”

“Quite often an event becomes not the only reason someone will travel but it becomes a hook that brings them back for an annual friends and family visit. We’re starting to see quite a lot of of that kind of regional travel for people who already know the brand and just turning up in different places.”

It’s a similar model to some music or lifestyle festivals, like Synthony, Splore or WOMAD that attract visitors from across the country. Specifically in the food sector, there are compelling data points showing that food and beverage experiences are a motivating reason for people to travel. 

“Food tourism. Let’s face it, it’s real,” says Eliott. 

“There’s heaps of data out there about the pool of food and drink tourism you can look at, we could disappear down a rabbit hole here, I think. Look at all the work that Australia has been done in the last four or five years on Restaurant Australia, and that was based on some pretty big research papers that they did saying that, actually if we focus in on our food and drink credentials, and we get some of the biggest names in the world over to help us profile those, then we’re going to draw a really kind of high net worth tourist. Can’t have been cheap. But they would have done the math and said, ‘yep, this is going to be worth it.’ And I think it’s pretty exciting because we’re seeing New Zealand is finally waking up to the fact that we’ve got this incredible food and drink available.”

“We’ve got all these amazing stories, not one story, when it comes to New Zealand. There’s no national dish, there’s heaps of stuff going on. It’s all fantastic. Whether it’s the indigenous food story of the Pacific or one of the many different migrant stories, I think there’s a wonderful story to be told. I think the wine side of it is probably high value because of its expandability. A bottle of wine can sit on a shelf for a while, whereas if you’re making fresh food, it’s kind of hard to send that overseas.”

For more on the impact of Covid-19 on the events business and innovation in the food events space be sure to listen to The Feed Weekly.

TICKETS ON SALE NOW

Winetopia tickets are available for sale now and usually sell out. In addition to festival tickets you can find out more about the programme of entertainment, guests and the Winetopia Club at www.winetopia.co.nz.

WELLINGTON – TSB Arena, 1 & 2 July, 2022
CHRISTCHURCH – Te Pae, 26 & 27 August, 2022
AUCKLAND – Shed 10, 28 & 29 October, 2022

About the Author

Tash McGill

Tash McGill works as a strategy consultant in tourism, hospitality and digital transformation. She is co-founder of The Feed, President of Food Writers NZ, Chair of the New Zealand Whisky Association.

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