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Taste of creativity

Sarah Meikle MInstD, CEO of Wellington Culinary Events Trust and Festival Director of Visa Wellington on a Plate, lives and breathes all things culinary.

By Alexandra Johnson, freelance journalist
28 Jun 2021
read time
5 min to read
photo of Sarah Meikle at farmers market with her dog

Sarah Meikle says it was inevitable she would work in the food industry. Not only did her father establish a range of iconic eateries in the capital, from Dockside to One Red Dog, her mother went into labour with her in a restaurant.

“I grew up behind the scenes, knew lots of people in the industry and did lots of holiday jobs in Wellington restaurants,” she says.

After studying tourism at Massey University, Meikle went on to travel the world as the manager of emerging markets for Tourism New Zealand.

“I’ve always had a strong love of food and interest in different cultures. I was first in charge of South America but, as the focuses of different governments changed, interest increased in different emerging markets and my job expanded to include India, South Africa and the Middle East, none of which are close together. But the food cultures of those countries are so strong”.

Following several years in London as Tourism New Zealand’s marketing manager for UK and Europe, Sarah returned to New Zealand and became general marketing manager at Positively Wellington Tourism.

“They gave me three problems to help solve. One was the then dwindling popularity of the Sevens rugby tournament, so we gave that to Hamilton,” she jokes.

“Another was to refresh the Wellington tourism website, and the third was to fix August.”

“Fixing” August, which meant increasing visitor numbers at a slow time of year, was the most challenging as ”Wellington at that stage suffered from quite significant tourism seasonality”.

“We have a much bigger domestic tourism market than most regions and other places, such as Queenstown, have stronger winter offerings. Wellington didn’t have that same attraction. We were tainted by the weather brush.”

“It was at that point I started thinking about a food festival. Up to that point there were day-long wine and food events in New Zealand but no multi-day food festivals such as I had attended overseas.”

She and Anna Nielson from Grow Wellington put their heads together to see what could be done.

“My angle was very consumer-focused, but I knew we really needed the producing end of it as well. Anna was responsible for the food and beverage producer relationships for the region and we decided we could make it work, especially with the backing of both organisations.”

In 2009, and after just six weeks planning, the first Wellington on a Plate (WOAP) festival was kicked off with 30 restaurants and 15 events.

Now, she says, it takes the whole year to orchestrate. The 2021 festival, coming up in August, has the highest ever levels of registration.

“We have over 300 restaurants and well over 500 food businesses participating in the festival. It is by far the largest culinary celebration in Australia and New Zealand.”

Last year, there were an estimated 130,000 people participating in the festival, of which 30% came from out of town. The estimated increase in spend in the hospitality sector during August 2020 was $30 million.

Pandemic pivot

For a lesson in agility, one need not look much further than how the Wellington Culinary Events Trust and Visa WOAP created At Yours, a one-stop directory of Wellington food and beverage businesses offering takeaway and contactless delivery during lockdown level 3 and level 2.

Meikle says she and her colleagues felt a huge responsibility to help restaurants get back on their feet after level 4 lockdown.

“There were scary projections at the time, it was suggested that 50% of restaurants would close, so we forgot about the festival for a minute. The whole culture of Wellington is as a dining-out city. Losing half our restaurant stock would be devastating, let alone the job losses.”

“At the time, no one had certainty around their jobs or if the festival was even going to go ahead,” she says. “But we had an amazing team which turned At Yours around in five days. We had a community we were connected into, a website with a significant audience, and we were already working on mapping technology which we could repurpose.”

Registration was free and anyone across the food and beverage value chain could sign up, from restaurants to cupcake cooks and vegetable producers.

“And the people were ready for it, ordering in food was the first thing people wanted to do. You didn’t need a new pair of shoes but by god you were sick of cooking.”

They had more traffic to the website in the first week than across the entire festival period. “It goes to show that once you’ve got a well-coordinated system and an audience, how you can, although I hate the word, pivot.”

Excluding a few events, such as this year’s Art Deco Festival in Napier, which was unfortunately cancelled due to a later Auckland lockdown, the festival sector in general has been incredibly resilient to COVID-19 disruptions.

“And that’s because festivals have to be very flexible and agile - most are run on incredibly small budgets by highly creative people. We are resilient by nature. It’s more than a livelihood for these people, it’s a passion.”

She says that while most festivals managed to survive, “we all live holding our breath.”

Different perspectives

In addition to her festival and foody roles, Meikle holds board positions at Palliser Estate Ltd and Yachting New Zealand and appreciates the different perspective being in governance offers.

“A CEO is working in the business, but when you are on the board you are much more strategically focussed. I do believe it makes me a better CEO and encourages me to think about issues the way a board does, such as the long- term view.”

Conversely, she brings different skills and experiences to the board table. “I’m not a lawyer, I’m not an accountant and I never will be, but I find that is one of the biggest challenges in advancing my governance career.

“Businesses are risk averse, they want creativity but they often aren’t willing to take the plunge and bring creative people onto their boards. I enjoy bringing in a different way of thinking and approach, a consumer approach a lot of the time, because that’s my background.”

She says New Zealand’s food brand has traditionally been product led, and known internationally for foods such as fresh salmon, mussels, cheese and Sauvignon Blanc, “we have been for a long time the shopping basket of the world”.

“I’m prepared to argue that our national dish is not roast lamb, our national dish is about the food grown here, the world’s best products from the most incredible land, produced by the most amazing growers. That is our story.

“Our food products overseas should be revered. And post-COVID-19, food provenance is going to be high on people’s agendas: organics, quality and sustainability.”

So how do we include that in our international messaging?

“Well, we have to say, if you think it tastes amazing when you eat it at home, imagine what it tastes like when you eat it in New Zealand, because everything tastes better at the source.”

If Meikle has her way there will be plenty of world-class festivals and food events for our international visitors to enjoy.

“My phone has run hot in the past six months, I’ve been working with five or six regions which are writing food and beverage tourism strategies. They are looking at Wellington and how we have transformed a period of the year that was historically very quiet.”

But won’t that increase competition for the capital?

“No, not at all! All boats float on a rising tide.”

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