The phone call came just one day after the announcement Hamilton had won the Sevens rugby tournament. Dallas Fisher said to himself, “it’s begun”.
Calling him was a major concert promoter wanting to talk about holding a big concert at the FMG Stadium Waikato. Exactly the sort of inquiry for which Dallas had planned when he came up with the idea of 37 South, the new company on a mission to propel Waikato from regional events player into the big entertainment league – without risk to ratepayers.
“It’s easy to get over-focused on the Sevens, this is a much bigger strategy. My job with the group I’ve put together is to go out and hunt down big events,” says Dallas between back-to-back meetings at the Claudelands Event Centre headquarters of Montana Catering, the heavyweight events service provider of which he is a major shareholder.
The place is hopping. In a few days Dallas will lead a massive planning session for the Sevens, just seven months away on the first weekend in February. 37 South, in partnership with the New Zealand Rugby Union, secured for Hamilton the 2018 and 2019 legs of the World Rugby Sevens series.
Dallas may have his eye on a bigger picture but this is Waikato’s big chance to show off its events capability muscle. The pressure is on to deliver a great experience.
Why? Because successful events produce revenue and prestige, which creates jobs and fires up the local economy. The bigger the success, the bigger the rewards for the host region.
But how can Hamilton have any show of pulling off a stunning Sevens when the Capital City’s effort died a slow and miserable death?
For a bunch of reasons, says Dallas, starting with the fact that Wellington’s rugby stadium, aka The Cake Tin, is a circle with one entry. Hamilton’s has four sides and four entries.
In a round stadium with one entrance, they couldn’t successfully separate the vastly different Sevens audiences. Primary school children mixed it with F-bomb dropping drinkers out to party hard.
The potential excitement of the sport of Sevens hasn’t died, the venue strangled it, says Dallas, chairman of the Chiefs and Waikato Means Business, an accountant-turned-entrepreneur businessman whose commercial experience takes up several pages of the Companies Office register.
Stadium will be divided up
Capacity at the FMG stadium will be set at 23,000. (Wellington was 35,000). The Hamilton venue will be divided into four territories accessed by appropriate tickets. The WEL stand will be an R18 party and super-heroes dress-up zone, offering 8000 tickets. The stadium side known as the Green Zone will be dedicated to families with 3000 tickets available. Separate fun parks will be created for families and the R18 revellers.
Access to a multitude of off-field entertainments will be covered by the ticket price. As Dallas says, 45 games is “a lot of rugby”; providing plenty of extra entertainment is imperative. The Brian Perry stand will host die-hard rugby fans – local club members, Sevens followers, veteran supporters, “Old School Rugby” types, as Dallas puts it. There are 5000 Hamilton and Waikato club members so that’s a big chunk of the 11,000 tickets available in this zone probably sold already, he says. They’ll be able to mainline on rugby with access to Fred Jones Park, the Sevens players’ warm up area directly behind. The Goal Line Terrace will be set aside for 1000 under-18-year-olds. It will be alcohol-free with a social media entertainment focus.
Another point of difference from Wellington will be ticket prices and the cost of attending the Sevens, says Dallas.
“This is all about segmenting the market across Hamilton and Waikato, Auckland and the upper North Island region then looking at segments within each of those. “
Auckland’s Sevens fans are a hot button segment and “we’re really interested in the Pacifica one”.
“On average to go to the Wellington Sevens cost you $1200 (per person) for flights, accommodation, and tickets. That’s a big number. We can majorly reduce that. If you live in Auckland you can get in a car and come down with your crew for maybe $70 for a tank of gas among four people. Or you can get on a bus or a train. We’ll be talking to them (KiwiRail).”
Ticket prices will be announced when they go on sale, likely in late July. “They’ll be very competitive,” says Dallas.
He expects Waikato-ites to be inundated with requests for beds from outside friends and family as they are for National Fieldays.
The Sevens tournament will be held over Saturday and Sunday, February 3 and 4. The following Tuesday, February 6 is Waitangi Day. Monday will be the greater Waikato’s time to shine, says Dallas. It’s hoped Sevens’ visitors will use this day to fan out to spots like Raglan, Waitomo, Hobbiton, Cambridge and the Avantidrome. “This is a holistic approach for Waikato. The thinking is that everyone can do well out of it.”
Events business takes off
So much for the aspirations – what are the nuts and bolts holding the new 37 South big events vehicle together and how roadworthy is it? By Dallas’ own admission the Sevens deal came together fast and the ink is barely dry on 37 South’s greater strategy.
The Fisher name has oiled some of the initial squeaks about another Hamilton foray into big events hosting after the V8 motor racing financial flop. His business pedigree – Dallas says about 60 percent of his commercial life these days is in the events business – and assurance to ratepayers that their pockets will not be tapped by the Sevens venture seems to have comforted naysayers.
But 37 South isn’t about one man, he says. As Dallas tells it, he’s having to beat off backers with a stick.
And no, they’re not all the usual suspects, Waikato philanthropists forever opening their wallets to the city. “They’re my suspects, people I know in the events sector who are going to add value to the sector. Some will be well-known, others won’t be.”
The company’s been registered – it started life as the Hamilton Events Funding Group before getting the catchier, latitude-associated moniker – and its shareholders or “owners” will be finalised soon, Dallas says.
”It’s going to have some owners, some marketing relationships, and some other people are interested in putting cash in from a benefactor position. All these people are putting money in – it’s not one person writing a cheque, it’s a whole lot of people.”
Dallas’ aim is to create a 37 South events fund of $600,000 – every year. That’s about double Hamilton City Council’s events budget he reckons.
“Essentially there are two lots of funders. There will be the people who put in some of their marketing budget – that’s about us working together with businesses – and they will get a return in their own business because they’re involved in this sector.
“The owners will get a return based on the fact that 37 South will, from time to time, be a promoter. The owners are putting up some capital and taking some risk, therefore they should get a return when the business is taking a promoter’s risk.
“But in this case (the Sevens) there will be not return for shareholders because it is a joint venture (with NZ Rugby) and it’s about making this business work. We’re not going to be a promoter all the time.”
Dallas himself and the Montana Catering company will be both types of funders, he says. There will be no dominant shareholders.
“I like businesses where people get together to work and there’s no super minority, it’s an equal partnership.”
So far so good.
But why do 37 South’s backers think they can bring the big event bucks to Waikato?
Essential ingredients for a successful big event are the right facilities – think FMG stadium, Claudelands, Seddon Park, Mystery Creek, Avantidrome – a fresh and exciting event, and being close to the target market place, says Dallas.
“There’s got to be demand to go to your event. Hamilton has great facilities. It’s got the right geographic location – close to Auckland but not in it, and close to the (rest of) central North Island.
“We have an events industry sector that knows what it’s doing. We know what we are doing and we’re good at it. We are short of hotel space in Hamilton, probably between 150 and 250 beds short of three-star accommodation, and we have to fix it. But some people are working on that.
“We’re close to the biggest market in New Zealand and there is reasonable transport from other markets. The guy who has an event wants a facility and some help. Maybe not money help but there’s a range of things you can provide these guys through the network we are putting in place. Now we just need promoters who are willing to take a risk and have the product that people want.”
Winning the Sevens
Dallas says the 37 South concept had been on his “strategic thinking” radar since last year. The Sevens opportunity was just serendipity. It came up along the way. He’d already signed a contract with Hamilton City Council to secure the city’s event facilities, depending on availability, for new events.
“I did that first. I’d talked to a whole lot of people and basically got (37 South) sorted but needed to finalise exactly who was in and who was out. I knew it was over-subscribed. Then out of the blue while I was working on that along comes the Sevens. I had to push pause on finalising the last participants. We had to secure it because these big, big events don’t come up very often. Here was an opportunity to take an event that was struggling and fix it.”
37 South pitched to Sevens promoter, the New Zealand Rugby Union and negotiated a deal.
What’s the commercial rationale driving 37 South?
“We all know the events industry sector produces revenues, employment and economic value. Players in this sector here are Hamilton and Waikato Tourism, various event promoters, various event facilities, and local government,” says Dallas.
“I wanted to develop some thinking – not about small events, but big stuff. If we want to make real step changes economically we have to bring big events to Hamilton and Waikato. But we had the hangover of the V8s, and we also had a tight Hamilton City Council budget. If I wanted to put serious money into events here I had to come up with money that wasn’t council’s.
“The industry – security, accommodation providers, hospitality, transport and so on – has cash. The council puts in the facility but the cost of operating that facility, security etc, gets paid by the promoter. The council’s not putting up any cash. We needed to get that sorted because we need the people of Hamilton to be positive about this, to know that it’s not negatively affecting their rates bill. Hamilton and Waikato Tourism has the contacts and databases.
“So you end up with quite a big list of where the money gets spent, and who has the ability to invest. Event promoters are the receivers in this. The council has no cash but it has the facilities – those investments have been made in Claudelands, Seddon Park, the stadium…. now we have to make them work to drive revenue, jobs and economic development.”
Done well, big events are money-spinners for a town or city, Dallas says.
“It’s old information now but there was a calculation done some years ago that one sold-out rugby test in Hamilton drove about $3.5 million of economic value. Twenty thousand people? It’ll probably be more like $4 million or more now.
”Whether it’s a sporting event, business event, large conference, cultural event, you get 1500 people in town (each) spending an average of $250 a day for three days, it adds up.”