With the America’s Cup less than six months away, the event is sparking hope for hospitality operators who dream of ringing tills and packed venues.
While the verdict is not yet in on whether Auckland’s America’s Cup event will be able to host international tourists, veteran restaurateur Damien McDowell believes the sailing regatta, even without international visitors, will bring about recovery for the hospitality sector.
McDowell, who owns Wynyard Pavilion and The Humble Canteen, and previously co-owned Pocket Bar in Grey Lynn between 2016 and 2018, said he like many business owners in downtown Auckland were “pinning their hopes on” the event in March.
“We think it will be really big,” McDowell told the Herald. “We’re really excited about it. It’ll be great for the precinct and greater Auckland as well.
“I think the America’s Cup will make it a swift recovery. Tourism is not coming back anytime soon, but we’re expecting a lot of domestic tourism for the Cup, so that should get [the industry] back to pre-Covid levels.”
McDowell and his with Helen took over the hospitality venue that is now known as Wynyard Pavilion two years ago, changing its name, offering and completely refurbishing the site last year – with America’s Cup in mind.
The 450-seat restaurant and bar has been named the official supporters bar of Emirates’ Team New Zealand, and will next month put up its branding. It is already frequented by Team New Zealand and other competing teams.
McDowell believes Kiwis will pick up the tab of would be international visitor spending over summer and the regatta, which will be key for the industry to bounce back from muted spending as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Industry-wide, spending with hospitality was down 10 per cent on pre-Covid levels in September. While trading levels for Wynyard Pavilion and The Humble Business are not back to pre-Covid heights, McDowell said “business was looking up” as the country heads into summer.
“We’re expecting that by summer we’ll be back to pre-Covid levels, and especially with America’s Cup, we’re expecting it to be a big summer.”
Lockdown was tough for the McDowells, and the pair had to quickly pivot their operations to keep revenue flowing. They had opened their newest venue The Humble Canteen just four days before the first lockdown in April.
The business temporarily morphed into an online grocer, which delivered produce to customers’ doors three days a week during levels 3 and 4, while Wynyard Pavilion turned into a fish & chips takeaway on the weekends.
Between the two venues, the pair were able to hold on to all of their staff.
“[Humble Canteen] didn’t make money, but [the online grocer] was our way of still being able to get our brand, and what we stood for, out there,” McDowell said.
“It was also a way to keep our staff motivated and engaged. The feedback was amazing, we found through the whole lockdown that people were just so supportive.”
Humble Canteen has since morphed again following the shift to flexi-working as large corporate offices in its vicinity remain at around 50 per cent occupancy. It is now delivering to corporate offices in a much larger area in the city.
The business is trialling an internal online ordering system with Lion NZ, where staff in the Freeman’s Bay office can use QR codes to check menus and order on the spot in time for lunch delivered by e-bike.
“That’s something we probably wouldn’t have had to have done previously, but it’s actually been really cool. We’re trialling it with Lion, but the plan is to do that with other businesses interested in the area as well.”
The biggest lesson McDowell learnt through the lockdown periods was the importance of personal communication – both with customers and staff. The support and going through tough times has made the pair more appreciative of their customers and the importance of building personal relationships.
“Our biggest takeaway is that connecting with locals makes your business much more resilient to these downturns. If you know the names of your customers and their families, they feel a real connection to you, and for me Covid has really rammed that home – and how important it is to connect on a personal level.
“It might not have been the best time to open a business right before lockdown, but it has reinforced all of that for us, and now we’re seeing the dividends of that.”
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