Hard News by Russell Brown


Where are the foreigners?!

My taxi driver had a theory, as taxi drivers often do -- especially when they've had a lot of time to sit in their cars and ruminate. At about 12.30am on Friday morning, on Queen Street, I was only his second fare for the evening. His night had been a disaster -- as, indeed, had most nights since the Rugby World Cup commenced.

"Where are the foreigners?!" he demanded as we sped down the northwestern motorway.

His theory was that RWC punters booking their trips had looked at the jacked-up pricing of Auckland hotels and decided to spend their time in Sydney, flying across the Tasman only for game days.

Had he been working in 2005, during the Lions tour of New Zealand, I asked him, and was that better? Yes, he said: that had been a bonanza.

Jock Phillips, on last week's Media7, said he too had noticed the absence of RWC tourists on his blogging tour of the regions. His theory was that we've seen a different kind of fan than we did during the Lions tour -- younger, more likely to be touring in camper vans than staying in city hotels and splashing out at restaurants.

Whatever the cause, it's now evident that Rugby World Cup 2011 is not delivering the anticipated hospitality bonanza -- or at least delivering it very unevenly. And what's happening is something a bit more than even the skeptics were predicting -- things aren't just average, they're worse than usual.

The Herald's front-page lead told the story:

Business has plunged at most Auckland restaurants as the Rugby World Cup sweeps away their customers.

Extra staff brought on for the predicted boom have been left with nothing to do, and redecorated spaces are sitting empty.

A Restaurant Association survey found the majority of businesses had fared worse because of the tournament - and Paymark revealed yesterday that even eftpos spending had slowed.

"It's not just down - it's shocking," said Rick Littlewood, owner of the Kura and Tanuki bars on Queen St.

"We're down 50 per cent at all our businesses. We've closed one of our sake bars on Saturday nights.

"It's just not worthwhile opening - you have to pay staff to stand around looking at each other... It was like they had sent everybody off to the countryside."

I've heard such reports from Ponsonby Road and even Kingsland, where restaurants are empty during the week. Not only are the well-heeled rugby tourists elusive, so are the locals.

I think one of the most extraordinary features of RWC 2011 as a public event is the difficulty in predicting crowd behaviour. The tournament was immediately a victim of its own success when far too many people turned up to celebrate its opening in downtown Auckland. And perhaps that is true too when the crowds have been scarce -- are we all staying home and watching the rugby?

Because I don't think there can be any complaint about the games themselves. There have been upsets, thrills, tension and some really marvellous rugby played. A repeat of the largely tedious play of the 2007 tournament would have hurt rugby union itself, but, instead, we've had something much better and much more exciting. And with the blanket TV coverage of the big games, the spectacle has been accessible to people who aren't Sky subscribers. There is a lesson in public engagement in that.

The demands of hosting have also told us a lot about Auckland. There have been lessons about transport planning -- whatever was wrong with services to and from Eden Park seems largely to have been fixed -- and about what the city can do. The staging of Diwali festivities in Aotea Square was an absolute winner this past weekend, as was the closure of the adjacent stretch of Queen Street for the food stalls. If nothing else, we've learned that closing roads for public events isn't only possible in Auckland -- it's highly desirable.

Media7 will be taking the RWC media pulse again this week, when I'll be joined by Tracey Nelson, Greg McGee and the Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden. If you'd like to join us for Wednesday evening's recording, we'll need you to come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ from 5.15pm (but no later than 5.40). As ever, try and drop me a line to let me know you're coming.

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