If we are to believe the rhetoric of the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Act that is slowly moving through parliament, councils will soon need to give greater scrutiny to non-core activities, including tourism expenditure. There is increasing public dissatisfaction of councils continually picking their pockets and an awareness that councils should be focusing on core services. So will this place the network of 90 odd i-Sites under threat?
i-Sites are "nice to have". The buildings are generally well maintained and they sit prominently on highly visual, valuable land. Only a couple are able to stand up on their own two feet, while the majority bleed money and are required to be subsidised by ratepayers. Taxpayers also get to chip-in by covering the operational costs of the i-Site's mother-ship, VIN inc.
The core function of i-Sites is to provide a holding pen for brochures to gather dust, give-out maps and provide a job creation scheme for earnest, well meaning folk that would love to run their own tourism business. i-Sites also act as a booking agency for tourism and attractions with a wide and varied conversion rate success between centres.
As many private businesses are aware, times are changing. Tourists are more savvy and prefer to connect directly with tourism based businesses.
International visitors are arriving into the country with a wealth of information that they have already gleaned from the internet. Any tourist trolling around New Zealand can easily trip across numerous WiFi sites to connect on-the-go and mobile data is becomming less eyewateringly expensive.
Unsurprisingly, use of new forms of technology by visitors continues to increase, particularly WiFi, Smart Phones and mobile phones.
Tourism businesses themselves have also changed by providing interactive websites and booking systems that are easily accessible. And if tourists wish to interact with a human, there a plenty of options available to them; especially when they arrive at a location outside an i-Site's limited retail hours. Motels are a good example of a network of businesses that are open 7-days a week, 365-days of the year that can offer local advice, make reciprocal bookings and offer directions.
With the demand for i-Sites dwindling, is the writing is on the wall? Are i-Sites fast becoming an costly, quaint relic of a bygone era?
And is it time for councils to exit i-Sites and allow these "businesses" to fold into the private sector?
ATEED in Auckland are no strangers to questionable tourism investment, but can at least be congratulated in identifying dodgy ROI with some of their i-Site network...
Five visitor information centres in Auckland are to shut with the loss of 20 full and part-time jobs. The centres are to close in Takapuna, Orewa, Pukekohe, Kumeu and Bombay.Source: Click HERE
Last month Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development announced plans to restructure its i-Site visitor centres after reviewing the 12 it inherited from former legacy councils two years ago.
They signalled five centres were likely to close as a result. If the centres remained open, ATEED said they would lose about $2.7 million over the next four years and so will close on December 14.
ATEED chief executive Brett O'Riley said the affected staff would be given "redeployment priority" for suitable and current roles within his organisation and it would work with other council linked groups to help find them work.
The remaining seven visitor centres at Auckland airport's international and domestic terminals, SkyCity, Princes Wharf, Waiheke Island, Warkworth and Devonport will remain, with ATEED looking to improve their performance.
O'Riley said ATEED would work with Local Boards and tourism operators to help fill the void caused by the closures.
"We intend developing a new commercial model for these areas possibly involving local Auckland Council assets such as service centres and libraries and greater use of technology, along with possible partnering with the private sector," he said.
According to the latest Tourism New Zealand visitor experience survey, tourists were accessing key tourism information and making bookings on their own devices, with smartphone use up 65 per cent in the last year and iPad use up 19 per cent.
The same survey showed i-Site use had dropped 27 per cent in the past two years.