9 November 2009: What do you think of when it comes to conferences in the UK? Overly packed seminar programmes of mixed quality? Not enough breaks to network? Cheesed off sponsors who’ve been hidden in the broom cupboard? Empty seats on the last day? I could go on, but will leave you the reader to add your own personal gripes.

Let’s face it. Historically, our conferences are predictable and about as inspiring as the World Darts Championship at Lakeside. There have been some encouraging signs of life in the last few years from ISPAL and LIW, but from a personal perspective, I was curious as to what our sector in other countries do.

So, as part of my SLC World Tour, I managed to bag myself a speaking slot at the New Zealand Recreation Conference, Hawkes Bay 2-4 November telling the Orford Park Story in the context of Olympic Legacy, with the blessing of my dear friends at Warrington Borough Council.

Brendon Ward, the inspirational Chief Executive of NZRA gave me a clear steer when I met up with him a couple of weeks before in Wellington over a beer. When I asked him if he wanted to see my presentation, he cooly replied, “No mate – it’s your reputation.” The Conference administration was slick and whilst I played in the mountains of the South Island on an adventure trip –  all arrangements were sorted for me.

Upon arrival at Napier Airport I was met and whisked off to my Motel with a jaccuzi bath the size of which I imagine could be used in a number of rather dubious Rap videos. After a quick change I was then driven to the Mayoral function where I was introduced to the Organising Committee and some of the other key note speakers. I was sensing this was genuinely an annual event for the sector.  It was relaxed, casual and positive. The next day – I arranged for my suit and shiny shoes to be sent back to England.

Day One of the conference was kicked off by Chris Tremain, a Government Finance Minister standing in for Murray McCully, the Minster of Sport (who apparently had a drama to deal with – The Island of Fiji…). Chris rocked up in a cycling top promoting a cycle sportif in his region. He clearly looked like a chap who took his fitness seriously (his Dad was an All Black in the 60’s).  His 45 minute speech blew the audience away – reassuring a nervous local government audience following recent rumblings about the sector being marginalised and highlighting innovation and best practice.  It was clear that there was a debate at Government  level as to the value delivered by Kiwi Recreation and this was currently being reviewed.  “He actually gets what we do” someone enthusiastically whispered in my ear.  Too right – I was trying to think of a UK MP who could actually fit into a cycling shirt….

Cycling Chris was then followed by an equally svelt Lawrence Yule, the Mayor of Hastings, a man on a mission to deliver one major sports project each of his three year political terms. Lawrence clearly didn’t just get it, but was driving it – namely a Regional Sports Park worth 25 million quid, with some synergy with Orford Park in Warrington and number of Sports Parks in the UK.

A well timed coffee break of 30 minutes followed. The conference floor was electric with everyone networking, laughing and enjoying their time together. Delegates then had a choice of two sets of three 45 minute concurrent sessions. Topics were varied reflecting an audience of parks and recreation specialists – ( I wonder if you remember those halcyon days?). The programme was then followed by the final key note speech that day from the CEO of the Tourist Association New Zealand who informed us that tourists spend 25 million quid a day in New Zealand. Adventure tourism plays a key role in Recreation sector in NZ and this was clearly something to shout about.

Lunch was superb and we then had a choice of two study tours or a bike ride along Napier’s beautiful coastline visiting a number of recreational projects.  I saw three major facilities in three hours and was impressed at the level of information shared by the managers at each venue – a struggling water park, the new Hawkes Bay Sports Park and Petrigrew-Green Arena Development. Fun, informative and nice to get some fresh air and sun.

Now at this point I was expecting going back for a few beers with some diehards,  scoff a dodgy curry, listen to people whinging over a whisky before bed. No chance! – we were bussed back to our accommodation and then on to the renowned Sileni Vineyard for a BBQ. This gathering was seriously sociable with a lot of local wine and fabulous food – all part of the 750 quid package (for three days). The Maori Master of Ceremonies,  Marcus Akuhata-Brown (who is the best conference chair I’ve ever had the privilege to hear) at my request, spent an hour with me working on a traditional Maori opening greeting for my key note. I thought ‘Kia Ora’ would have been a missed opportunity to show my growing respect to this proud bunch. I could see him going down well in the UK.

At this stage, I think I knew about 50 delegates by their first name. These people are seriously sociable and many have strong links with the UK.   At midnight the conference organisers tactfully escorted / bundled me back to my Motel before I could enjoy the evening too much. Bleery eyed, I started to make final preparations to practice my Maori.

Tuesday morning arrived.  I was on at 9am after the Day 1 Recap by Marcus who lightheartedly stitched me up by sharing elements of our chat the night before with the entire audience!!

Under the spotlight, my Maori intro (to mine and the audiences’ amazement) went fine. The presentation went (according to my new Kiwi chums) very well. They clearly were impressed with the achievements and ambitions of Warrington Borough Council and keen to explore how they too could leverage benefits for the wider sector from the 2011 Rugby World Cup, as Warrington has from the 2012 Olympics. I was presented a beautiful Art Deco painting by Marcus and I was pleased to see the audience managed to withhold throwing anything at me as they showed their appreciation.

I could now relax and enjoy the rest of the conference. Phew!! …I was then followed by Richard Beddle from Fitness New Zealand who delivered a very slick session on local government ‘being more commercial’ as it is clear the sector in New Zealand has enjoyed huge subsidies historically with less than 10% cost recovery the norm for many facilities. A tea break and concurrent sessions followed. Lunch was a feast and by now I was really feeling part of NZRA gang with lots of banter and business cards being exchanged. Was emigration becoming an option?

After lunch we heard from Deb Hurdle from New Zealand’s equivalent of Sport England – SPARC – Sport and Recreation New Zealand –a government agency. She presented well and focused on recent policy  changes following the election of the new National Government in 2008. Recreation had been added to SPARC’s portfolio.  Deb looks like she could run a marathon with her eyes closed. I later found out she exercises two hours a day.  Most of the delegates were fit, energetic and bright eyed – they really do walk the talk here. Note to self?

In terms of where I saw the Kiwi sector compared to our own, it was clear the UK was ahead in a number of areas including procurement, colocation of facilities, cost effectiveness of delivery and links with health. However my new Silver Ferned buddies had maintained their links with the parks sector and appeared to be doing a great deal of innovative stuff around participation with hard to reach groups. One excellent example of this is the award winning 1000 steps programme ( . Clearly we have a lot in common and huge amounts to share and learn from each other – something I am determined to champion from this point forward. Key shared issues include demonstrating outcomes, achieving value for money and targeting subsidy.

We then went off to sort out our costumes for the Art Deco fancy dress dinner and awards ceremony, which was kicked off by a live broadcast of the Melbourne Cup (Horse Racing if like me – you didn’t have a clue what it was!). I managed to bag a $23 NZ dollar suit from the Red Cross Charity Shop next to my motel and some accessories. The awards clearly meant a lot to the NZRA delegates and winners were cheered loudly. It was good to see ISPAL doing a similar thing this July in the UK.

The banquet style dinner was a no speech zone – followed by a superb live band. To my astonishment at the first song, 75% of the delegates hit the floor and threw some serious shapes!  I then spent the rest of the evening getting down with the troops who were dancing like they just didn’t care.. The room was balanced with a good mix of boys and girls which always helps these type of gigs. Was this really a Recreation Conference I drunkenly kept asking myself???   Jolly good.

Wednesday 4 November – last day – as I peeled my eyelids open and crawled in I was expecting single figure turn out for the 9.30am UK style.

The key note graveyard slot awaited Shelley Campbell, a Maori CEO of a Heath Authority who was exploring future opportunities and policy challenges in health. To my utter astonishment the auditorium was packed. Shelley  a mum of four and kiwi legend blew us away. She covered topics such as new approaches to healthcare, what the sector could do to respond to the obesity epidemic and gave us some inspiring examples of innovation in community development, all delivered with a relaxed and personable style. She’d been rubbing shoulders with ex Presidents at conferences across the world  and it showed – this was one well informed Maori lady and she was happy to share. My main ‘take away’ was the line, “don’t tell, me – show me” in relation to evidencing impacts and outcomes.

Two more groups of excellent concurrent sessions kept things moving followed by lunch which by now was a manic networking session. By now I knew almost everyone – all of whom were fun, knowlegable and engaging.

By now I would have thought folk would be sneeking out for an early exit to catch up on their sleep, but the NZRA juggernaut was gathering even more momentum… the final two key note sessions were from Nigel Cass, the  General Manager of the 2011 Rugby World Cup,  who entertained us with inspirational videos and an informative session on progress – he told us he had “96 Mondays to go”.

Last but not least was a Kiwi Adventurer Jamie Fitzgerald, the equivalent of Ben Fogle, who rowed across the Atlantic and later walked to Antartica and avoided (the Editor of this fine Journal will be pleased to observe) doing a ‘Cracknell.’ He was inspiring, funny and well briefed.  My new best mate Brendon Ward wrapped things up beautifully and sent us all on our way with smiles on our faces and in eager anticipation of the next year’s conference.

As I said my farewells, he stuck a double CD of Kiwi dance anthems in my hand – just to make sure I had the words to singalong ‘down pat’.

Same time next year….