Getting experienced: Brett McMeekin on Fairfax’s growing emphasis on events

There has been much hyperbolic mourning on the observation that humans have been sucked out of the physical world into digital devices. And while it is true that we perhaps spend a little too much time staring at the glow of rectangular screens of varying sizes, the denizens of the digital world sure do love a good event. Just ask anyone who has had to share shoulder room with the thousands of New Zealanders who annually turn up for festivals around the nation. 

Media companies—both here and abroad—have noticed the willingness of humans to cram themselves into public spaces and they’ve responded by setting up teams that specialise in events.

Fairfax Media events manager Brett McMeekin says that focus on events has come as a product of the organisation adapting to the modern media environment.

“It’s kind of our transition from being a media company to an audience company and it’s all about experiences,” McMeekin says.

“Events are in fast growth mode and that’s been enabled through being more efficient with our current events as well as brining on new ones.”

This week, the Fairfax events team launched a new event called Urban Adventure, which gives corporates the opportunity to take each other on in a Crossfit-styled challenge.

“The idea is to get banks against banks or agencies against agencies,” McMeekin says.

Getting corporates to sign up for physical torture isn’t new for Fairfax, with the company already running the Round the Bays event, which enjoys a strong turnout every year.

Urban Adventure will take place over four consecutive Thursdays in October, and McMeekin expects many of the companies that annually sign up for Round the Bays to also give the new initiative a go.

While this is newly created, McMeekin says Fairfax has also imported a few successful events from across the ditch.

“The Australian business has a portfolio called Good Food Month, and we’ve brought parts of that across, but mainly the Night Noodle market, which has been a phenomenal success.”

McMeekin says the Night Noodle Market in Wellington was attended by 104,000 people last month, while the inaugural edition saw 91,000 people stroll through the event in Christchurch back in February (Fairfax is hoping to bring it to Auckland before Christmas).

“The best way to describe it is the hustling backstreets of Hong Kong or Singapore. It’s all very simple. There are four dishes per vendor, it has free entry and the food is very well priced.”

Fairfax takes a commission cut out of every food and drink item sold over the course of the night, and then also earns additional revenue from sponsorship agreements.

McMeekin wouldn’t share any financial details on the revenue earned through Fairfax’s events department, but he did say that the events team has grown by 25 percent over the last six months (he now leads a team of 20).

“Events is definitely a new revenue stream for Fairfax. It’s an area that we’re looking to grow and it fits in with our overall philosophy of getting closer to the community.”

It’s all about communities

Fairfax has always had a strong connection with New Zealand communities through its regional papers, and McMeekin says this makes the process of running a successful event far easier. 

“[Our regional papers] offer a huge advantage in the sense that we already have the audience for the event. And the biggest cost for event companies is getting people to turn up.”

This connection with communities has been further consolidated through Neighbourly, which currently has over 325,000 members and a unique monthly audience of 620,000 on its interface.

Part of the reason why Fairfax hasn’t flogged off its regional papers is because they still provide an important link to communities and thereby play an important strategic role.  

The same cannot be said for Fairfax’s magazine portfolio, which McMeekin says has been reduced from 25 to four over the last few years.

However, he adds that the remaining titles play a critical role for the events team.

New Zealand House & Garden and Cuisine are two very important publications [from our]perspective because they provide a perfect segue to events,” he says.

“Two very successful events for us are the New Zealand House & Garden Tours, which runs every week and sells out within a week of launching, and the Cuisine Good Food Awards, which we are re-launching this year.”

More than a logo

McMeekin says one of the major challenges of running events is giving sponsors more than just a logo on a flag or a billboard.

“Money is a lot tighter everywhere, so people really want more value for what they’re spending,” he says.

“I’ve come from the client side, having been a marketing director at Phillips and Lion, so I look at things a bit differently. It’s not just about getting logos onto pages. It’s about really understanding what they’re trying to achieve with their brands and delivering that to the people they’re targeting.”

McMeekin says this has become so integral to his strategy it has even been incorporated into their contracts.

“All our contracts with sponsors have a clause that gives them [the sponsors]a defined area, a minimum of 10x10m, where they can activate their brand. And they’re much more interested in that than how many times their name appears on a billboard.”

Having these different brand activations at an event is also good for attendees because it allows for a variety of different experiences as they move from one stall to the next.

One thing that’s clear is that Kiwis will look for any excuse to leave the house. And as long as that remains the case, organisations like Fairfax will be looking for ways to draw the masses and keep them entertained. No doubt a few brands will tag along. 

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