Groundwork by Julie Abbot

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Julie Abbot breaks new ground
Christchurch’s doyenne of destination, incentive and event management celebrates more than a decade of her company , Groundwork by Julie Abbot.

There have been Maori welcomes at the airport, and departures on the back of Harleys. Julie Abbot’s beginnings and endings are always memorable, and the middle, a delightful surprise.

Her company, Groundwork by Julie Abbot has lived up to its name by breaking new ground for incentive, event and destination management in New Zealand. Christchurch-based, this pioneering destination, incentive and event expert says her brief is to create rewards that could never be bought off the shelf. Ballooning

She exemplifies the best incentive rewards in bubbly package of warmth, empathy, creativity, style and energy. She’s also modest about her achievements, preferring to take a back seat to the welfare and comfort of her clients, their guests and her support team.

Julie’s previous careers as a nurse, nurse-educator, successful model agency owner and hotel PR manager have provided the ideal background experience for this challenging niche business.

Revolutionary times
The mid-90s was an exciting time for the emerging Christchurch convention and incentive industry, when specialist incentive DMCs were still few and far between in New Zealand. Julie’s new business began as a natural extension of the work she had initiated over eight years’ as public relations manager at the Parkroyal hotel, Christchurch (now the Crowne Plaza).

“It was scary in the beginning because it was hard to gauge the chances of success. My services were much more boutique and niche than anything else on offer from the large inbound tour operators. It was a very hands-on experience, and I did a lot of on-the-job learning,” she said. 

In 1988 she helped launch the new Parkroyal hotel in its enviable location next to the Town Hall. This was a time of revolutionary growth in Christchurch with the development of icon attractions and venues, such as the Casino, Gondola, International Antarctic Centre, and Air Force Museum.

She often worked 18 hour days at the Parkroyal, but still found time for sales trips to Sydney where she began organising group programmes for Australians to Christchurch.

“Australia is so close, yet so different and we wanted to show them the unique qualities of our New Zealand destination.

“We started doing fabulous things for our Australian clients, like picking them up from the airport on Harley Davidsons, and organising lavish black tie dinners in divine wilderness settings with Pavarotti booming out. We had to get people behind us and sell the ideas, and soon it got more and more exciting and challenging, pioneering new venues and event ideas, like dinners at the Air Force Museum.”

“It was a fantastic time in this business, and we were breaking ground all the time. Clients started saying to me you should be out there doing it fulltime. They were encouraging me to do it.”

Time and cost-efficient
Groundwork by Julie Abbot clients are conference organisers and incentive houses, many returning with repeat business. For them, using a DMC is very time and cost-efficient, freeing their resources for new business development.

Christchurch Tram

“Clients say there is no way they could source the detail and have the contacts and the teams I can put together locally.

“It’s much easier to sell the destination if it’s somewhere you know. For a first-time person coming here it’s often so hard to research, that’s where a knowledgeable DMC can really help and open up the possibilities.”

Julie counts many of her clients as her best mentors and business advisors. Several have invited her to work with them in other parts of the world, including Spain, France, Austria, Asia and Australia.

“Working all over New Zealand and overseas gives valuable opportunities to get inside the experience of how another destination works and how international businesses operate.”

Showcasing Christchurch
When Julie started, her mission was to help turn Christchurch into a top destination choice for international business visitors, competing with glamour destinations like Bali. She wanted to find a way to give a special twist to local products.

“I wanted to make my home city of Christchurch the most fabulous choice for incentive clients, and this was the impetus to start doing more and more, and really using this whole region,” she said.

“It’s special seeing this city through other people’s eyes. I love using the city and watching people look in wonder at places like our Botanic Gardens. Christchurch is so easy and accessible. Sometimes there’s no need to put guests on a coach at all, it’s so walkable.

“On one of my first programmes I met a guest who probably didn’t think New Zealand was going to cut the mustard. She told me about previous experiences on the Orient Express, with the Vienna Boys Choir and at the Sistine Chapel. Then, there was the thrill of watching somebody like that melt into it and totally enjoy the experience. We took them out in to the wilderness and they were all in awe of the sheer beauty of everything here.”

Her clients now also encourage her to work in Queenstown and other incentive destinations throughout New Zealand

Tailor-made programmes
Julie’s programmes are all personalised to suit individual clients. The organisation is precise, but the art is in making it seem effortless. Guests are surprised at how detailed the planning is, because for them there is a seamless flow between surprises.

“To create a programme I always imagine myself in the guest’s shoes. How would I like to be treated in this situation? How could I be made to feel a princess?

“With incentive programmes, these people have worked so hard to get here. I feel very privileged to be creating them something as a reward, as a thank you. It’s a really personal and emotional relationship.”

In tailoring a programme, Julie aims to get as big a picture as possible of the guests’ expectations, to understand them and to find out what the objectives are and they’ve done before.

“My favourite sort of work is a programme of say three to four days that can be planned from the moment people leave their destination. I enjoy taking a complete overview of the whole programme and adding bits of sparkle.

“I would never let people sit on the same table twice, eat the same sort of meal twice, or drink the same wine. It’s these details that count.”

Many organisers believe adventure should be a big part of incentive programmes, however Julie advises care in handling people’s comfort zones.

“Incentive guests spend their work lives constantly out of their comfort zone, that’s why they’re here, so it’s important to strike a balance. I really listen to clients and assess guests when I meet them. I always have something up my sleeve for anything extreme, never putting pressure on anyone. If one person doesn’t feel comfortable, I say ‘not a problem you just stick with me’ and give them a gorgeous treat. Yet, quite often peers talk people in to doing things and the guests  come back elated, so glad they did.”

Solid support
Although Julie mostly works alone or with her assistant Lynette, she has built up a loyal support team including entertainers, lighting and sound experts, themeing  and catering specialists and venue managers, who all give 150%.

“I love co-ordinating with people who have the same vision and approach.

“The team at ThemePro in Christchurch always say ‘If Julie’s in tears we know we’ve done OK’.”

“When I create something I try to anticipate all the things that could go wrong and make a contingency plan. We want  people to have a beautiful time, and not notice the logistics or attention to detail.” Experience and knowledge of things like food and wine matches, knowing when to go casual and light with food, and the science of service details and timing are all part of this.

Some of Julie’s best moments have happened at the airport, and Christchurch International Airport staff are well aware of her welcoming touches.

“One time we collected a client and his corporate client on Harley Davidsons for a site inspection. For their group of 80 people, we organised a double decker bus, plus vintage fire engines and vintage ambulances. When they all pulled up outside arrivals, there was a moment of security panic (we hadn’t thought to warn the airport company). Then someone came out and said ‘Phew, it’s only Julie’.

“Another time we had 1800 people from South-East Asian countries arriving over a busy weekend. We greeted each flight with a Maori concert party in the airport. We raced between international and domestic airline terminals over 48 hours and, on the Sunday afternoon, crowds of people were watching. It was such a joy to see.”

When it’s time to go, Julie’s farewells always leave a great final impression.

“I am very lucky to see the end results of my work and be there to witness my clients’ reactions. It’s lovely to see people coming out very refreshed and ready to go again.”

Destination Management with a Difference