54 kilometres north of Thames on the Western side of the Coromandel Peninsula sits the historical gold mining town of Coromandel. The region surrounding the town has a resident population of around 1,600 that swells with holiday makers and tourists during the summer months.
As well as its heritage, Coromandel Town boasts some world famous tourist attractions and has plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventures such as hiking, kayaking, fishing, boating, and horse riding. Many artists have made this region their home and open their studios to the public. The local economy is heavily dependent on the tourism industry as well as aquaculture. While there is a lot to offer visitors all year round, the region is largely forgotten by travellers in the winter months.
If you talk to any business person in Coromandel you will be told how dependant they are on great weather and a large number of visitors over the summer period. Even then, during winter many find it difficult to navigate their businesses successfully through the substantial drop in trade. This makes it difficult for them to create the stable year-round employment opportunities that is needed for families to live, grow and thrive in the region. Young people move away to look for work and business owners struggle to find entrepreneurs willing to purchase their businesses when they retire.
Ignoring the dual challenges of limited resources and competition for the winter tourist dollar from the more wealthy regions that boast snow and indoor attractions, in 2013 the Coromandel Business Association set themselves the audacious goal of staging an annual mid-winter event that would become a feature on the national events calendar. They envisaged the event becoming so popular that accommodation is booked out in advance, activity providers would have to increase their opening hours in the days before and after and the cafes and restaurants would be full of happy festival goers. But the dream didn’t stop there, they wanted the event to foster unity amongst the diverse interest groups in the community and to improve the well-being of all of its residents. To this end they decided to make it a free event so that price did not prevent anyone from attending. Yes, they wanted to increase the profits of their membership base, but this event was not about making money for monies sake. They wanted to see each family in their community enjoy the benefits of a stable income so that their needs for adequate housing, nutrition, health care and education are met. And, of course, they wanted their community to come together and have some fun.
The event they created is called Illume:Winter Festival of Light, or ‘Illume’ for short. Now in its third year it is held over a weekend in the school holidays. The main street is lined with spectacular lighting displays created by the artists and there are night markets, a street parade, live entertainment and a magnificent fireworks display. Projections celebrating the past, present and future of the region shine onto the historic buildings. During the day people are invited to try their hand at lantern making.
Illume has been incredibly successful in meeting all of the Coromandel Business Association’s goals. A cross section of the community work together to stage the event and residents look forward to lighting themselves up and joining in the fun. Businesses welcome the financial relief that the boost in trade brings and people are travelling to the region in greater numbers each year to join in the festivities.
Over the past year I have had the privilege of working alongside those who dared to dream and make it happen. As I have reflected on their work I have seen that there is a lot for individuals, businesses and non-profit organisations to learn from how the Coromandel Business Association has engendered community well-being through staging Illume. Here are some of the key lessons:
- Recognise and utilise your strengths – Your solution can be found in what you have in front of you. Don’t waste time and money compensating for what you do not have, work creatively with what is at hand. There is rich pool of resident artists in Coromandel and the main street is lined with historic buildings. Combined together the spectacular lighting displays created by the artists add charm to the buildings and make festival goers feel that they are walking in a magical wonderland.
- Encourage volunteers – People are surprising. Even in a small community leadership cannot predict who will embrace the vision and what talents members have to contribute to it. The Coromandel Business Association sold the vision and continues to invite anyone who wants to be involved to share their ideas and contribute their skills. Because of this, the event has been an opportunity for people to successfully try something new and develop their talents.
- Treat all ideas with respect – They might eventually be shelved, but all ideas are welcome and those tabled are considered. Illume planning meetings are characterised by the enthusiastic discussion of ideas that often result in the adoption of modified versions of the original. Throughout this process people feel valued as their contributions are recognised. Without this respect many great ideas may have remained hidden.
- Keep sight of the objectives – In making decisions the leadership measure their options against all of the objectives of Illume. By remaining focussed on their goals the event has stayed on track to consistently meet the desired community and business outcomes.
- Achievements are to be built on, not rested on – Feedback is invited after each event. There is a celebration of a job well done as well as a hunger to do it even better the following year. Last year’s plan is used as a base for next year’s plan but there would be disappointment if they only did the same thing.
- Manage the budget closely – You might be wondering how the Coromandel Business Association has pulled off such an event with no entry fee. The answer is threefold: firstly sponsors such as the Thames-Coromandel District Council, Powerco, Trust Waikato and the Creative Communities Scheme have caught the vision and contributed financially. Secondly, local businesses and community groups contribute significant amounts of time for free or at a reduced rate as well as donate money and goods in kind. And thirdly one person on the organising team reviews and approves each cent before it is spent. Sometimes the plans are cut back a bit or rejigged to fit the budget, however it is because of this tight financial management that the event is sustainable.
- Have fun – I believe that fun should be found in every workplace. Who wants to spend their days gloomy? The fun of Illume is not just had by the festival goers, it is had by everyone involved in staging event in the months leading up to it. It is partly because of this that the Coromandel Business Association finds so many people willing to assist.
Many of us will remember the children’s story ‘the little engine that could’ where a brave small engine did what the larger engines refused to try and pulled a train over a mountain. All the way it spoke positively to itself and refused to give up due to the enormity of the task. I have named this article ‘the little town that could’ as the Coromandel Business Association has similarly employed a great deal of courage and has refused to let obstacles and what many would call common sense deter it from delivering a unique event that greatly benefits its entire community.
What dreams do you have for yourself, your organisation or your community? Could it be that these too could be achieved with courage, determination and some fun along the way?
PS: If this article has made you curious about Illume, it’s happening again. Check out the programme on www.illumefest.co.nz.