During the worst days of the Covid-19 outbreak in New Zealand, Matamata was right at the heart of it all. Alex Braae went to the Waikato town to ask people how they’re getting on now.
On the signs heading out to the Hobbiton Movie Set about 10 minutes away from the Waikato town of Matamata there’s a curious bit of phrasing. Underneath the name of the well-known attraction are the words “tourist farm”.
Of course, it’s because for many visitors to New Zealand, the idyllic pastoral landscape is as much a feature as anything else. But you’d be forgiven for taking a double meaning from it: for a long time, the money coming into Hobbiton from overseas tourists flowed like the milk from the district’s many dairy farms.
That’s not to say that the operators of Hobbiton treated their guests as a herd to be moved through the production line – far from it. They’ve long been proud to claim that theirs is a world class tourism experience, for both domestic and international visitors alike.
But then the borders closed. About 80% of their market was international, with 17% of their visitors coming from China and Australia each. Unlike a lot of other businesses, it wasn’t necessarily the lockdown that did the damage – it happened slightly before that, when the two week isolation protocols for international visitors were introduced. That left the Hobbiton Movie Set operators with some urgent and crucial decisions to make, which set a tone for how much of Matamata would deal with Covid-19.
Shayne Forrest, GM of marketing and commercial for Hobbiton Movie Set, said the layoffs were extreme, with 280 staff overall being cut back to just 26. They came on the back of the visitor isolation rules, which were “the signal that the borders were pretty much closed for internationals, because people weren’t going to fly from one side of the world to the other, and then spend two weeks in a hotel room before they start exploring.
“That’s when we realised there was going to be a huge effect on us as a business, and what the business would need to look like to survive. Because the best thing we can do is survive this, see it through, and then re-employ those people.”
Forrest said the company felt a sense of responsibility not only to those staff who had been let go – many of whom had been with Hobbiton for years – but to the wider area around Matamata. “It was an extremely tough time. We’ve always been a really close team out here. A lot of people grow up together, go to school together, they’ve had parents or other family members work at Hobbiton.”
But when they realised that the business would need to downsize to survive, they moved fast. “Russell (Alexander, general manager) and one of the board members jumped in a vehicle, drove over to Tauranga and met with all the kiwifruit and horticulture orchards, and said hey, I’ve got 250 staff who are really good staff members, that need to be moving straight into employment.”
Other meetings were held with security companies, where there were job opportunities. “Most of our staff were able to move into other employment relatively easily, and I think that’s because the business moved relatively quickly,” said Forrest.
Now they’re able to start hiring some of them back again. There’s a Facebook group for former Hobbiton employees where job opportunities regularly get posted, including to return to the Movie Set itself. The ranks of staff have swelled back to about 45 people and Forrest said all of them were part of the previous team. “The people that we let go aren’t people you want to let go, because they are really good, and they were performing really well in their jobs. But unfortunately the market changed.”
In other words, the business supported locals. Meanwhile, locals supported the businesses right back. One such case was that of The Redoubt, the Matamata cafe/bar that was the epicentre of one of the country’s worst Covid-19 clusters. While it was closed over lockdown, people came by to leave hearts and messages of support on the front window.
“That was huge,” said Jacob Henderson, The Redoubt’s owner. “It just meant support, in a very real way. It took people a bit of time and effort, and what was written on the messages too – it was a bit of light when things got a bit dark I guess.” Even though the locals didn’t blame his cafe for the cluster, he couldn’t help feeling a responsibility to the community, he said.
When level three came in, The Redoubt reopened for takeaways – they lost money on it, but felt it was important to get things flowing again. “It just feels like you were getting money into the community – buying milk off the milk man, so he can go down to the meat shop. It got a bit of money circulating.” Henderson added that a few locals made an immense effort to get involved, including one woman who made a point of buying a coffee from one cafe, before going over the road to get a biscuit at another. “She was really making sure she was sharing it around.”
Small city, large town
Matamata is arguably too small to be called a city, but almost too large to be a town either. The urban population is only about 8000, but the rural area around the town is somewhat densely populated, and it serves as an important hub for the district. It’s not really on the way to anywhere else on major state highways, but nor is it that far away from Auckland, Hamilton, Napier or Tauranga.
Most of the shops along the main street are occupied, and dozens of small businesses compete with a few chains and big box retailers. A lot of cafes do strong trade during the day, and a few bars start pumping at night. It’s the seat of the district council, it’s the base of major contracting and logistics firm J Swap, and there’s a secondary school with a roll in the high hundreds. By a strange quirk of history, one former pupil was National party leader Judith Collins, about half an hour down the road from Morrinsville College, where PM Jacinda Ardern went.
And for a place that is so heavily defined by outsiders as the “Hobbiton town”, there’s a surprisingly small amount of that sort of branding on most of the businesses. Still in 2001, the town was actually renamed Hobbiton for a week as a stunt, said the Matamata Business Association’s Memorie Brooky. “So we do obviously embrace Hobbiton and tourism, but it’s not the be all and end all. We were a thriving town before Hobbiton came here.”
As to whether some locals are getting a bit sick of Hobbit tourism, “I wouldn’t say we’ve left it behind,” she said, “but I think in marketing, especially now, you don’t really want to be restricting yourself to one industry. And we didn’t want to be tacky about it either – we didn’t want just anyone building round holes.”
What the Hobbit/LOTR phenomenon did do was propel Matamata from an entirely rural economy to one that was was more diverse. Hundreds of thousands of visitors arrived at Hobbiton every year and many of them would then head back through the town itself, spending along the way. It led to an explosion of cafes and restaurants. For a time, you’d struggle to get a table at the best spots on a Wednesday evening, or a bed in a motel on any given weeknight.
And now that all those overseas visitors have disappeared? “Absolutely we’ve missed the international dollar,” said Brooky. “But I think we’ve just gone back to where we were, you know? Tourism is that cream on the top.”
One thing Matamata had before – and still has now – is a thriving economy built around horse racing. In fact, the town’s original slogan before all the Hobbiton stuff was “racing ahead”.
Dennis Ryan is the local racing club chairman, and a director of the newly launched magazine Race Form, which will be edited out of Matamata by former Trackside host Liz Whelan. He grew up in Matamata, with racing in his blood, and is a fierce advocate for what it has done for the town.
Early on, Ryan remembers overhearing people at his hairdressers complain that the racing club would mean that money wouldn’t be spent in the town – rather, it would just get punted away at the track. “And I’d heard enough, and I said excuse me!”
“I was training in those days, and all of my clients were from out of town. Auckland lawyers, overseas people. And they spent a lot of money through me as a trainer, that I paid my staff, my feed merchant, everybody else. That money came from outside town, into this industry here. And I told them that straight – the whole point being that the whole town didn’t appreciate how much money this industry was bringing in. But it does now.”
That new respect is partly because a lot of those in the Matamata horse industry are among the best at what they do. Horses are flown in from all over the world to be bred with Matamata horses, and around 700 horses are prepared on the track in any given month of the year. The town also has a few local heroes of the industry, including legendary jockey Lance O’Sullivan.
But Matamata has also realised the industry’s huge economic impact. Training stables, the stud farms, the breeders, the farriers, the agistment properties where the horses go out to pasture, the jockeys, and even a couple of journalists – all of those roles combine to create close to a thousand direct jobs, many of which pay well with good conditions. In dollar terms, it runs into the millions per month. “And the horse doesn’t get a dollar out of that,” joked Ryan.
While Covid-19 hit Matamata racing as well – the community had to cancel a meeting ahead of what turned out to be the first day of lockdown – the industry here is much more stable than in other parts of the country. It’s the biggest combined racing and training centre in New Zealand, which makes it a very safe bet to survive the current process of reforms and rationalisations going through the industry.
Covid-19 could have absolutely shattered Matamata because of the impact on tourism. Miraculously, only a tiny number of businesses have actually had to close their doors. Brooky said that “if anything, Covid’s taught us that we need to diversify. And there’s been a huge push on shopping local,” which has kept a lot of businesses going.
As for Hobbiton movie set, it’s got a far brighter future than might have been expected. As with many other tourism businesses, business over the recent school holidays turned out to be much better than the previously dire predictions. And with the Amazon TV version of the Lord of the Rings filming in New Zealand, there are high hopes that when international tourism returns, Hobbiton will be back on the map for visitors once more.
So surely locals want the borders to be opened up again, so that Matamata can continue farming tourists once more? Not really, said Shayne Forrest. “At the moment, it’s quite hard to argue with what the government has done from a health point of view. Although it has had a huge effect on our business, we’re supportive of the decision to close the borders to keep us safe here. We’ll just keep ticking over and making the most of our domestic environment.”
And for Jacob Henderson, a business owner who has seen first hand the damage that Covid-19 can do, it’s a very simple equation. In a perfect world he’d love to have the income of international tourism again. It’s still quieter than it would otherwise be, but he never once thought about packing it in, and locals seem to be much more keen to go out than they were before the pandemic. The way Henderson sees it, the people of the town know how things can go wrong, and now everyone is revelling in the feeling of safety.
“There’s a lot of talk about opening things up, and I’d like to be cool and say yeah, that’s a great idea. But imagine being in Victoria. We were in the middle of it, and we know what it’s like. This is so much better than that was.”
Alex Braae’s travel to Matamata was made possible thanks to the support of Jucy, who have given him a Cabana van to use for the election campaign, and Z Energy, who gifted him a full tank of gas via Sharetank.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.