Sarah Meikle is approaching a very important birthday: her tenth birthday. Visa Wellington On A Plate, the festival that she co-founded in 2009 and is now CEO of, will this year be a decade old this year. But Sarah has scant time to party as she pulls together the final strings for the Internationally famous festival in August, running from 10 - 26 August 2018. So how does this maverick make it through?
How did Sarah come to be involved in food and tourism in Wellington?
Sarah Meikle, CEO of Visa Wellington On A Plate, was born in Wellington at St Helen's Hospital. "I actually didn't live here at that time. My parents were living in Australia and my mother smuggled me back home to New Zealand under a coat. My grandfather owned the James Cook Hotel at that time, and my mother's waters broke with me the hotel's restaurant in Wellington - so you could say I was born into the Wellington food industry!" Sarah laughs.
Sarah's parents were in their early twenties when they had her, the eldest of the Meikle clan. Growing up, her family moved often and had a fascinating, entrepreneurial lifestyle. The family relocated from Sydney, Australia to Southern California. "My father sold harness-racing horses" Sarah says, over a hot plate of food at a favourite local haunt, Little Penang on Dixon Street. "While we were living in the United States, he saw an opportunity for selling fiberglass swimming pools (then a new product). We moved back to Australia and so my father was the first person so sell fiberglass swimming pools in that country, importing the molds. After that, he ran a superannuation company in North Queensland."
The family then moved back to Wellington to look after relatives where after a stint continuing in superannuation, Sarah's father made the call to open a fisherman's-pier style restaurant, inspired by his time in the USA. "He built Wellington's iconic Dockside restaurant. We had it for about 5 years. He then opened the Loaded Hog and One Red Dog, growing these into chains all around New Zealand" Sarah explains of her family's food dynasty.
What was Sarah like as a child?
As the eldest in her family, Sarah describes herself as "well behaved" as a child. She went to Samuel Marsden School for Girls. "I was pretty diligent at school and I never wanted to do anything wrong" says Sarah. "I remember my teacher wrote on a report when I was young 'We love Sarah's bubbly personality'." Sarah admits that she didn't have a foodie upbringing. "I remember eating lots of fish fingers and deviled sausages because it was the 1970's" she laughs.
The Wellington culinary scene was quiet different back when Sarah was young. She met lots of people from when she was young, and has met lots of restaurateurs children who now run their own restaurants. "I wanted to save up all my money to go to the places the adults used to talk about. It was a big deal when I could afford to go out!"
What did Sarah study and how did she begin her career?
Sarah studied tourism at Massey University before eventually moving to work for New Zealand Tourism Board. "It was the only place that you could study it" Sarah smiles. "My dream was to work at the New Zealand Tourism Board. After a few roles, I got a foot in the door working in the mail room. I took it very seriously. After a restructure, I was offered a very junior job, the only role advertised" she says. "I never looked back!"
Sarah then learnt Spanish which led to her working in South America as the Manager of Emerging Markets for the Continent at 23. "It ended up including India, Africa and the Middle East. I would spend 8 months a year, in markets that had no idea about New Zealand. It was starting totally from scratch, training travel agents, working long hours. But because I had the energy, I could." Sarah then went on to work in India, before returning to New Zealand and working as the Marketing Manager for the UK and Europe. "My big projects were America's Cup Valencia, The Chelsea Garden show and the big Rugby ball under the Eiffel Tower. That was my last project there of my 10 years working there" she says. "A lot of work goes into creating an inflatable ball under the most famous monument in the world!" she laughs.
Returning to New Zealand, Sarah began working for what is now Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency, then Positively Wellington Tourism. "I was looking at the struggling Winter season, and how it affects hospitality and retail. I talked with the team to come up with event and I also spoke to a person from Grow Wellington who was focusing on the people and the industry. I told her I had an idea similar, but focusing on the restaurants. "From that, Wellington on a Plate was born!" Sarah says. "We delivered the first event in 10 weeks - just 30 events and 40 restaurants. After that, people wanted to get involved."
In the early days, there was just events and a special 'Dine' menu for the festival. New opportunities became apparent after the years went by. "Visa became involved from the second year and they are the real definition of a partner. We support them and they've supported us." Now the official name of the event is Visa Wellington On A Plate!
What are some stand-out events for Sarah in the history of VisaWOAP?
The legacy of events like Prison Gate to Plate have left an impact. "It is amazing to see how people have changed from the program which teaches prisoners how to cook" Sarah explains. "People can learn and rehabilitate themselves and change and are able to learn a skill which can give them incredible confidence." She's also loved the blind dining event at Capitol a few years back, and some of the masterclasses that have run over the years. "I can't say I can pick a favourite" Sarah admits. "Even things like the pop-ups and the Oyster Saloon always create such positive buzz. I also have to mention the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra playing at Palliser Estate. It was so fantastic! You could see them spit!"
What's the longest Sarah has stayed awake while working on Visa Wellington On A Plate?
"Over 24 hours!" laughs Sarah. "During festival time it gets pretty crazy. Last year some of us got quite sick in the second week because we were burning the candle at both ends. I would get up at seven in the morning, got to work, work until two, go to bed for three hours, sleep, and then go out and host all night. I had to do that to keep the momentum going." After Visa Wellington On A Plate, Sarah treats herself to a holiday. "Mainly Fiji because its hot and I can do nothing!"
The most challenging thing about working through the festival?
"Most people don't see the huge hard work behind the fun. But I love it, I couldn't see myself doing something else, although I could be. Everything's cool. I think we are so lucky in Wellington because this event could ONLY happen in Wellington because we have an AMAZING hospitality sector. When the street flags go up, that's when we know the festival has started. It is a great thing to be involved in."
Is there anything that she hates eating?
"Coriander. I absolutely hate it. It tastes like soap!"
"I love living in Wellington for lots of reasons" Sarah says "My family live here, there is not much traffic and the community at large is wonderful. I feel like people care a bit here"