“Local Knowledge” is often hard to grasp for tourists who may not have the time, capacity or even patience to plan their trip down to the finer details. It’s an increasingly difficult well of information to tap into as well, with the often ridiculous deluge of blogs (not the good kind) and Zomato/Yelp reviews dirtying the scene and making it harder to tell just which voices are worth listening to and which aren’t. It’s why some of the more savvy hotel brands around the world connect with locals to help give their guests a better overall experience during their stay.
The W brand is famous for it, with their long-running W Insider initiative. Now it seems AVANI Hotels & Resorts are picking up on the value of having that local connection for guests; although their approach is much different, making full use of social media, in this case, Facebook Messenger.
Conceived as “Keys to the City”, the reliable hotel brand, which this year debuted in both New Zealand (Auckland) and Australia (Gold Coast) after much success in other spots around the globe, have included a QR code on each room keycard. You know where this is going; guests simply open their Facebook Messenger app on a smartphone and scan the code, instantly opening up a direct chat with the hotel. Except it’s not just the hotel – reception, that is – on call (or rather, text).
In each of these cities in which “Keys to the City” is active – so far only Auckland and Gold Coast’s Broadbeach – AVANI have four dedicated locals and well-known presenters/bloggers available to chat to guests during the day. At around 5pm, that switches on over to hotel reception, so guests get the double benefit of having a pocket concierge whenever and wherever they are (as long as there’s reception).
These locals – dubbed “AVANIME Guides” – are sought after by the hotel for their proven knowledge of their city, each acting as curators ready, willing and more than able to point out exactly the right direction for guests who value actually exploring a city rather than lounging in excellent accommodations (it’s an added bonus that both the Broadbeach and Auckland properties are exceedingly comfortable and ultra modern).
I travelled on over to both cities as a guest of AVANI to put the “Keys to the City” to the test.
First up was Auckland, a city with a high density of bars, restaurants and cafes packed into small self-contained precincts and off-shot lanes branching from the super long Queen Street. It helped that both days on which I was there featured gorgeous weather, perfect for getting out and exploring the energetic city. Upon entry to my room, the type you’d walk into with a big grin – probably something to do with the views over Waitematā Harbour – getting set up on the service was quick and easy. I would assume the first thing people would use this for is to find something decent to eat, and as I mentioned above, simply googling isn’t always the best option anymore.
“Hello! I just checked in but I’m starving, what’s good to eat around here for a late lunch/early dinner? I’m in the mood for seafood”. It was around 4:50pm by the time I was ready to head out so reception had taken the reigns, popping a suggestion in after about 10-15 minutes of silence (5pm is change over time, so the lull was understandable). “Welcome to AVANI, Chris. Do you feel like stretching your legs and walking down to the harbour?”
“Sure do”, I typed, to which whoever was on the other end of the chat sent through details of Oyster & Chop, a staple down at the city’s bustling Viaduct Harbour. While not exactly a hidden gem only locals would know about, it turns out that was the best recommendation I could have asked for at the time, since I was also craving a crack at New Zealand’s uniformly excellent craft beer scene. The Viaduct was (and is) currently hosting a 14-tap pop-up bar from Panhead Custom Ales – one of my favourites – which I walked past on my way to the restaurant. The restaurant itself was quite good as well, and it’s no surprise that the selection of oysters was just as addictive as my Australian-bred Wagyu Hanger steak.
Finding some of the city’s better hidden bars is an obvious benefit of “Keys to the City”, but Auckland’s hidden spots are easy to stumble upon anyway given that aforementioned density. The night-crawler benefit of this whole messenger thing is much more apparent for a destination like the Gold Coast, in which there is plenty of hidden gems hidden behind that glossy surface of high-rises and one of Australia’s most alluring stretches of beach.
During the day is when something like Keys to the City in Auckland really takes off. Locals were directing me to all kinds of temporary pieces of culture around the city, like a two-week Open Air Photography Exhibition from the renowned Tom Ang, set up down at Queens Wharf. That was a real stunner; as was the family-friendly atmosphere down at the city’s annual Summer in the Square set-up in the middle of Aotera Square. Though the best recommendations still tipped towards food (Depot) and drink (Waiheke Island’s Cable Bay Vineyards).
AVANI’s Gold Coast property in Broadbeach is the newest addition for the group. In fact, the hotel only been open three or four days before I checked in, a week after my two-day trip to Auckland. Getting hooked up with a Facebook Messenger chat to locals was an identical process to the above, and it wasn’t before long I was zipping around Broadbeach hitting up suggestions.
I wasn’t so lucky with the weather this time around; a short but powerful storm trapping me in the area’s enormous Pacific Fair gave me the chance to see how this “local knowledge” would pan out in something as generic as a shopping centre. “I’ve ducked into Pacific Fair because it’s raining; is there anything actually good to eat around here?” I asked my mystery local via Facebook chat. Sure enough there was, and whoever was on the other end directed me to a slick Italian joint that served up some excellent gnocchi; not bad for a centre that’s otherwise full of sub-par casual eateries.
The Gold Coast’s bar scene is a lot younger than that of Australia’s other East Coast destinations but there’s some great spots if you know where to look. After rounding up a few suggestions from my digital local friend during the day I made my way around to the obscure entry of Aloha Bar & Dining, a Hawaiian-leaning speakeasy that’s heavy on the vibes and packed with the more hipster-looking locals. Same goes for Hideaway Kitchen & Bar, which does up some delicious dumplings. Though the best suggestion I got out of this thing – across both trips – would definitely go to Social Eating House & Bar, a restaurant I’ve heard of plenty of times, though was never convinced until I received the all-important nudge from my newfound local friend. Chef Matt Jefferson, a three-time “Chef of the Year” and culinary superstar around Broadbeach, has struck gold with this casual restaurant, part of the Oracle Boulevard precinct which is but a short 4-5 minute walk from the door of AVANI.
I’ve been up to the Gold Coast plenty of times throughout the years, so a lot of the suggested spots were already on my radar as regular haunts. Though that just meant that I was nodding in approval every time Burleigh Heads was mentioned over the chat, or one of my favourite restaurants on the coast, Rick Shores, popping up in conversation. I can gladly confirm that these locals know their stuff, and that’s particularly valuable for somewhere like Gold Coast where tourist traps are laid everywhere from Coolangatta to Southport and beyond.
Ask The Right Questions
Though the majority of suggestions from these locals in both Auckland and Gold Coast led me to exactly the right places, there were a few times where it felt as if whoever was on the other end of the chat didn’t know whether to guide me to a tourist-favourite of a barely noticeable hipster hangout. Of course, this makes it all the more important for guests making use of “Keys to the City” to be specific in what they want. “I’m hungry” won’t cut it; tell the other person what type of food you like, what kind of bars you’re going for, what kind of art you’re into, and whether or not you’re looking to get out of the city and into nature. Food, drink, activities, culture, adventure – there’s plenty of information just waiting to be prodded out of these local insiders who know the city far, far better than a passer by would. It’s just up to you to ask the right questions.
The Little Details
While I had nowhere near enough time to really milk Keys to the City for all it’s worth, there’s some definite potential to get into the smaller details of local life that you simply wouldn’t be able to get from a search engine, at least not as fast. Is there actually anything decent to eat on Cavil Avenue? Where are the true hidden gems of Auckland’s hipster area of Posonby? What do the locals do on Waiheke Island to avoid all the tourists? Is this google-recommended Jetski hire place really the best option on the Gold Coast or is there a better deal around?
Moving forward, Keys to the City will be slightly changing now the initial phase is over. The insider suggestions from locals and influencers have been collated into video guides available online and at each property, while ideas are also programmed into a purpose-built chat bot that will be available from early next year. The chat bot will work very much like everything described above, with guests just needing to open up Facebook Messenger, scan the code from their room key card, and start firing away with questions.
While the chat bot will remain exclusive to the Auckland and Gold Coast properties – for now – the video guides will be rolled out across AVANI’s 20 hotels and resorts worldwide, each tailored to their respective city in collaboration with locals. For more information about Keys to the City and all AVANI properties head to the official website HERE.
The writer travelled to Auckland and the Gold Coast as a guest of AVANI Hotels & Resorts.
Feature image: Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour.