A recession side-hustle and a natural ability to ‘connect’ people has led Rachelle and Chris Duffy to create some of the Bay of Plenty’s most iconic events.
The husband and wife team are Co-Directors of Little Big Events and are behind the ever-popular Little Big Markets, Dinner in the Domain, Food Truck Fridays, plus the annual Vegan Vibes Festival, Tauranga Coffee Festival and Christmas in the Park, among other occasions.
Challenges always provide new opportunities and Little Big Events was launched as a direct result of the 2008 recession.
The Duffys admit that they were struggling to sell fashion and design items through their Tauranga CBD store, Idiom. Rachelle started to stock a few vintage pieces and noticed they flew out the door.
“People couldn’t afford a designer dress for $500 but they would buy a vintage coat for $25 and the vintage stuff started selling so well. Prior to that, I had always complained to Chris there were no markets in Tauranga for me to clean out my wardrobe and sell my stuff. There was the Pāpāmoa car boot sale but it just didn’t fit with what we had experienced when we lived overseas.”
With fond memories of browsing weekend markets in Edinburgh and France, Rachelle jumped in her car and drove around Tauranga looking for a suitable space. The grass field beside Zespri’s headquarters on Maunganui Road looked ideal, but Tauranga City Council initially said ‘no’.
“I THINK BACK THEN PEOPLE DIDN’T REALLY UNDERSTAND THAT VINTAGE ITEMS AND DESIGNER ITEMS ARE ACTUALLY MADE TO SIT WELL TOGETHER. AT THE TIME I DIDN’T EVEN REALLY KNOW WHAT I WAS GOING TO DO, I JUST KNEW I WANTED A PLACE FOR CREATIVES TO COME AND SELL THEIR STUFF.”
It took a direct appeal to Tauranga’s then-mayor, Stuart Crosby, to convince the council to take a punt on the Duffys’ idea.
“We started with 20 vendors once a month at the Mount and it just kept growing and growing. Within a year, we had around 80 vendors and Chris had quit his job to join me full-time in the business.”
Nowadays, 150 vendors pack into Coronation Park on the first Saturday of every month, selling everything from hand-made soaps and skincare, to sunglasses, t-shirts, art, woodwork, children’s toys, gourmet products and street food.
Through their determined efforts, the Duffys have blazed a trail for other event organisers in the Bay. The city council now has a dedicated events team to help people bring their ideas to life, and food trucks can now operate around the region without having to have a commercial kitchen.
Little Big Events is a genuine grassroots success story. Chris, who is a graphic designer by trade, takes care of the creative side of the business and helps physically set up almost each and every market.
“He’s built this business creatively from the ground up,” Rachelle says. “He designs, prints and installs all of the artwork at our events... people don’t really understand how much creativity goes into it behind the scenes.”
For her part, Rachelle is the company’s front-person. She’s always on-hand to help stallholders with whatever they need and efficiently sorts out any problems that arise.
“The Little Big Markets has been a connector for so many people,” she says. “There could be someone who is just starting out in business, doing something on the side while they’re raising kids, and they’ll be really nervous. We’ll be like ‘that's okay we’ll put you next to this person’ and introduce them. By the end of the day, they’re friends and arranging to have coffee together. That happens all the time. There have even been two marriages from me introducing stall holders to one another!”
That desire to connect the community saw the company launch Our Place magazine in December 2017. Around 6,000 copies of each bi-monthly issue are printed and distributed free of charge around local cafés, schools, businesses and of course, the markets themselves.
“We always struggled in terms of print media to find what best suited us to market our community events,” Chris explains. “Over time we would also meet really amazing people doing great things that you probably wouldn’t otherwise read about. So we thought there needed to be a vehicle for us to put those stories forward, and a magazine just made perfect sense.”
While the outdoor events industry is used to dealing with the unexpected (usually bad weather), COVID-19 has certainly thrown a spanner in the works. Months worth of scheduled markets were cancelled, and the complete loss of income was tough.
Rachelle credits the Government’s “amazing” support for small business for being able to retain all four of their employees, and Chris said the first market back after lockdown was a special experience.
“Everyone was just so happy to be out socialising and just talking to people again. That’s what we love the most about the Little Big Markets... the friendships that develop and the people you meet from just a vendor talking to a customer is huge and I think people really missed that contact with people.”
The resulting push to ‘shop local’ is a mantra Rachelle and Chris have lived by for 11 years, and they’re looking forward to Little Big Events’ continued success while also taking a bit more time to spend with their son, 7, and daughter, 3, now the business is well-established.
“Little Big Markets is like an institution now,” Rachelle acknowledges. “But it’s hard for us to feel the full impact we’ve had on the city. I know we’ve had a massive impact but I honestly still pinch myself that we’ve grown to the point where we no longer have an office at home and we actually employ people. That feels crazy.”
They’re both proud to have created a “stepping-stone” or “incubator” for people to transition from a part-time hobby to a full-time business, and of the “beautiful little community” that’s built up around them.
“Little Big Events has really grown alongside Tauranga,” Chris observes. “I think we both get a kick out of seeing people connecting with other people and taking what they do to another level.”
Rachelle adds that their complementary skills are another key reason why Little Big Events has grown into the juggernaut it has. “I couldn’t imagine working with anyone else.”
Due to COVID-19 interruptions, Little Big Markets will now be held EVERY Saturday from 9:00 am – 2:00 pm at Coronation Park, Mount Maunganui, from December until the end of January.
Markets are also held at Pāpāmoa on the third Saturday of every month. For full details, visit www.littlebigevents.co.nz.