The eyes of the world will be upon us and we will have to step up to the mark to ensure we make the most of this priceless opportunity to showcase the best of New Zealand.
As we approach this milestone I reckon we are in great shape. It's a bit like the marathon runner passing the halfway mark. He's feeling good, his training has paid off, but he knows there's still a big challenge ahead if he's going to put in a good time. I feel much the same way.
The hard work is starting to pay off. And much of that is because of the huge support crew we have across the country. From Invercargill to the Far North, many dedicated people are working to ensure we offer visitors and locals the best possible Tournament experience next year.
Being great hosts
For example, in March we launched EventStarNZ© - the dedicated hospitality training programme that provides a series of modules to equip those who work in stadia with the skills they need to be great hosts. Some 10,000 EventStars are needed to work through the 45 days of the Tournament and provide top service to the 1.7 million fans who will attend the 48 matches.
What's great about EventStarNZ© is that the industry has pulled together to find an affordable solution that can deliver a tailor-made training programme, which will serve us well for this event and beyond. I have no doubt that this will be an important legacy for major events in the future.
EventStarNZ© is a critical component of our need to be great hosts to the thousands of visitors we will welcome next year. We want them to leave with great memories. Top service will be one key ingredient. Likewise, the hospitality visitors receive from the New Zealanders they meet every day will also help leave them with the right lasting impression.
The volunteer programme
We need to be a nation of four million hosts. We hear so often about our unique Kiwi hospitality. Now, more than ever, we will need to prove it is more than just a handy marketing slogan. Part and parcel of that will be a successful volunteer programme.
Around the middle of this year we will start recruiting the 5,000 volunteers we will need to help ensure things run smoothly at match venues, and to look after our guests as they tour our cities, walk to grounds and enjoy Festival events and Fan Zones.
Volunteers will need to be dedicated, enthusiastic and willing to put in some long hours without seeing the big matches. But the experience will be memorable and one that will hopefully leave a legacy of commitment and experience to help the volunteer sector in the future.
Maximising the opportunity
So we are making great progress with nearly 500 days to go. Every day we are ticking boxes. I am really impressed with how well this country is pulling together to get New Zealand match fit by next September.
Our marketing campaign for Rugby World Cup tickets is about to kick off. We want thousands of visitors to buy tickets and stay in New Zealand as long as possible. It is the way we will maximize the economic opportunities of this great Tournament.
International Rugby fans will only come if they see the investment as worthwhile. We need to convince them that there is so much more happening in New Zealand than just Rugby - the New Zealand 2011 Office and its work with the nationwide Festival is a key part of that, as is the promotional work being carried out offshore by Tourism New Zealand.
We also need to convince visitors that they will get the very best service and that New Zealanders are ready to welcome them with open arms. Visitors who leave with amazing memories of their time in New Zealand are the most important marketing tool we can ever receive.