Reflecting on her career, Sheree Stevens laughs that her organisational skills were first appreciated in events during her time at Lincoln University. There to complete a degree in Parks and Recreation before switching to Tourism and Management, most of her time was spent planning social events. ‘I organised everything,’ she shares. ‘I still get people reminiscing about the balls I used to run.’
Her ability to translate an idea into a crowd-drawing event saw her return to her hometown of Gisborne (post-university and travel) where she organised the Gisborne Wine & Food Festival. It was back on home ground that she met and fell in love with North Canterbury farmer Hamish Haugh. ‘Hamish was working on a farm and playing rugby in Gisborne and ultimately I followed him back to Canterbury.’
While Hamish returned to his sheep and beef farm in Parnassus, North Canterbury, Sheree lived two hours south in Christchurch, not quite yet ready for remote rural life. Establishing herself as a go-to for event organisation in Canterbury was easily done following her involvement in Canterbury’s 150th anniversary celebrations. ‘I organised four events in one weekend: a period ball, a garden party in the botanic gardens, a parade and the Son et lumière. Held in Cathedral Square, it was an incredible sound, light and theatric show in one, all telling the story of Canterbury.’
With a foot in rural life and passion for detail, it was a natural step for Sheree to collaborate with the Canterbury A&P Show where she was heavily involved in the organisation of the event for three years. ‘I moved to Parnassus during this time and was able to take on contract work for the [Christchurch] City Council from there before going out on my own.’
The step to establish her own brand, Not Just Events, offered her the freedom to explore her own passions in events as well as being in charge of her own time. ‘I did everything for a while: bridal shows, wine and food festivals, book launches, big events and small events all while partnering with the Christchurch Marathon as their event and sponsorship manager.’ A decision that ultimately saw her side-step from general into pure sporting events. She has been with Christchurch Marathon for 24 years.
‘Running has always been my escape so I had a natural aptitude to working with and understanding events of this kind.’ An aptitude which grew following a phone call from cycling enthusiast Simon Hollander in 2004. ‘I was pregnant with my first child at the time and I got this phone call from Simon who I didn’t know, asking me to do an event with him. He was prepared to help fund it but needed someone to organise, execute and work alongside him.’ The event was the Festival of Cycling.
That phone call was the catalyst of an ongoing working relationship with Simon and Sheree and one she still treasures today. ‘Simon and I worked together on the Elite Nationals and a number of other cycling events before he bought Le Race in 2009… I then bought it from him in 2015.’
Building up her repertoire of sporting events, while also raising two children (Madeleine, 15 and Angus 13), it was little wonder that in 2016 Sheree was approached by 5 Passes event owner Pete O’Brien to see if she would be interested in buying his cycling event. An offer she leapt at, and an event that has quickly become her favourite.
However, she wasn’t finished there, and in March 2020 as the rest of the country was contemplating which bread recipe to try next, Sheree was investing. ‘As soon as I saw the vineyard half-marathon event in Marlborough was going up for sale, I thought why not? I live close by, it is an event I have personally competed in and has a local focus, which I like. Every event I run has a local, personal flavour and that was certainly part of the attraction with Marlborough.’
Reflecting on the year that has been, it is obvious that despite the highs there have been some incredible lows with Covid forcing events to be cancelled, some postponed and others reorganised, only to be cancelled at the very last minute. ‘Le Race was cancelled four days out in March and then again in September, so it has been challenging, but we have worked our way through it and we will continue to do so.’
For many, the thought of the details and the many variables that could ultimately go wrong with events would be off-putting, yet for Sheree it is this that keeps her going. ‘I thrive on the pressure and stress, I rise to the challenge when something goes wrong out there, and that is what keeps me coming back. No two events are ever the same.’
Words Lucinda Diack