More than a Store: The Comvita Wellness Lab
The Comvita “Wellness Lab’ in Auckland’s CBD is nestled between Prince’s Wharf and the Viaduct Harbour, surrounded by restaurants, ice-cream bars, and a souvenir store. The setting is a far cry from the farms, forests, and honey sheds that most beekeepers are used to. More than just a store, the Wellness Lab is a flagship project by New Zealand’s largest honey company. West Auckland beekeeper Chris Northcott took a trip into the city with his daughter to find out what it is all about.
The Lab is managed by Comvita’s “Bee and Nature Advocate”, Noelani Waters. Waters hails from Big Island of Hawaii, where she previously worked as an apiary inspector and queen breeder. Now employed with Comvita, her role focuses on education within the company for new employees, and for community and business partnerships.
This is where the Lab fits in. It combines a retail store with a range of experiences for visitors and assists with Comvita’s marketing goals. When Covid-19 closed New Zealand’s borders to international visitors, it was an opportunity to “reset and reimagine” what can be done with a retail precinct that is targeting the higher end of the honey market.
The descriptor “Lab” was a nod to its relationship to science, and the mission to protect and heal nature. Comvita aims to be more than a business. Its mission is outlined in its “Harmony Plan”, whereby 1% of profits are directed into charities and partners that foster biodiversity, bee welfare, forest regeneration, community education, and decarbonization. Aspiring to plant one mānuka tree for every pot of mānuka honey they sell (currently nearing seven million), Waters explains that Comvita is “one of the largest private managers of native forests in New Zealand”.
There are two spaces that make up the Wellness Lab. The first part is the store – although it might be mistaken for an apiculture-themed art gallery combined with a museum. Looking around there is a lot to take in. The first thing to catch the eye is a wide and tall “honey wall” displaying spherical bottles of different coloured honeys. A display cabinet exhibits artefacts from the history of the Comvita business (founded 1974), beekeeping tools and products, and Māori culture as it connects to apiculture. Above there is ceiling décor with the appearance of metallic chainmail fashioned to represent the comb of a wild beehive—built by the company that made the armour for the Lord of the Rings films. On one wall are hand-blown glass globes which hold different scents to take a whiff from. Honey tasting is available too, and visitors can sample the difference between UMF 5+ and UMF 25+ mānuka, as well as compare tastes with clover and rewarewa honeys. My daughter was pleased to take home some mānuka honey lollypops for her and her siblings.
Everything is specially designed by New Zealand artists and sourced locally from natural materials. The floorboards are recycled matai, while the countertop is a Far North swamp kauri slab, and a holding bench is Timaru bluestone. The purpose of all this is to facilitate interaction and experience. “We want people to feel something”, Waters explains. The store part of the Wellness Lab is designed to draw out natural curiosity and engage the senses.
Behind the store, in a separate room, is a very different kind of space. This is fitted out as a very small cinema, comprising eight single-seater armchairs and a 180 degree wrap-around screen powered by multiple projectors. Waters explains there is a 15-minute session and a 45–60-minute session. During our visit we experienced the shorter show.
In it we are introduced to Comvita co-founder Alan Bougen and Noelani Waters in her role as the Wellness Lab manager, and taken on an animated journey that begins in outer space above New Zealand and descends toward Mt Taranaki before traversing the King Country to Mt Ruapehu. Viewers are shown animated bees in a hive, foraging bees at a clover field, and more bees foraging among mānuka scrub. During these floral vistas we are invited to sample both clover and mānuka honeys, provided for each viewer on a small arm-tray of each chair, complete with glass tasting rod, sparkling water, and wafer crackers for palate cleansing. The presentation invites us to visualize and describe the tastes of each honey (a difficult act of creativity!) before providing its own artsy take on the taste experience.
The 15-minute session is free and ideally should be booked in advance. The longer session is reserved for VIP guests and is designed for building connections with stakeholders such as business leaders and overseas delegates. This session showcases mānuka honey, focussing on the health aspect of the honey together with the research and the marketed information such as the UMF rating system. Both presentations aim to introduce the story behind a pot of honey on the supermarket shelf, and to educate people about beekeeping, as well as the flora that produce some of New Zealand’s famous honey varieties.
The Auckland Wellness Lab is the only retail space that is fully owned by Comvita, and the only of its kind in the world. There are plans for opening similar stores in the USA and China. The Auckland store trials the viability of Wellness Labs abroad for promoting Comvita’s brand and mission. It is a small but impressive outfit, and well worth a visit for beekeepers, who find themselves in downtown Auckland, to see how Comvita is bridging the gap between those who produce honey, and those who eat it.