Over the long weekend, Australians migrated en masse from their homes to campsites and holiday accommodation throughout regional Australia. For many, these trips were to attend a regional festival. But for many places the path to festival success has been paved with disappointment.
Something new is needed and, like in many areas of the Australian economy, engaging with Asia may be an answer. In a recent Tourism Australia survey 81 per cent of Chinese interviewees strongly agreed that “when travelling internationally I always look to time my trip and places visited with an event or festival of interest”.
The evidence we have about existing festivals also shows they can be worth the effort. In 2013, Byron Bay’s Bluesfest delivered $64 million of expenditure in Byron Bay and a further $20m in the surrounding region. Over the weekend more than 40,000 people were expected to come together for Bluesfest 2015.
Another long-term success, Taste Orange is now a series of festivals, a valuable brand in its own right and a genuine driver of regional migration and tourism. The Drovers Campfire in Boggabri and the Parkes Elvis Festival are other local success stories. Each of these events is built on attracting committed domestic tourists, including many who return year after year for the unique experience these regional festivals provide.
But in an increasingly crowded market, new festivals are not as successful as they once were. Failure to realise a sustainable patronage often leads to short life spans for events. In a situation where every festival targets the same portion of the domestic market, this is inevitable. Another reason we’re seeing the demise of new festivals is that most attract fewer people from outside the region than commonly assumed. The University of Wollongong found that on average, only 10 per cent of attendees at regional festivals are from the nearby capital city and only 1 per cent are international visitors.
The next big success in the regional festival space is unlikely to be one that simply seeks to emulate the approach of Taste Orange or Bluesfest.
So why not look overseas for new opportunity?
We know Australia is China’s number one luxury tourist destination. This provides a platform for successfully promoting premium experiences and also makes new experiences essential to sustaining momentum.
Right now there is also a noted rise in independent Chinese travellers. The interest among Chinese tourists for an experience beyond the sites and shops of Sydney is growing, and Tourism Australia’s survey shows Chinese travellers have a tradition of using events as a foundation for a holiday.
The other motivation for trying to tap into this trend is the opportunity to build knowledge and interest in Australia’s unique regions within China or other international markets. As the potential for engagement with festivals grows, so too does the traction Australian products are achieving with the Chinese consumer.
One recent example of this is Bobbie the Bear. Bobbie is a hand- stitched, scented plush toy produced by Bridestowe Lavender in Tasmania. Initially created as a solution to selling surplus lavender, Bobbie the Bear is driving a mini tourism boom. Bobbie’s appearance on social media has resulted in more than 65,000 tourists making the pilgrimage to Bridestowe. Demand is so high a quota of one bear purchase per visitor has been enforced.
Bobbie may be a one-off, but the rise of Chinese online shopping platforms is lowering the barriers for business in engaging directly with Chinese consumers. For entrepreneurial Australians, the opportunity for their own Bobbie-style success story is bigger than ever.
Thinking about these trends together suggests a successful regional event or festival that engages international tourists may provide the perfect platform for showcasing Australian regions. There are few richer ways for places to engage with people from around the world interested in our culture, our experience and the wonderful things we can produce.
Over time visitors can also create the kind of word of mouth that marketers crave and the brand recognition needed to get a foothold for quality regional producers in the highly competitive Chinese market.
If regions are creative and confident about their future they might just be able to create something new, vibrant and locally valuable that makes that Asian market dream a little closer to reality. This is certainly something to think about for the “festival minded” in the wind-down from the Easter break.