Catherine StewartGardening Australia Live – why did it fail?

Gardening Australia Live in Sydney last weekend delivered – but where was everyone? The show looked like it had all the right stuff – every TV presenter on board and a pretty good list of exhibitors. But with only a few thousands visitors, it was a disaster for all concerned. When I visited on Saturday late morning, expecting to be bowled over in the rush, the main market hall was like a ghost town. So what went wrong?

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013

Putting on any garden-related show in Sydney has always been difficult. Shows have come and gone over the past 20 years – Sydney in Bloom, previous incarnations of Gardening Australia Live and a brief flurry of a Sydney Garden Show (completely unconnected to the Australian Garden Show Sydney) was aborted earlier this year. It’s proven time and time again to be a tough market.

On Saturday I talked to many exhibitors. I’ve thought about the circumstances surrounding this show and I’ve also talked to some people who I’d thought might have gone, but chose not to. So I’m not going to review the show itself as, if you’d been there, you might have found it was actually pretty good. It was well-stocked with gardening knowledge from the TV presenters doing back-to-back talks and workshops at 3 different stages, there were nurseries like Coachwood, Geranium Cottage and Garden Express selling great plants and any number of quality ancillary product suppliers, from fertilisers to tools. Just nobody there to buy them.

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013

How bad was it?

The show’s organisers invited exhibitors in with a promise of 22,000-28,000 visitors, but visitor numbers were closer to 3,000. Exhibitors paid up to $4000 for large stands, plus all the costs of transporting plants and product, many of them from interstate. Most are small 1-3 person operations who can ill afford to make a complete loss on that investment but by Saturday afternoon, many had sold virtually nothing. Several had already decided to cut their losses and pack up and leave. By late Sunday morning, many more had followed, despite the organisers declaring a free entry day. Gardening Australia TV presenters, many of whom had also travelled from interstate often spoke to half a dozen people, scattered among another 50 or so empty seats.

Show fatigue

So far this spring greater Sydney has already had the Australian Garden Show Sydney, Better Homes and Gardens Live, EcoXpo Sydney, the Plant Lovers Fair and Leura Gardens Festival. This same weekend, Gardening Australia Live coincided with Grand Designs Live, the Galston Open Gardens weekend and the Berry Garden Festival. Even the exhibitors were saying they felt ‘gardened out’. Let’s face it, gardening is not a high priority for most Sydneysiders so these shows are inevitably trying to draw on the same crowd. Enough already.

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013

Time of year

Spring, spring, spring. Why does it always have to be SPRING! Most gardeners in south-eastern Australia know that the best time of year to do things in the garden is autumn. The air is cool but the soil is still warm for planting and, with winter just around the corner, it’s the best time of year to plan major garden renovations. Most show organisers obviously are not gardeners and knowing nothing about this, they insist that spring is absolutely the best time of year to have a show. I say, just look at by far the most successful show in Australia, the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. It’s in AUTUMN.


Yes, there are huge bushfires ringing Sydney. Many potential show goers come from outside the Sydney basin and would not have travelled in for the show. Allowing for that, a downturn in numbers is understandable, maybe by even 20%. But not 70%.

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013

The location

Hordern Pavilion? Hall of Industries? What about either of those locations says ‘garden’? Just like the previous GAL shows which were in The Dome at Olympic Park, shows inside a barn-like building, or amid a sea of concrete do not appeal to gardeners, who garden partly because they like being outside surrounded by greenery. Car parking is limited and expensive and this venue is difficult to get to by public transport – and who wants to go somewhere by PT when you might want to buy a tool, or some plants that you’ve then got to schlep home on a bus + train. It’s also in the eastern suburbs which is the other side of city from the bulk of Sydney’s population.

The organisers

Exhibitors were angry that event organisers Toro Media and PR company Kabuku had done so little to advertise the show. Sure they’d been active on Facebook and Twitter, but that’s hardly a fit with a typical show-goer demographic of 55+. Where else it had been advertised I’m not sure as I don’t remember seeing it, other than cross promotion in Gardening Australia magazine and on ABC radio.

And the ticket prices at $30 adult, $22.50 concession and $10 for children are too expensive. I know it costs a lot to put on a show but 20,000 people paying $10 and kids in free is a better financial return than 3,000 at full price, as was shown by the declaring of the ‘Super Sunday’ free tickets day. Which will no doubt really annoy those who paid full price on Friday and Saturday, as is already showing up on the GA Facebook page.

Screen shot 2013-10-21 at 11.56.01 AMThe Gardening Australia Live show ethos

Gardening Australia’s core audience, like most ABC shows, has always been an older demographic and this was very much in evidence at previous GAL shows I’ve been to. These are hard core gardeners who really love their gardens and have money to spend. While they are environmentally aware, I think the constant super-loud ‘eco-organic-sustainability’ message currently promoted by Gardening Australia is a real turn-off for them. Here is the main promotional spiel for the show:

Returning with its core values of Green Living, Recycling, Organic Living and Sustainability this fresh, reinvigorated three day live event will lead by example and provide a wealth of information and advice to take home and implement for a more sustainable lifestyle. All attendees will have the opportunity to join the Gardening Australia TV Presenters and industry experts in a relaxed, fun-filled setting packed with practical workshops, live presentations, Pasture to Plate cooking demonstrations, Organic food tastings, kids activities and an extensive range of gardening and nursery products, plants and ideas.

I thought that the core values of Gardening Australia for most potential show-goers were …. umm…. gardening? Yet the word ‘gardening’ as something on offer doesn’t even appear until the last phrase. I’m not commenting here on whether I think that Gardening Australia has lost the plot in general, just that this does not appeal to the show attendee demographic, who then voted with their feet.

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013. The Coachwood nursery stand at other garden shows is always frantically busy

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013. The Coachwood Nursery stand at other garden shows is always frantically busy

Branded shows

If all the businesses trying to promote their own individual brands, like Gardening Australia, Better Homes and Gardens, even Grand Designs were interested in what was good for gardeners and the horticulture industry instead of their own branded businesses, then perhaps we would see a joining of forces to make a show that’s really worthwhile for both show-goers and exhibitors. Sadly, I doubt that will ever happen. The ABC aggressively defends its ‘non-commercial’ stance, including trying to stop GA presenters being involved with the Australian Garden Show Sydney and yet (hypocritically in my opinion) happily gets those same presenters involved with another commercial venture run by an independent company, Toro Media, because it promotes the GA brand. How is this ‘non-commercial’?? And one also has to question the ABC’s ability or due diligence in assessing whether this event company had the right plan to run this show.

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013

Gardening Australia Live Sydney 2013

The result

All in all, this was a very bad and sad weekend for Gardening Australia. No doubt those who did go enjoyed it – no crowds, easy access to one-on-ones with TV presenters and quality products on offer. But I doubt that any exhibitor will be involved with a GA show ever again and word will quickly spread about it, which will permanently damage the GA name, and that’s not good for gardening.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

34 thoughts on “Gardening Australia Live – why did it fail?

  1. I agree with your statement that GA has somewhat “lost the plot”. It’s turning form a respected and professional gardening magazine into a mouthpiece for persons extolling the virtues of pottering around kindergartens/schools/community verges. Add to this the mind-bogglingly silly and not that funny pet stories, a couple of pages of cooking recipes, the ever increasing advertising of “new” products – and there is not much left to read. And if you can’t be bothered reading, why would you pay an extra $30.00 to go to a show and listen to more of the same? Please give more space to true and knowledgeable gardeners, with real writing and speaking skills, like Michael McCoy, and Stephen Ryan.

  2. Although the magazine is run by a completely separate commercial entity, News Ltd, it is required to feature stories from the TV show, including reflecting its push to a younger, allegedly more eco-focussed demographic. Unless it can get enough advertising to run more pages, it’s limited in how much additional content it can include. The ABC owns and controls the GA brand, not News, and after the acrimonious sacking of Stephen by GA TV, GA magazine wouldn’t have been too popular if it had continued to use him.

  3. Hi Catherine. A point of clarification in your response to the first comment: The magazine is not required to feature stories from the TV show; they can run whatever content they like, as long as it doesn’t breach ABC Editorial Policy. Naturally though – as well from a business perspective – you would want a relationship between the 2 entities.

  4. I applaud your comments about the show, Catherine. I was surprised to have yet another Gardening show on top of the others already on in the last six you say, let’s try autumn for a change. gardeners are so spoilt for choice at this time of year, and very eager to spend time in their own patch!
    It was so sad to see so many of our wonderful GA gardeners, from all over Australia, talking to a measly few people. Lucky people who did go to the show, including myself, as they had the full attention of all the exhibitors! But as you say, very few of those exhibitors will be back for more next year.

  5. We thought the poor turn out on Friday was simply because it was a week day and felt perhaps the weekend might bring forth more people. I have to be honest, if I had not won the tickets, I simply could not have afforded to go. Since retiring I have stopped going to all these shows, no matter who runs them, as the cost is just too much for us.
    It was difficult to get to as it involved 2 lots of public transport and it is only that we know Sydney so well that we found where the show was actually being held.
    Having said that both husband and I enjoyed the talks and it was nice to meet all the different presenters from Gardening Australia who are such down to earth folks. Such a shame for the exhibitors as there were some amazing products, my heart goes out to them. One exhibitor was from The Blue Mountains and told me her husband was unable to come with her as he was out fighting fires!
    Let’s hope the organisers get it right next year, especially the location!

  6. Why can’t we have gardening Australia live incorporated into the Easter show. I only go to the Easter show to see all the craft and the regional displays and the addition of more gardening displays would be an added attraction. Over the years the range of products available at the show have become less varied and I would love to be able to purchase a gardening Australia bag or a Felco show bag or a Neutrog show bag.

    Less is more!

  7. Wow I’m amazed at such a poor turnout, I would love another garden show in Melbourne. The ABC gardening show that used to be held in Melbourne seemed to be very popular and the Melbourne International Garden show is always packed, I go early to avoid the crowds. Must be disappointing for everyone especially exhibitors

  8. All valid criticisms especially about losing the plot. The ABC did that when they opted to turn GA into a kids program when it should have remained a show pitched at adults, the ones who buy the products of the advertisers and the magazine. If News Magazines and the ABC can wait 25-30 years when their putative market matures, they may, just maybe, have an audience for this type of thing, but also for the TV show and the magazine. But five year olds aren’t interested in garden exhibitions so why bother with the pretence of running one. So very poorly considered and executed.

    • I don’t think the presenters were dumbing down their information but the show’s promotion made it seem like that would be the case. And for all that, not a huge number of kids there anyway. Kids should get in free – that way the parents are more likely to be OK paying for their tickets and everyone benefits.

      • A clarification Catherine. I don’t think the presenters were dumbing down but the ABC’s use of a host with an almost cartoonish presence is geared to appeal to children and the continual harping on the evangelical message alluded to by several correspondents, is pitched at a very young demographic. Repetition of simple mantras seems to appeal to young learners after all. While the ABC claims the show has increased viewing audience, the ratings prove otherwise. The audience has declined in real terms. What has happened is a mass turn off by serious (senior) gardeners and their replacement, but only in part, by children. Given the emphasis on schools, community and other reasonably commendable activities, it is not surprising but if there is a market for this emerging demographic, why not have Costa exercise his undoubted appeal to the kinder generation on a dedicated program for kids and leave GA to adults? My point was that kids do not buy adult magazines nor attend shows like this so there is a major disconnect between the ABC’s target audience and the taken-for-granted audience that has now walked away.

        • Agreed. The original GA format was far from perfect, and I in Sydney found the relentless focus on peonies, clematis and roses with all the attention on Melbourne and Hobart pretty useless. Having Colin Campbell around countered that somewhat, but not nearly enough. Now the show has gone from bad to worse. If I want a lecture on organic vegetables and community gardening I can go to my local Council. And I’m sorry, but the appearance of some of the hosts leaves a lot to be desired. A bit of soap and water would go a long way.

        • I must say that although I agree Costa does indeed look somewhat cartoonish I disagree with the claim that that GA has become childish. The new TV show (post Pete) is definetely targeting a younger audience but if they didnt do this I feel that the show would dwindle and disappear as the older (serious) gardeners themselves dwindle and disappear.We need more gardeners in the world not less!

  9. Talk about suicide, well Gardening Australia on the ABC has done that. It used to be a great show with interesting gardening segments for true gardeners. Now almost all the segments are filmed in the presenters back yard. The show has become eco political and works very hard to put its propaganda across.
    I just want to see nice plants and gardens from around Australia, not seeing the same presenters garden every week. It gets too much and I have to switch off. It’s such a shame as it used to be a great show. Perhaps that had something to do with the low attendance and of course the $30 cost just to get in.

  10. I attended Gardening Australia Live on Friday 18 October and was disappointed by both the absence of attendees and the small number of plant sellers on the day. Many thanks to the sellers there on Friday I am very happy with my purchases (plant and non-plant).

    While garden show burnout/timing appear to be factors for the low attendance I think more significant factors are the venue (nothing beats Olympic Park and level access to trains and Rose Hill is OK), entry fees (Ticketek online surcharge was a turn off) and event marketing. My guess is that the bulk of attendees for this type of show do not come from the Eastern suburbs, rely on public transport and need to keep an eye on their discretionary spending.

    Key to the success of these shows are the sellers, if you price them out of participating then you cannot expect success.

  11. Catherine I completely agree with your assessment. Gardening Australia has become all about personalities, and that hirsute mutant constantly preaching about eco-this and community-that is really off-putting.

    You’re right again about the location – why not do it in the Botanic Gardens? Or Centennial Park? Or some other parklands?

    Anyway, these things are always so commercial and expensive, especially in Sydney, it’s never really worth battle with traffic, terrible public transport and other annoying characteristics of this city to get to these things.

    • Although Costa is a lovely guy (whatever you feel about the hair) and very committed to what he passionately believes in, I do think that the strong and constantly repeated eco message on Gardening Australia TV is counter-productive – that it switches off more people than it converts and convinces

  12. I would be pointing my finger at the ABC. Don’t know if anyone caught ‘Portlandia’ on the telly. It was an archly satiric look at the smug politically correct/eco/sustainable sub culture that exists in Portland Oregon in the US. Hilarious show and long overdue. I can’t watch GA without thinking about it.

    GA is a show for marginals. The passively aggressive, young, hip, earnest, dippy, organic bike riders that love to evangelise. Trouble is, I share their concerns, just hate the way they expound it.

    The lack of punters at the show reflects the marginal status of GA.

  13. I’d like to defend the GA TV show which I find has very interesting segments on gardening techniques as well as the broader subject of sustainability. It’s a good mix, and Costa is a charismatic presenter (although I do miss down to earth Peter Cundall). I must admit I don’t buy the mag as it is too superficial. I prefer Organic Gardening magazine.

    I think Melbourne is a better venue for a gardening show. Having lived in both cities, it seems to me that there is a lot more interest in gardening in Victoria and the shows we do have here are well attended. I wonder why Sydney was selected?

  14. Although I don’t go to this event every year I like catching up with old horti chums and buying a few new plants. I went to the GA show on Friday and was staggered by the $30 entry fee and almost decided to go home. I couldn’t believe how empty the event was. It felt more like a set up day than the real deal. As usual there were hardly any one selling plants (my No 1 drawcard).

    Regarding the direction of the Gardening Australia brand I can’t stand the preachy tone now, even though I agree with many of the sentiments. Many of my older gardening customers hate the direction of the programme and despair in finding any decent gardening shows on the telly (there are certainly none on commercial TV).

    Costa seems like a lovely bloke and the reinvigorating of the show with younger people is important if it is to survive but don’t forget those who enjoy (dare I say it) ornamental gardening in their own back yard.

    Regarding the right time for a show I think the best time is late winter as gardeners are keen to get stuck in to back yard work labour.

  15. I didn’t go to the GA live event as I loathe trekking out to an ugly venue to mill around with what I thought would be thousands of people. I happily attended the Plant Fair at Richmond even with the milling thousands as at least the venue was tolerably pleasant. On a related topic, what a delight it would be to have a gardening TV show in addition to Gardening Australia that is pitched to gardeners who already have an extensive knowledge of gardening and want to extend that knowledge and interest. Gardening Australia is a good, low level introduction for those who don’t know how to take a cutting or germinate seeds or plant a tree but for those of us who learnt the basics years ago GA is now woefully inadequate. I still look forward to it each week thinking there might be something of interest but my eyes soon glaze over and I start multi-tasking, reading a book or something similar. An advanced gardening program could be similar in a sense to Garden Drum with stories that deal with more challenging ideas and directions in gardening from all over the world and also garden history. Maybe that’s what I’m getting at – turn Garden Drum into a TV show!! Come on all you talented Garden Drum contributers – time for a feasability study! Would there be sufficient audience numbers I wonder?

    • I’ve certainly thought about it Augusta but it’s always the commercial reality of where the money comes from that’s the problem. People are getting so used to the idea of a flow of free information that they’re unwilling to pay for subscriptions, and advertisers are slow to take up the online alternatives to traditional print and free-to-air TV. So how to pay garden journos, presenters and production staff is the issue. Maybe someone can organise some crowd funding for us!

  16. And in Melbourne, all we have is the International Flower and Garden Show in Autumn that is tired and boring. The Melbourne equivalent was cancelled about 3-4 years ago. Bring it back, Melbourians love a garden show.

    • Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show Boring??
      Myself and 125,000 other may disagree with you.
      Its gives Chelsea a run for its money and many say its even better.
      More spacious and less crowded.

  17. Toro Media the event organiser and GA have blood on their hands. Quite simply put, both organisations have some serious explaining to do as they just didn’t spend any money to promote the show. I’m no marketing expert but this would explain the lack of visitors. Us exhibitors being charged high booth fees by the event organiser then not delivering on the visitor numbers with only around 2500, not the 20000 they were expecting, not even close shows their lack of professionalism. Exhibitors were packing up before the event even finished, it was just terrible.
    And charging a $30 entry fee is just a blatant rip off.
    Toro Media and GA were both money greedy by charging such exorbitant fees for both entry fee and booth fees and money tight in skimming on marketing and for the few visitors their marketing did reach, visitors expressed their disgust at the ridiculous entry fee and voted with their feet to not attend. I didn’t see any advertising at all and was looking out for it. I believe also GA has some explaining to do for the focus on sustainability and eco living. Us green thumbs just want plants and products and good seminars not Costas mantra shoved down our throats.

  18. I like the fact that GA is focusing on eco sustainability, permaculture, working with nature rather than against. I have in the last twelve months gone from using chemical fertilisers to only using home made compost, leaving all the old vegetation on top of the soil, no tilling the soil etc and already I am seeing healthier soil, less diseases on my veggies and the top soil has become a darker, richer soil with all the organic matter going back rather than being thrown out. Well done GA on trying to cure the soil.

  19. I thought I’d have a look on-line to see if another GA Live event was happening, and I was surprised to see that it had been and gone! I think a major problem was the lack of advertising, and I had no idea that there was an event! I had happily travelled down from the Far North Coast in previous years, but to my mind, one of the best was the first GA Live in Brisbane many years ago. And it’s a lot nearer to me. But the $30 entry fee is also quite a turn-off, after paying travelling expenses, etc. But please do consider another event in Brisbane – not just Sydney and Melbourne. I still enjoy GA on TV very much, in spite of the changes.

  20. I never knew it was on! Very poor advertising, especially for us that live in a rural area. Had I known about it, I would have been there, in spite of the distance.

  21. I have finally got onto a comment page re Gardening Australia. The GA format is aimed at a few diehard hippie types who know next to nothing about real horticulture. I speak as a horticulturist who has run a landscape gardening business for the last 17 years. I have been in the industry since 1972 continuously. The program should reflect the interests of Gardeners Australia wide. That would therefore include garden presenters from Darwin who now aren’t included. Based on the fact that most viewers ie. Gardeners live on the east coast ie . Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne you would focus on delivering to that market.That market does not focus on peonie roses etc that Hobart viewers would be interested in. What you need to do is have a major shift. You can start by getting back to real grass roots presenters. The viewer wants real informative programs where their knowledge and interest is expanded. The viewer can only watch so many programs on how to plant a lettuce or kale before they lose interest. As a horticulturist/landscape designer who deals with clients daily I can say that Gardeners gave up on GA years ago. Hope my comments help in changing a very sad state of affairs!

  22. Gardening Australia seems to be mainly all about the eastern states. There are other states of Australia who would like to hear about gardening ideas relating to them. It would be nice to hear again about cottage gardens for an example which has always been popular with Australians and their love with roses. Getting back to the basics of showing the average gardener how to overcome and treat common garden problems would be most welcome.

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