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?
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.