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PacificEdge | June 29, 2017

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ABC Organic Gardening Live — what went wrong?

ABC Organic Gardening Live — what went wrong?
Russ Grayson

I ATTENDED the ABC Gardening Australia Live event at the old Sydney showgrounds last Sunday and it’s this that leads to what I want to say about entry fees, the willingness to pay and the value proposition. Let’s deal with this theoretical stuff first, because it bears upon what I want to say about the event itself.

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In business, there’s this notion of a potential customer’s ‘willingness to pay’ for a product or service. It’s about whether a customer would be willing to hand over money for that good or service, and it has a ceiling, an upper limit that itself is based on the perceived value of a product or service. Affecting the willingness to pay is what economist types like to refer to as the ‘value proposition’, the story about the value of a product or service that the seller relates to the potential buyer. This has to be a good story if you want to sell, and it has to be a true one if you want a customer’s repeat business. You might think of in terms of another business concept, the return on investment, in this case the use value or return that the buyer realises by buying the goods or service.

After talking to people at the ABC Gardening Australia event, I believe that the entry price exceeded potential visitors’ willingness to pay to attend. The value proposition wasn’t sufficient. In other words, the entry fee was too expensive.

I suspected something amiss when critical social media comments were pointed out to me on the Saturday.

FEE TO FREE

The decision came late on Saturday evening. Entry to ABC Gardening Live to following day would be free. What led to this sudden change of heart?

The story I got from speaking to people at the event on Sunday was that, late on Saturday afternoon exhibitors, disappointed at the low numbers attending the event, held a meeting. The decision to open the gates, free to all the next day, came from that.

Fiona Campbell and I arrived late on Sunday morning, walked into the exhibitor’s hall, and immediately noticed that the aisles were… how do I put this kindly?… let’s just say they were underpopulated with visitors. We’ve been to a fair numbers of events like this and expected the hall to be crowded. Why wasn’t it?

Here’s how I see it…

DOUBLE-DIPPING

First, before the decision to scrap it, there was the entry price of $30 an adult and $10 a child. That made it an expensive day for a family even though there was a family rate (I wanted to check the cost of this but the ABC had taken down the event’s website). This entry cost has to be seen in the context of competition for people’s money. There are other attractions out there.

As one visitor said to me: “You pay $30 entry to look at exhibitor’s products. Usually, it’s the exhibitors that pay for a space and entry is free. Here, you had to pay to get in to buy stuff”.

My understanding is that there was a fee for exhibitors — $100 was mentioned. My gut feeling is that the upper end of the entry fee for the public for events such as this is $20, with children free. I know these are expensive things to organise, but trying to recoup costs with high entry fees can quickly turn into discouragement. Then there’s that comment I mention above about paying to enter an exhibition so that you can buy things. That can come across as something like double-dipping in people’s pockets, and that can be a deterrent.

VIBE AND ITS LACK

So, that’s that value proposition stuff I mentioned above. Now, let’s talk about vibe. It’s that largely indefinable property of an event that we might otherwise describe as ambience… as the feel of a venue. As another person commented, in the hall where the exhibitors were located, the old exhibition ground’s Hall of Industries, there was none. There was a central workshop space and another tucked away in the far corner of the hall, largely out of sight but not out of earshot, which on occasion caused something like aural crosstalk between the two spaces. On the Sunday there were no musicians in the hall, at least none I heard while I was at the event, which was a good part of the day, and this contributed to that lack of vibe. Nor were there announcements of workshops or talks coming up that might have herded visitors over to them.

I met a few people who didn’t realise that there was another hall exhibiting food. Include me in that number. There was, though, a sign ‘organic food’ with an arrow pointing at the hall, and there were maps handed out at the gate (though I suspect many people put these into pockets and bags and forgot about them) but that sign seemed lost in the visual clutter of the event. That’s a pity because this hall had a better vibe than the other, people seemed more engaged with exhibitors and for some reason that I can’t put my finger on it was a more inviting and lively space.

Between the two halls was a stockage-like structure of freight pallets, a type of walled garden or enclave called the Milkwood Permaculture Piazza. Its vibe was quite different to that inside the halls. There was life here, vitality, continuity… talks were punctuated by recorded music, Milkwood’s Nick Ritar was busy announcing what was coming up, there were people to talk with visitors and there was that sense of movement as talks and demonstrations segued into short breaks then into more talks. In my opinion, this was the most successful venue at the event.

OTHER INFLUENCES

There were other factors at large, I believe, that influenced people’s willingness to pay to attend the event and influencing, too, numbers on the Sunday free entry day.

It must have been only a couple months prior to ABC Gardening Australia Live that there had been a garden show in Centennial Park. There had also recently been the big Floriade garden show in Canberra that Sydney garden lovers attended. Could there be, I wondered, too many garden shows in Spring, and were they sufficiently different? Was it a case of market saturation?

To these garden shows we must add the sustainability-related fairs put on by councils, like Randwick Council’s annual Eco-living Fair. Although the theme may be different there can be exhibitor overlap.

Then there was the question of whether these events are too much the same year after year. When that happens people stop coming after a couple years. Let’s refer back to those business concepts I raised earlier and add another that has to do with differentiating your product from others, especially when you operate in a crowded market — your event’s ‘point of difference’ that gives you an element of uniqueness sufficient to attract people. Did ABC Gardening Australia Live have a significant enough point of difference to the other garden shows?

BETTER NEXT TIME

How could ABC Gardening Australia Live be made better next year?

My humble suggestion is to make use of the principles of placemaking — the participatory process of turning uninteresting, underused urban spaces into inviting places. My rational for suggesting this is that Gardening Australia Live, and any similar event, is best regarded as a temporary public place. So let’s look at some ideas through the sharp lens of placemaking principles…

What is the event’s metastory?

A metastory is made up of the intention and context for an event plus its relationship with earlier iterations of itself, what has been done before.

The metastory of ABC Gardening Australia Live is fairly straightforward: it’s about the joy of gardening, the experience and the learnings that come from that. It could be more, though, as I suspect many of those attending would be interested in sustainable living of which gardening can be one component.

The challenge is to build on this metastory, to interpret it in varied, interesting ways that capture the public imagination, to take it into new territory and to use it to give a sense of continuity through the event.

Create a point of difference

My suggestion is to put ABC Gardening Australia Live on not in Spring when all the others take place, but in late Summer or Autumn.

Sure, you forego all those things associated with Spring, life coming into bloom and all that, and your plant exhibits might show different species, but I’m sure that the application of imagination and design thinking would find opportunity in this.

Make the visitor experience memorable

A challenge, for sure. But what would those sticky talks, workshops, exhibits be that adhere to people’s minds and that they will recall as fond memories in future years?

One suggestion: there were talks and exhibits but apart from the opportunity to ask a question or two at their conclusion, they were passive sessions in which the audience sits and listens to words of wisdom cast by experts. Why not expand the experience envelope by getting people to participate in making something, to become makers rather than passive absorbers of information?

Here, imaginative minds must be recruited.

Expand the experience envelope

I made a suggestion for this in the above point. What else could the event organisers do, and who could they recruit to lead experiential, participatory workshops?

Making a no-dig garden on the paving could be an idea. Sowing seeds, participatory seed saving, fruit tree pruning, making a container garden, soft cheese making, cooking… the potential is limited only by the imagination.

What all these hands-on workshops would do is to expand the experience of those attending, taking it beyond the often interesting passivity of sitting and listening and into the practical realm. It would help make the visitor experience memorable.

This has to do with two additional placemaking principles: encouraging play and encouraging exchange. This latter principle is an important one because expos like ABC Gardening Australia Live are all about exchange — and I’m not only talking about visitors exchanging money for goods and food. I’m talking about the exchange of stories of experience, of ideas. That’s how the talks could be improved, by inviting people to share what they know, and not just as Q&A at the conclusion of the talk. What about some facilitated conversations around interesting topics? That also expands the visitor experience envelope.

Create an attractive anchoring presence

An anchoring presence is something with continuity and something that will draw people back time and again. It is like a core place or facility.

The makings were there at ABC Gardening Australia Live — they were the talks. Unfortunately, they were not located where they could have been — adjacent to the entrances — and made inviting. There was signage about upcoming talks but what was missing in the halls were PA announcements to attract people to them. If you didn’t know what was coming up and you weren’t in sight of a talks schedule sign then you would likely miss the talks unless you stumbled on them. The presentation space in the food hall was tucked away on the side and hidden away behind a wall.

Another suggestion — avoid separating the equipment and food exhibitors into separate halls. Use instead the design principle of proximity and take advantage of clustering exhibitors in one space, if that’s possible, so that people discover unexpected things.

I attended a sustainability expo in the Hall of Industries earlier this year and the area set aside for talks was adjacent to the main entrance. It was attractive and inviting. It was visible. In plain sight, it invited people to stop because it caught their interest. it became a linger node, a place where people stopped awhile. It worked.

Focus on the micro, not the grand design

It’s the exhibits, talks and experiences that keep people around. And keeping people around means they are more likely to visit additional exhibits and buy more food, so focusing on the micro is good in the financial sense as well as adding to the visitor experience.

To focus on the micro is to apply a structural concept we can borrow from ecology. Just as ecosystems consist of a diversity of interacting elements, so can an event consist of a diversity of interacting opportunities — talks, imaginative and attractive exhibits, participatory activities. Once again, the key to success lies with the imagination.

Hire some acoustic musicians, tuck them in appropriate places and schedule them so that they don’t compete acoustically with the speakers and workshops but add an aural ambience to the event.

It’s the accumulation of interesting, stimulating, small things that make the grand design of the event memorable. They slow people down, and at expos that’s a good thing.

Slow people down

People hurrying to some specific thing at an event can miss much of interest along the way, and that’s opportunity lost to the visitor, exhibitor and food seller.

ABC Gardening Australia Live was laid out in a grid pattern with long lines of look-alike booths. That was focusing on the grand design and I’m sure there was a logic to this layout to do with traffic flow.

If an event is a temporary public place, though, and we seek to apply placemaking principles, then the point is not moving people efficiently, it is to move them effectively. What I mean by moving visitors effectively is to break up the grid and slow visitor progress through the halls so that people spend longer navigating the place, stopping more often to look and linger and, perhaps, to buy. This is based on the realisation that, in designing public shopping zones, people spend more on unplanned purchases and food at businesses when they linger in a place.

As in the food hall, set up informal exhibits throughout the space. Get exhibitors out of their little boxes arranged in straight rows and open suitable exhibits to a more informal arrangement.

The talks are linger nodes, of course, nodes of the formal type. So, potentially, are exhibits that are made different and interesting. To get people to linger we need informal linger nodes. Scatter coffee carts through the exhibition space, set up informal seating where people can rest, talk and linger… many smaller nodes rather than a few larger. Put out some deck chairs. Create the opportunity for visitors to encounter the unexpected, the innovative, the interesting. Play to their imagination.

This adds to another placemaking concept — making people feel at home. Friendly staff, welcoming exhibitors, nobody hassling, no pressure to buy, comfortable places to sit and relax. That’s all part of people feeling like they are in a living room rather than a big, specious hall.

Wayfinding

I mentioned that some people didn’t realise there was a food hall. This underlines the importance of wayfinding.

Wayfinding is a way that event organisers inform visitors of the range of things on offer and help them get to what they find interesting. Informed by clear signage and announcements, people make their way to the different exhibits and events and linger longer at the event, increasing their exposure to demonstrations, talks, products and eating opportunities.

FINALLY…

To get back to my observation that many attending ABC Gardening Australia Live are interested in sustainability, perhaps that could be a concept integrated into suitable exhibits and talks without turning the thing into a sustainability expo, retaining the gardening theme, the metastory of ABC Gardening Australia Live. That applies to the organisation of the event in regard to materials used and waste minimisation and management, and that’s not only a point of difference for the event, it’s a selling point.

To do this, consider hiring an event organiser like The Event Consultant that has a track record in organising sustainability-related events.

Yet another suggestion — next time, be sure to bring Milkwood Permaculture back. Their stockade, the Milkwood Permaculture Piazza, had all of those things I allude to — a learning space with seating and a stage, different exhibits set up in nooks and crannies, friendly people identifiable in their green T-shirts to ask questions of, announcement about what’s coming up, linger nodes. It also had that life and sense of movement I mentioned earlier. It was a defined place, visually comprehensible rather than scattered though diverse in its offerings, not a bland space.

I make these suggestions not to be narky but to improve what is potentially a memorable event.

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