South Australia: one year on

This time last year, Chief of Staff visited South Australia to discover how the state managed to bring so many more business events than it did in the years prior. Sitting down with both government and private sector leaders, we learned that South Australia was benefitting from a brand-new, pro-business government, and a supportive events industry. Now, one year on, our editor Bennet Nichol has revisited the ‘small state with big ideas’, to see what’s changed, what’s new and what the plans are for the future of South Australia.

South Australia is a unique part of Australia and it always has been. As the only Australian province founded by free settlers, the state has had a long history of innovation, liberty and vibrant culture. Today, it has come to be known as both ‘the wine state’ and ‘the festival state’, because one slogan simply isn’t enough for a state with such a diverse range of experiences.

South Australian wines take pride of place in bottle shops from Tokyo to Copenhagen, and everywhere in between. Their world-class wineries—while a great selling point—are only the tip of the South Australian iceberg. The state has been putting itself through a revolutionary modernising exercise. Revitalisation, re-purposing and developing are at the top of the bill for South Australia and as a result, it has been enjoying a period of strong growth. This hasn’t been an accident. There’s a host of people working behind the scenes to steer South Australia into the future, and I sat down with a number of them for a talk on the year that’s been, and the plans that lie ahead.

The captain of the ship

Steven Marshall, the Premier of South Australia

It didn’t take long to organise an interview with Steven Marshall, the Premier of South Australia. I was expecting to have to play email tennis for quite a while to get a hold of Mr Marshall. Less than a week after my initial request, my phone rings. The Premier seems excited to get back in touch with Chief of Staff, and I suspect he’s got a lot he wants to catch us up on. “G’day Bennet!” Mr Marshall greets me as I answer the phone; no muss, no fuss, no press secretary. Just a call straight from the Premier’s desk.

The first order of business I want to discuss is how the state has grown as a destination for events and visitors since he last spoke with us in 2018. His government has had a year to realise their vision for the state, and Mr Marshall says that since taking office South Australia has been barrelling towards the future.

“The new government has been in place for just over a year. South Australia is a much more confident, focused state,” Mr Marshall says. He backs up his statement by mentioning his government’s considerable funding efforts to make South Australia a great place to visit.

“We are particularly interested in growing our tourism numbers. We’ve already announced a significant increase in the bid fund for South Australia to bring more events and conferences to South Australia. This is a critical part of our overall plan to grow tourism visitation,” he explains.

To support the growing number of visitors, the Marshall Government has also allocated $1.1 billion for regional road upgrades, and has put more money aside in the new budget for ‘congestion-busting’ roadworks in Adelaide.

The Premier also noted another major win for the state, securing two major lead-up events to the Australian Open early next year. The State Government injected $10 million into the Memorial Drive Tennis Centre to help secure the events. “This will be a great reason for people to come to South Australia. They can see a great sporting event but then stay on for a few days and visit another part of our great state,” Mr Marshall said.

But while it has been a successful year, what about the long term? With the sun beginning to set on 2019, the Premier is setting his policy telescope to long-range as he explains his vision for the future of South Australia.

“South Australia has historically been very strong with agriculture, mining and manufacturing, but looking to the future we see these traditional sectors being augmented to focus on future industries. We are now looking to the horizon, not looking in the rear-vision mirror,” Mr Marshall says, before firing off a list of new industries he wants to focus on. “Space, defence, artificial intelligence, blockchain, machine learning, cyber security—these are the sectors which we believe will be very strong in the future and these are the sectors we are focused on in South Australia.”

This transition isn’t just a dream, Mr Marshall’s government is throwing its full weight behind these new industries. The development of ‘Lot Fourteen’ on the site of the old Royal Adelaide Hospital is set to be Australia’s first creation and innovation neighbourhood. And to ice the cake, in December last year the Federal Government announced that Adelaide would host Australia’s new space agency.

“I think it’s going to be the most exciting start-up, scale-up, innovation precinct in the entire country,” Mr Marshall happily explains. “It’ll house the Australian Space Agency, the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre and the Australian Institute of Machine Learning, and as a start-up, scale-up incubator with more than 650 people present.”

Mr Marshall paints his plans for future policies in three broad strokes: lower taxes, less regulation, and a massive investment in infrastructure. As our conversation comes to a close, the Premier extends a welcome to EAs looking to South Australia for their next event.

“Executive assistants bringing conferences to Adelaide are always delighted with the experience that they have here. They find all of our facilities up to scratch and the ease of doing business in South Australia is always a focus. Everybody is welcome, please put Adelaide on your agenda.”

Talking meetings with the Minister

David Ridgway, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment

Last year when Chief of Staff met with David Ridgway, the South Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, he was well prepared for his second parliamentary sitting. Now, over 12 months on, his preparedness has paid off as he shoots back answers and positive examples to my questions with startling precision.

As the Minister responsible for Trade, Tourism & Investment, I suspected Mr Ridgway would have plenty to say about South Australia’s event offerings. I wanted to get an update on the state’s growth as a destination since he spoke with us last year, and his detailed answers confirmed my suspicion: he truly knows his stuff.

“It’s great to reflect on some of the things we have done since March 2018,” Mr Ridgway begins. He continues by listing a number of key events that have selected South Australia as their destination. The Minister says the 19th Australian Space Research Conference, World Congress on Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, and others will bring 5800 visitors to the state.

It’s clear, judging by the names of these events and conferences alone, that Mr Ridgway is reading from the same page as Premier Steven Marshall. These future industry organisations bringing their events to South Australia confirms just how successful the efforts of this government have been in transitioning the state into a world-class tech and development destination.

I wanted to know how the Minister has managed to bring, and will continue to attract, events like these to the state. Aside from the infrastructure boom that Premier Marshall is laying out, surely there has to be a strategy to sealing the deal on these major events. The answer? A growing bid fund, says Mr Ridgway. A bid fund is money allocated by the government to help convention bureaux entice event organisers and EAs to host their event in their state or region. This money is used to offer state of the art facilities, superior technology, food, wine and diverse cultural and recreational activities.

“Following a key election commitment, starting in our first State Budget, the State Government committed an additional $21.5 million over four years to increase event bid funding to enable South Australia to secure more lucrative major events and conventions to increase visitation, create employment and drive economic growth.”

Getting business events knocking on South Australia’s door is an ideal scenario says Mr Ridgway, as “Business travellers are high spending by nature, spending three times more than the standard visitor—which provides a strong economic benefit for accommodation, retailers, bars and restaurants.”

The Minister plans to keep the momentum going, with the release of the South Australian Tourism Plan 2030 close on the horizon. “Leisure and Business Events will be a key focus to drive visitation,” Mr Ridgway said. “The Plan also recognises that business events also support other growing sectors of the South Australian economy such as advanced manufacturing, the space industry and biomedical science.”

There’s no doubt that both Mr Ridgway and the Premier have their sights set on the same goals. With their combined effort, South Australia’s future—as both a place to host a business event, and to run a business from—is bright.

The tourism expert’s take

Rodney Harrex, CEO of the South Australian Tourism Commission

Tourism has a huge part to play in South Australia’s success, and it would be remiss not to get back in touch with Rodney Harrex, CEO of the South Australian Tourism Commission (SATC) so he can share his side of the story. The SATC, set up by the State Government in 1993, is responsible for marketing South Australia as a destination for tourists from across the country and the globe.

Mr Harrex was happy to inform me that South Australia’s tourism industry has grown since he last spoke with Chief of Staff. “South Australia’s tourism industry is currently worth $6.8 billion, up three percent on the previous year,” Mr Harrex said.

Last year, the SATC was working closely with the new Marshall Government to grow visitor numbers to the state. Now, the organisation is gearing up to release their South Australian Tourism Plan 2030—and is pushing their targets sky high. A draft summary of the new report indicates they want to boost the value of South Australia’s tourism industry to $12.8 billion by 2030.

I ask Mr Harrex why South Australia and Adelaide have been so successful in attracting events and leisure travellers, and how they plan to meet these increased targets. Mr Harrex says South Australia has a unique brand of metropolitan style. Many of the state’s regional centres lie just outside Adelaide, so business and leisure travellers don’t have to go far to experience the full breadth of South Australia.

“South Australia is a great place for business events. We have state of the art conference facilities in the heart of the city and world-famous wine regions only minutes away from Adelaide. This gives business visitors an opportunity to extend their stay by a day or two to see some of our beautiful regions such as the Adelaide Hills, Barossa, Clare Valley or Fleurieu Peninsula,” Mr Harrex explained.

In last edition’s feature on New Zealand’s tourism and business event boom, I spoke with the Mayor of Auckland, Phil Goff, about the impact that visitors can have on an ecosystem. I wanted to know how Mr Harrex plans to keep South Australia and Adelaide pristine during this period of growth.

The answer to this dilemma, according to Mr Harrex, is collaboration. “Sustainable development is a key concern, especially for places such as Kangaroo Island where the consumer proposition is so strongly linked to the pristine natural environment,” Mr Harrex outlined.

“This is why we consult closely with our tourism regions as well as key government stakeholders such as the Department for Environment and Water and the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure. It is important that developments are appropriate for the region and don’t detract from the innate appeal of these environments.”

A regional event might be the best bet for bid funding

The State Government of South Australia wants business events, and has continued to allocate more money to help bring them to the state. As event organisers, EAs can access these resources through the Adelaide Convention Bureau (ACB). The ACB is responsible for allocating the $21.5 million worth of bid funding, according to a state government spokesperson, who said “The ACB works with state government agencies to provide funding to support the attraction of competitive conventions and events to Adelaide.”

“South Australia has a business events bid fund for these events and the State Liberal Government has made a significant additional investment into that fund and also expanded the mandate of the ACB to attract events to South Australia’s regions as well as the CBD,” the spokesperson continued.

The ACB has a wealth of local knowledge to draw from, and can help you find the right venue, caterer, technology provider, accommodation and activities for an event. Provided an event meets the correct criteria (and will have a positive impact on the area it’s held in), organisers can also apply for event funding. This funding is typically competitive in capital cities, including Adelaide, but events in the regions of South Australia may have a better chance of receiving funding.

In any case, it’s worth giving the ACB a call to discuss what they can provide for an event in South Australia.

An economists opinion

To get a more scientific perspective on how South Australia is growing, I made a call to the University of Adelaide where Steve Whetton, the Deputy Director of the SA Centre for Economic Studies is based. After the straight down the line analysis he gave to Chief of Staff last year, I wanted to touch base with him again to get another run down on the economic position of the state.

Mr Whetton had good things to say about the growth of South Australia’s labour market, and its growing participation rate (percentage of people in the state that are looking for work or working).

“In the early nineties, a lot of young South Australians moved interstate and overseas, and the economy took a hit.” But the labour market has been on the rise recently, he said. “The labour market has been growing reasonably, faster than population growth.” This means there are more people skilling-up and looking for work in South Australia than unskilled people not looking for work—a good thing for any economy.

I also wanted to see if he could confirm that the government’s efforts to transition the economy into future industries was working. Ever the academic—and without enough long-term data—he was hesitant to give a definitive answer either way. But he did say, “The new government has been focusing on trying to push down the cost of doing business. We’re still seeing a solid business investment in South Australia.”

On the events side of things, Mr Whetton said the focus of the government and the private sector are both set correctly.

“The event infrastructure in South Australia is good, they’ve only just finished the refurbishment of the Convention Centre, and there has been a reasonable amount of new hotel construction as well. I think that side of things has been going well,” Mr Whetton said.

“There is also a reasonably strong focus in the tourism marketing arms of government for trying to drive convention and business event visits. I think that focus is good within government and the private sector.”

At the end of our talk, I gave Mr Whetton the opportunity to tell me something happening in South Australia that’s on his radar at the moment.

“Some of the potential opportunities around the space sector are quite interesting. South Australia managed to procure the National Space Agency that’s setting up in Lot Fourteen. That has potential,” Mr Whetton said.

“There’s also a low-earth-orbit satellite rocket launching facility being constructed in South Australia, so there’s potential for quite a bit of activity around the space side of things.”

By putting satellites into space, and investing heavily in infrastructure and promotion, the state is quite literally launching itself into the future. After a year at the job, the Marshall Government has laid the foundations for more growth. With a rapidly expanding business events sector, an infrastructure boom and a growing workforce, the ‘small state with big ideas’ is fast becoming a place where success is the norm. With a troubled economic history now firmly in the rear-view mirror, South Australia, as Premier Steven Marshall put it, is “looking to the horizon,” and shooting for the stars.