South Australia – The small state with big ideas

Recently, the 2018 Executive PA Corporate Event Organiser Survey indicated Adelaide experienced significant success in attracting more business events to the city during 2017. Since other data agrees with these findings, our Chairman, Russell Peacock decided to sit down with some of South Australia’s leading authorities on the topic, both from government and the private sector, to learn more about SA’s resurgence, the reasons why the state is a great bet for the future and why you may find yourself recommending it to your executive.

Open an old guide book on South Australia and, alongside the faded photographs, you’ll inevitably be informed about its “healthy Mediterranean climate, with wet, cold winters and dry, hot summers”. SA is so much more than its weather patterns. Especially now, as it goes through one of its most impressive periods of development and change in its 200-year existence.

A conversation with the state’s head of government
A mere 15-minute walk from the Adelaide Convention Centre and I find myself at the offices of incoming SA Premier, Steven Marshall. After passing through the main reception, metal detectors, x-ray and security guards, I’m seated in a quiet reception area awaiting my chance to speak to Mr. Marshall. Not long after I arrive, the area bursts into life with the arrival of more and more visitors, all vying to speak to the Premier, even for a few minutes. After only a couple of short months in office, the Premier and his team have certainly hit the ground running.

In Mr Marshall’s office, which offers a great view of his state’s capital, we get through our introductions and begin our chat. His press secretary reminds us we only have 15 minutes and I know I need to make the most out of this short amount of time. Despite his jam-packed schedule, Mr Marshall doesn’t let the time constraints shake his poise and attentiveness. With my pen and notebook at the ready, it’s time to get down to business.

Our first topic of discussion is about why an EA would choose SA for their business events. Mr Marshall highlights the quality of the state’s newest investments designed to draw in those needing to host events.

“We believe that we’ve got a really nice balance between professional meetings facilities, but also a host city and state that will impress all of the delegates,” Mr Marshall says. “There are great opportunities for pre and post event activities.”

As an attendee of the three-day conference hosted by Meetings & Events Australia at the Adelaide Convention Centre, I can attest to the Premier’s statement. The convention centre is a multi-award-winning venue with state of the art facilities. Evening and off-site activities also included memorable experiences, such as a visit to Australia’s National Wine Centre, just on the other side of town.

I bring up Mr Marshall’s bold statement to the press about knocking on Google’s door to get them to SA, and its appearance of firmly planting their flag in the ground to proclaim the state’s business-friendly credentials.

“It wasn’t just about Google – but that SA is a great state for any business or start-up. The new government is unashamedly pro-business. We want to encourage any or all businesses to come to SA, either for meetings or relocation,” he explains. For extra emphasis on that statement, Mr Marshall also adds, “We, as a new government, will bend over backwards in making this the most attractive place possible to do business in the country.”

What about the idea of people moving to SA and raising families? “We have lower costs than many other states and, apart from the economics, I think it’s a great place for people to live,” Mr Marshall enthuses. “Many executives I meet who come to live here from interstate or overseas comment to me that they are never going to leave because they have found themselves in a very liveable city and state.”

He elaborated by explaining the appeal of SA for executives looking to relocate their businesses and families.
“It’s very attractive and meets all their needs. We have great schools, a safe community and don’t have many of the problems which are turning off executives from other states, such as spiralling real estate costs that can make it so difficult for business to remain viable.”

The new government’s plans include axing payroll tax for small businesses, halving emergency services Levy bills, deregulating shopping hours and capping council rates.

With these last statements, we conclude the interview and step over to a wall displaying a painting called ‘Kulitja’ by indigenous artist, Sandy Brumby for one last photo op.

Sitting down with the Minister for Trade, Tourism & Investment
We’re in a wood-panelled office just across the hall from the upper house, which is one of the two chambers of the Parliament of South Australia. Minister David Ridgway is sitting at the table ready to talk to Chief of Staff about South Australia as an attractive business destination. He’s a man with an interesting background – an agriculturalist who took over the family farm and turned it into the largest producer of gladioli flowers in Australia and New Zealand. He has a keen interest in crypto currency and, up to a couple of months ago, 15 years in parliament in opposition.

Although very approachable, both he and his press secretary are initially a little on edge because the buzzer to signal attendance in upper house seems to be playing up. After a few seconds they sit back and relax as the buzzer finally rings out the all clear. “This is just the second sitting since Premier Marshall was sworn in, so there are a few little items to iron out,” Mr Ridgeway says patiently.

Although only just in power and new to the role, Mr Ridgway seems to be taking it all in his stride. After 15 years in opposition, it’s a role he’s well prepared for and he’s very clear on why EAs should be looking to South Australia for their events and recommends the region as a great choice to establish or relocate a business or an office.

“We’re undergoing an infrastructure boom that is funded by public and private investment,” he points out. “We’re looking to attract business events and businesses, both national and international to drive investment.”

I ask him about the recent closure of the Holden plant and how this may have affected the type of businesses they are targeted. “We’re looking to attract what we call ‘smart’ businesses. For example, Technicolor will open an Adelaide visual effects studio later this year, creating over 500 jobs for the State.” Technicolor is an international visual effects company and its work can see seen in blockbusters such as Wonder Woman and the Martian. Their studio build alone is estimated to cost $26mill – welcome revenue for the state. Adelaide is Australia’s first 10 gigabit city and parts of it enjoy the fastest broadband speeds in the country, which is perfect for data hungry businesses like Technicolor.

Adelaide Biomed City is a good example of a smart industry sector built using private and public investment. It’s the largest medical precinct in the southern hemisphere and attracts talent and related events from all over the world. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on its development, with many more millions invested in future developments within the precinct.

South Australia has a significant agricultural sector, so was it a conscious move to appoint someone with a background in agriculture to promote tourism and attract technology businesses to the state?

“I sometimes get people saying to me ‘but you’re a farmer, what do you know about technology?’” says Mr Ridgway. “What most people don’t realise is that farmers spend all their time working out how to use technology to become more productive and increase yields. They’ve been doing it for years.”

South Australia used to have an investment attraction grant to entice businesses. How will these funds be used to attract new business to the state? Mr Ridgway says simply offering money to businesses is not a sustainable way to partner with organisations.

“The trouble with grants is that too often once the money dries up, the business will leave. We believe it’s far better to offer genuine support and help organisations make the right connections. That way we end up with businesses that are truly invested in our city and state.”

Before we move into the upper chamber to take some photos, Mr Ridgway sums up South Australia’s unique offering for businesses. “We’re a small state so we can be nimble in a way that other regions can’t be and we all have a common goal here, so we all work together.”

The economist adds his two-cents
Deputy Director for the SA Centre for Economic Studies at University of Adelaide, Steve Whetton spoke with me to explain things from the economic viewpoint. The Centre publishes The Economic Briefing Reports on the South Australian economy and wider Australian and international economic trends.

“South Australia has a strong agricultural sector and up until the 1970s also enjoyed a very healthy manufacturing base,” explains Mr Whetton. “From the 1970s, industry started to go overseas and become more automated, and this is the point that South Australia started to get left behind.”

I point out that, whilst it may have lagged behind, South Australia nonetheless managed to achieve growth through a difficult period. This is much better than cities with a similar reliance on manufacturing. Detroit, for example, used to be home to the U.S. car manufacturing industry and today is a bankrupt city and with its population having reduced by more than half since 1971.

“That’s true, and part of the reason is the state’s strong agricultural base,” Mr Whetton says. He explains South Australia has been busy building new infrastructure and today is targeting research organisations, advanced manufacturing and technology businesses.

The other area of attraction is specialised learning centres that bring expertise back to the state, such as Le Cordon Bleu Adelaide, International College of Management and the Regency International Centre, all offering world class courses in hospitality, hotel management and cookery that are complementary to South Australia’s reputation for great food and wine.

Economists are impartial, objective and you could never accuse one of evangelising – it’s just not in their DNA. Yet, even Mr Whetton’s summary describes a state government with plan and not only that, one that’s achieving wins. Bearing in mind, the next wave of automation from artificial intelligence could result in up to 40 per cent of all office jobs disappearing, it could be argued South Australia is well ahead of the game when compared to other regions in the world, in preparing for the next decade.

And finally, the event organiser says her piece
The 2018, Meetings & Events Australia (MEA) National Conference was a great success and a lot of it can attributed to the destination, Adelaide. I spoke with MEA CEO, Robyn Johnson to learn more. “MEA last met in Adelaide in 2009 and since then it really has been transformed. This year’s conference was held in the new East Building that was part of a $397 million expansion of the Adelaide Convention Centre and together with the upgrade to the Adelaide Oval and the Adelaide Festival Centre, has created a dynamic riverbank precinct all within close walking distance from hotels,” Ms Johnson says.

“It’s an easy city to conference in and very accessible. It boasts great meeting facilities and its scale ensures an intimate delegate experience and is just a stone’s throw from a terrific range of experiences for pre and post-touring. It’s little wonder that Lonely Planet ranked the Adelaide’s West End one of the top three “coolest” neighbourhoods in Australia.”

To sum it all up
South Australia is a small state with big ideas and has demonstrated it’s prepared to put its money where its mouth is. It’s a region of breath-taking beauty, abundant resources and enjoys a justified reputation for culture and excellent food. It’s also a producer of some of the world’s finest wines.

The infrastructure of the city is catching up with the needs of a modern world, but what is most impressive – and regardless of which political party is in power – is South Australia has a plan, which in a rapidly changing world, is needed more than ever but unfortunately not common.

The new government has made it clear attracting businesses, business events and people to the state is a priority and they’ll do what it takes to do it. In my recent experience, it’s living up to those goals.