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Let us entertain you.

By turning up our entertainment offerings, what are the big opportunities for an emerging ‘Gippslandia’?

Jun 18, 2018

Words: John Calabro

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Here’s an entertaining thought, imagine the nation of ‘Gippslandia’... A vast terrain of varying communities, with beautiful mountains to the north and stunning beaches in the south, split by postcard rolling hills and forests. Not hard to imagine when that’s what we have in our backyard now. But consider the people and culture amongst this lovely landscape. Pulling on the hiking boots and treading off into nature is great for the soul, but it’s not for everyone, nor all of the time.

Generally, we humans want to live and work in places where we can be entertained. Frequently, the stronger the entertainment scene, the stronger the vibrancy of its community. So, if we’re wanting to enhance our sense of community by turning up our entertainment offerings, what are the big opportunities for the emerging ‘Gippslandia’?

Although we’re likely not going to cede from the Commonwealth of Australia today, you could argue that considering Gippsland as a hypothetical small nation may have its benefits, such as improving our marketing to tourists and industry alike. While we have the treasure trove of natural assets alluded to above, these alone won’t drive the region to the top of the many ‘10 Best Places To Live’ listicles that are found across the webosphere.

Gippslandia, like other countries, wants to establish a diverse pool of strengths, assets that become the envy of other regions. We believe that entertainment could be the industry that we didn’t know we needed. After all, engaging entertainment makes life fun. Who doesn’t want to live, visit, invest or showcase a region that permeates an encompassing sensation of fun? La dolce vita or ‘the sweet life’ is the phrase we believe encapsulates it best.

There are plenty of other nations and cities that have improved their economy and enhanced their reputation to both their visiting and permanent populations via engaging entertainment. Creating an interest in their region that other sectors, such as business, health, education and industry, just can’t seem to muster.

Let’s start next door.

A couple of hours up the road, Melbourne has frequently played the entertainment card in a series of moves so masterful that it regularly propels itself to the top of the ‘Most Livable City In The World’ lists every year. Entertainment is a bloody big cherry on the many other layers of livability sundae that makes Melbourne so desirable.

Melbourne is known for many diverse entertaining options: the coffee and cafe culture, quality shopping, occasionally lively public transport, comedy, live music, theatre, galleries, museums, world-class dining, sporting events or sitting in one of the many well-designed public spaces and being entertained by people watching.

Entertainment in Melbourne isn’t an afterthought. It’s intrinsic to the fabric of the city. This is livability. This is cultural credibility. This makes it a great city to live in.

Until 1997, two very distinct buildings adjacent to the Yarra played a part in spatially defining the city. Many decried the loss of beautiful examples of modernist architecture. While the demolition of the Gas and Fuel Buildings may have been a controversial move by former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett (not the only one—remember the privatisation of the SEC?), the creation of Federation Square is a remarkable result.

Fed Square was the entertainment precinct Melbourne had never had before but clearly craved. From its central location alongside many of Melbourne’s other defining visual landmarks (The Arts Centre Spire, Flinders Street Station, Swanston Street trams and the Yarra River), Fed Square became a public space that seemingly instantly placed Melbourne higher on the rankings as a ‘must visit’ global destination.

It stands as one of many investments Melbourne has made into cultural credibility that has played an understated part in transforming it into one of the world’s most livable cities. Twenty years on Fed Square’s legacy prevails.

If we can agree that providing entertainment options can improve cultural stocks, and that cultural stocks attract investment, tourism and residents, what can be done in Gippsland? We’re not a centralised city like Melbourne or Hobart, so how do we overcome the challenge of many spread-out towns and city centres? To really nail this, let’s explore other countries instead.

Japan offers far more for a visitor beyond the attractions of a singular city, perhaps? We think of natural assets like Mt Fuji or the cherry blossoms, just as much as performance artistry as diverse as cosplay, kabuki or geisha performers. The dichotomy of historic temples versus contemporary fashion and tech toys is startling. Sake bars, sushi trains, karaoke, manga and cartoon culture all play a part in defining the country’s identity whilst owing their roots almost exclusively to entertainment. These cultural linchpins demonstrate that locals and tourists can be incredibly entertained without necessarily being confined to a metropolis.

You may think that the United States is a brand partially built by the world’s largest entertainment industry—where everyone’s almost always ‘on show’. As non-Americans, by consuming so many of Los Angeles’ entertainment delights we’re almost affirming the encapsulating soft power and influence Hollywood has globally. Every little phrase or fashion trend we copy from their shows is a nod to the impact this hub of diverse entertainment offerings can have, potentially on a global scale.

I’ll revisit an example I’ve discussed in past issues. Both Gippsland and Switzerland’s geographies span a whopping 41,000 square kilometres, and while the mountainous central European nation is known for secretive banking and exclusive ski resorts, they also have comparable natural assets to us. There are similarities in our green hills and mountains, fresh food and produce, a love of the outdoors and yodelling... Sure, they have several large cities, but we both have a number of charming regional towns that attract tourism. They have Lindt Chocolate and we have Bushies Bakery

Switzerland has been really good at compiling their assets and building a solid, globally-recognisable brand. With natural wonder aplenty, by adding some world-class entertainment gems in amongst our already impressive seasonal calendar, Gippsland can position itself as Australia’s best-kept secret.

If we were to cast our sights on the stars and answer an empowering question like ‘what entertainment could we bring to Gippsland that could make this place even more amazing?’, let me first do a quick stocktake of just a small few of the incredibly cool things we already have here, and from there, we’ll fill some gaps.

Gippsland already has some incredibly cool entertainment offerings. The Boolarra Folk Festival is a bustling celebration where quality music acts perform to large yet intimate crowds seated between an impressive boulevard of snow gums. A craft market and food vans creep back towards the picturesque entrance of a rail-trail in the south. It was initially difficult to convince me to attend, now I’m gutted if I miss it.

Similarly, the Mossvale Markets provide a buzz of activity amongst a breathtaking and leafy setting. Even the drive there is part of the experience. The park is likely one of Gippsland’s most underutilised venues. It’s the perfect setting for an open-air concert, so why couldn’t we try and attract a big name performer? It’s a perfect fit for John Mayer, Paul McCartney, Sting or even the Red Hot Chili Peppers...

The full list is extensive, but let’s highlight some events: the Tinamba Food Festival, Gippsland Wine Festival, The Hills are Alive Music Festivals, Sailors Grave’s Deep Winter Festival and Beyond the Valley, which attracts major international acts each year. The redevelopment of the West Gippsland Arts Centre, the development of Traralgon’s Creative Precinct and the already thriving The Wedge Performing Arts Centre in Sale, all provide the local community with high quality and diverse entertainment venues.

While the future of entertainment may not necessarily be confined to the stage or a physical space, Gippsland’s legacy of entertainment venues in many of our larger towns is rich, even if their roots begin in a time before many of our readers were born.

At its height in the 80s and 90s, Traralgon’s Astrodome was a beacon of entertainment. Not only did it draw crowds, but also the acts to match—including Tina Turner! How would the perception and reputation of Gippsland change if we began attracting acts that are the modern equivalent of Tina Turner? Not only would it bring in revenue from external pockets, but what effect would it have on our own civic pride? Given the increased interconnectedness of our online world, more noteworthy events could attract increased visitation from overseas as well.

In 2009 Eskimo Joe, The Butterfly Effect, Children Collide, Miami Horror and Hilltop Hoods played in Sale for Triple J's ‘One Night Stand’ event. In cold and wet conditions, the Sale Football Ground hosted a whopping 12,000 attendees—that’s nearly the same as the population of the entire town. This initiative by Australia’s largest youth radio station proves the prophecy of the spirit of Jim Morrison in Wayne's World 2, “If you book them, they will come”. So who are we going to book?!

Whether creating the ultimate show at Mossvale Park, a play under the looming shadows of a decommissioned power station or a dinner overlooking a windswept beach, people travel incredible distances for unique experiential entertainment. Yet, long after the last notes have been played, these visitors will tell their friends of Gippsland’s beauty and how astonishing the setting was in addition to the show itself. Sometimes, the venue is more the star of the show than the star on stage.

In 2006, when travelling through Europe, my wife and I visited the Spandau Zitadelle, a Renaissance fortress on the outskirts of Berlin, to see 70s rockers Steely Dan perform. The train trip took an hour and we could barely read the signs, but to this day the incredible walled castle and its moat remain a memory as strong as the band’s music. Gippsland may not have a medieval castle, but our diverse landscape and quirky townships could provide an unexpected trump card in building the brand and reputation of ‘Gippsland—an entertaining place to be’.

The quaint town halls of South Gippsland (presented in this issue) excited us with their potential. Beyond the scenic drives that traverse the area's beautiful winding roads, the intimacy of the venues adds an X-factor to a performance by making the crowd feel almost as if they’re one with the performer. I recall a show at Red Stitch Theatre, St Kilda. The actor was so close and the performance so engaging, it was impossible to remove yourself from the depth of emotions conveyed.

While the urban centres may have their Fed Squares and public forums architecturally designed to perfection, Gippsland can prosper with its niche of unique public halls—smaller, quainter, and likely daggier, could be better.

Thanks to the Lyrebird Arts Council, Meeniyan Town Hall already acts as proof of this concept. They’re a perfect example of a beautiful venue that’s played a considerable role in raising the profile of their small town. It’s now somewhat of a cultural giant in our region. Sure, it can be a bit of a drive—two hours and 20 minutes from Bairnsdale and less than two hours from Melbourne—but it makes for an awesome day. Grab coffee and cake at The Meeniyan Store and stroll through the well-stocked shops before enjoying a superb pre-gig bite of pizza at Trulli.

I’d encourage councils, arts groups, promoters and venues alike to get together and aim high! Whether your town hosts a festival or has an intimate hall from which to host acts, the collective output of a number of great entertainment venues, talents, industries and institutions can make for a greater sense of positivity for a region’s brand that spans so much further beyond one town. We know Gippsland’s natural beauty is something to behold, there are also amazing entertainment opportunities on which we can build a pretty amazing base.

A potential trap for local governments to avoid falling into is viewing entertainment as merely a bit of a ‘luxury’, something that’s nice to have, but not essential. We consistently see that entertainment and culture can stimulate the local economy, build community pride and develop into a pivotal piece of regional branding.

When we re-frame Gippsland as a country, rather than six councils that neighbour each other (frequently in a competitive relationship), things like cultural credibility become a key factor in driving investment, migration, tourism and improving the vibrancy of our region. If our councils could work with promoters—who have access to big-name artists with multigenerational appeal—we could add some incredibly valuable events to our already vibrant Gippsland entertainment calendar. An almost year-long ‘Festival of Gippsland’ isn’t out of reach, creating something that that all would enjoy—the young, old, locals and visitors.

Imagine travelling through gorgeous countryside, staying at a B&B, waking up in the morning and pottering through a town that has interesting little digs and shops, before you get a bite at the local produce market. Oh, and while you’re staying there you get to see a modern artist that’s as majestic as Tina Turner in her heyday. It’d be simply the best.

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