$16bn forecast: Visit Victoria dominates post-Covid domestic tourism, starts global push off Tourism Australia work for ‘vibes and culture’ brand codes to trump Uluru, Opera House, Kangaroo icons … with The Castle
What you need to know:
- Years in the making, Visit Victoria has combined events and tourism marketing functions, overhauled its agency model and combined the face of its intrastate, interstate and international marketing into a single brand platform for the first time.
- Visit Victoria CEO Brendan McClements, a former International Cricket Council public affairs chief and global sports event marketing exec, thinks that combined firepower and Melbourne’s place as “Australia’s natural home for major events” helps open up “a significant gap over other cities”.
- While Melbourne is putting other capital cities in the shade for share of tourist economy dollars domestically, McClements and Visit Victoria CMO Shae Keenan aim to ride the coattails of Tourism Australia’s global push to rebuild Victoria’s international tourism business – still more than a third, or $3.2bn, below pre-Covid levels.
- Austrade’s Tourism Research Australia forecasts Victorian Tourism revenues to lift from $36.9bn to $53bn over the next five years although Visit Victoria says it is a Federal, not Victorian government forecast.
- To meet those Federal forecasts, McClements – a CEO conversant with funnels, awareness, preference and consideration – urges more budget for Tourism Australia’s big brand campaign. “No state can do it without Tourism Australia in those international markets, and international is recovering but not recovered. It’s the growth opportunity.”
- With TA priming the pump, Keenan is squarely focused on converting that demand, making Melbourne and Victoria the first port of call for higher rolling, culturally aware long-haul travellers from China, India, US, UK and South America.
- Tourism Australia and Visit Victoria’s campaign are arguably polar opposites. Victoria’s challenge lies around a lack of internationally recognised distinctive physical assets to quickly land the message and encode the memory in the same way as the Sydney Opera House or Uluru.
- Instead, the new platform focuses on the sheer breadth of different experiences – with a curated bagful of short story ads and assets designed to stir emotion across the audience piste.
- McClements says the focus on Melbourne’s “vibes” stems directly from the 1997 classic film The Castle … but this time the airports are on the same team.
We're not a state that has built infrastructure icons. And we're not a state of natural, iconic beauty as other states. What audiences tell us is there's just something different about how it feels in Melbourne and Victoria. So 'different' is what we have to lean into – and I think we can break the category by actually talking about what it's like, what an experience feels like when you're here – because that is what makes us different.
Victoria had some of the toughest lockdowns in the world. Two years on and the state and its capital city are kicking much of the rest of the country into touch when it comes to tourism – Melbourne is the number one destination in the domestic stakes by some margin. “We attract more interstate visitors than any other capital city in Australia,” says Visit Victoria CMO Shae Keenan.
According to Tourism Research Australia (TRA) data, state-wide tourism spending in Victoria hit a record high of $36.9 billion in the year ending September 2023 – $4 billion higher than pre-Covid spending in 2019 – and a $27.1 billion increase since the year ending March 2021 and the dark days of the pandemic. Overall, says Keenan, “we have 22 per cent of the total visitor economy in Victoria”, with a five percentage point share gain since 2021 – the biggest rise of all states.
But Victoria’s tourism share is still 1.3 percentage points down on 2019 and international tourist dollars remain way below their 2019 peak, circa $5.6bn in the 12 months to September 2023 versus $8.8bn in 2019, with China visitor volumes less than half of pre-Covid numbers.
“That’s the opportunity for growth,” says Keenan – and she’s aiming to ride Tourism Australia’s slipstream in bringing China and the wider world back to Australia and straight into Victoria and Melbourne over anywhere else.
Visit Victoria, however, is not committing to TRA’s hefty forecast of 2023’s $36.9bn tourism takings rising to $53bn by 2028 – it’s a Federal, not Victorian government figure, much easier said than done for The Garden State.
Whereas Sydney has the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, the Northern Territory has Uluru and Kakadu, Queensland the Great Barrier Reef, it’s no mean feat to condense Melbourne and Victoria into an attention-grabbing, memory encoding 15 or 30 second ad. Lacking instantly recognisable iconography, it’s arguably one of the hardest jobs in tourism. Hence building a new brand framework and global platform, ‘Every bit different’, that for the first time aligns intrastate, interstate and international branding on the same page. It focuses squarely on Melbourne’s rich cultural diversity – the vibe and the range over buildings and beaches.
The traditional model just wasn’t working for us [in terms of] the speed we needed to operate to support recovery. That’s not a criticism of any of the past [agency set up]. It was just the pace at which we needed to move.
The platform has been years in the making – with a little brand codes help from a neighbour, Adelaide’s Ehrenberg-Bass Institute – plus some heavy lifting from Sayers, AJF Partnership, Principals, OMD, Us+Us and Accenture-owned research outfit Fiftyfive5.
Bringing together a unified platform – a requisite identified by the state government – necessitated an overhaul in how Visit Victoria works with agency partners, a retooling expedited by Covid disruption.
“It quite literally has been a village. We don’t have a single retained agency … During Covid, when there were so many things we couldn’t do, it literally transformed how we work a team. The traditional model just wasn’t working for us [in terms of] the speed we needed to operate to support the recovery,” says Keenan.
“That’s not a criticism of any of the past [agency set up]. It was just the pace at which we needed to move … it really stretched our muscle in terms of how quickly we could move as a business and as a result we’ve now adopted completely different working processes. If we hadn’t had Covid, I don’t know whether we would have actually have done that.”
With a new structure in place and the first unified works now live, Keenan is backing its focus on Victoria’s vibrancy – and tent-pole events program – to bring in billions more global tourist dollars and generate a major ROI on the state-sanctioned $32.5m marketing budget. Not least, she’s bidding to put daylight between Melbourne and Sydney – and therein lies the challenge.
It’s not just the nature, or the food, or The Great Ocean Road, or Gimlet, the great hospitality experience in the city. It’s the ability to go to Gimlet and then an hour later be at one of the best wineries in Australia. So we leant into that. We can’t say we've got the Sydney Opera House or we've got Uluru or whatever else. What was really enticing for the international travellers was this ability to say ‘we have this and this and this – and you can do it in 24 hours’.
“We’re not a state that has built infrastructure icons. And we’re not a state of natural, iconic beauty as other states,” admits Keenan. “What we hear and what audiences tell us is there’s just something different about how it feels in Melbourne and Victoria. So ‘different’, is what we have to lean into – and I think we can break the category by actually talking about what it’s like, what an experience feels like when you’re here – because that is what makes us different.”
Per the strategy and research work, international travellers that have been to Melbourne and Victoria agree. These tend to be high repeat visitors from “mature international markets like Singapore and Malaysia,” says Keenan. “Those audiences are actually making a Melbourne decision first. They are not thinking ‘where am I going to go in Australia?’ So there it is all about how much we can drive further repeat visitation,” she adds.
But the “two behemoths” of India and China represent the biggest chunk of potential growth, alongside the other long haul markets, primarily the US and UK. Which is where Visit Victoria focused its “most significant” international consumer research study to date via Sayers and Fiftyfive5.
One of the insights from that research was that visitation drivers “particularly for markets such as India and China, are more around the vibrancy and the food offering of the city,” says Keenan, versus say, nature and the natural environment. “Whereas for markets such as the UK and US, nature is slightly more important to them.”
But overall, says Genevieve Reynolds, Principal at Sayers, the research strongly highlighted that it’s the full package that people are coming for, or “the and”.
“It’s not just the nature, or the food, or The Great Ocean Road, or the Gimlet, the great hospitality experience in the city. It’s the ability to go to Gimlet and then an hour later be at one of the best wineries in Australia. So we leant into that. We can’t say we’ve got the Sydney Opera House or we’ve got Uluru or whatever else. What was really enticing for the international travellers was this ability to say ‘we have this and this and this – and you can do it in 24 hours’.”
The trick is distilling and landing that breadth of experience via a bunch of relatively short ads.
“That’s the challenge when you don’t have a brand code shortcut of an Opera House – and that was another piece of research we did last year with Ehrenberg-Bass, understanding what brand codes Melbourne and Victoria have that we can lean into to navigate short cuts to distinctiveness,” says Keenan.
“So the fact that you hear trams a lot [in the ads] is deliberate … The ‘ding’ is something that we have,” she adds. “The 12 Apostles is certainly a key icon and a brand code for us, as is Flinders Street Station. Even the blue of the Australian Open Tennis Court made its way into the brand codes.”
Marketing a state and its capital on breadth of culture can be a nuanced sell. Will the entire mass market get it?
“Not yet. I think there’s certainly markets where we need to work hard on that,” admits Keenan. But Sayers’ Reynolds says the approach is at least partially preaching to the culturally converted.
“The broader top-down strategy for Tourism Australia and adopted by Visit Victoria is really the high value traveller,” says Reynolds. “So the strategic principle is fishing where the fish are. Victoria is looking to maximise preference and conversion amongst an audience that already demonstrates interest in the things the state does really well – and ultimately building that preference and driving conversion. We know there is massive demand for the product, it’s just about targeting them with the comms to convert them.”
Targeting higher value travellers both domestically and internationally should also help shield the state from ongoing cost of living pressures, says Keenan. “Our audience typically has a bit more shelter from those financial and broader macro economic disruptions than other parts of the audience.”
We're seeing really good signs out of China, the aviation capacity has returned really strongly. It's going to take a little bit of time, but we think we've got a lot of opportunity there to grow and return absolutely to pre-Covid levels.
The campaign metrics of success are centred on “driving preference for Melbourne and Victoria domestically,” says Keenan. “We want to see preference for Melbourne grow. We are already number one [in terms of state capital tourism share] but we have got hefty targets around how much we want to growth that.”
Keenan is aiming to put daylight between Melbourne and Sydney, which she says is “only about three percentage points” behind, whereas pre-Covid, Melbourne was 11 percentage points clear. “We want to expand our lead significantly,” says Keenan. Could growing its 22 per cent domestic share to 30 per cent share be doable? “At some point, it would be great target.”
Internationally, while all longer-haul markets are important, “we do see the growth coming from China, and certainly from India as well,” says Keenan. “But it is really important that we have a mixed portfolio. Prior to Covid, we had a fairly even market mix – about 30 per cent, intrastate, about 30 per cent interstate and about 30 per cent international,” she adds. The post-Covid mix is north of 70 per cent domestic. “We would like to return to that [previous] market mix because it just shields us from disruption – so we want to see international growth.”
Much of that depends on how quickly China moves through the gears.
“China just hasn’t recovered. It’s only really been open since February last year. We’re seeing really good signs out of China, the aviation capacity has returned really strongly. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but we think we’ve got a lot of opportunity there to grow and return absolutely to pre-Covid levels.”
The partnership with Tennis Australia and our broadcast sponsorship with Channel Nine allows us to take this campaign to global audiences. The global broadcast is a critical part … it really does the heavy lifting for us in terms of direct to consumer activity … Major events, the AO, the Grand Finals, The Grand Prix, are not only visitation drivers, they become another marketing channel.
Visit Victoria aims to slingshot its reach and stretch its ad budget via the state’s sizeable events program – with the Australian Open first off the ranks.
“The partnership with Tennis Australia and our broadcast sponsorship with Channel Nine allows us to take this campaign to global audiences,” says Keenan. “The global broadcast is a critical part and we have content integrated into it that showcases ‘Every bit different’ to those global audiences – through China, Southeast Asia, the US and South America – so it really does the heavy lifting for us in terms of direct to consumer activity. Then we can leverage the event by inviting key partners from around the world to experience the Australian Open, which gives them such a great entry into what it’s like to be in Melbourne and Victoria in summer … So major events, the AO, the Grand Finals, The Grand Prix, are not only visitation drivers, they become another marketing channel.”
Keenan’s personal theory of Melbourne and Victoria’s cultural richness is that it stems from the gold rush that began in 1851 and lasted almost two decades.
“There was a period of time when Melbourne was the richest city in the world – and when you’ve got lots of money, you invest in nice things, like arts. So the gold rush is obviously why our buildings look the way they do. But it’s also why we have the legacy of creative and artistic institutions,” says Keenan. “It also brought greater multiculturalism – we had a huge Chinese community. And I don’t say that to ignore First Peoples, because everything starts with First Peoples.”
That cultural influx continued in the aftermath of the World War II with greater numbers of Europeans making Melbourne and Victoria home, and again after the Vietnam War.
“I’m not saying we’re perfect by any stretch, but there is a welcoming nature and inclusivity amongst Melbourne,” she says.
But there’s also another driving factor behind the state capital’s arts and cultural heritage – it’s famously unpredictable weather. “When you’re cold, you spend time indoors, you talk, exchange ideas and you have to think of new ways of doing things,” says Keenan.
“You can’t just rest on your laurels and rely on the beach.”
Which sounds suspiciously like a direct challenge to her tourism counterparts in rival states.
It’s no accident that we've chosen one of the great events in our calendar, the Australian Open, to take the new brand framework and campaign global … We've always been strong as Australia's natural home for major events – we have a significant gap over other cities on that front.
Centralise to win
In the battle for excess share of tourist dollars, Visit Victoria CEO Brendan McClements thinks Victoria can stay one step ahead of rival states. His confidence is partially founded on the state’s ability to pull together following amalgamation of what was the state’s major events body (which McClements previously helmed as CEO), Tourism Victoria and the Melbourne Convention Bureau some eight years ago.
The new body, Visit Victoria, was then further restructured during Covid, with marketing – previously separate set-ups in both major events and destination marketing – properly centralised to provide “a single voice”, says McClements. (He understands better than most the power of harnessing big events having previously both headed up corporate affairs for the International Cricket Council and later running global events for specialist sports marketing company TLA Worldwide.)
That Covid-enforced restructure has delivered “a better outcome; we have the capacity now to really take advantage of an extraordinary major events calendar and to synchronise that with the destination marketing activities,” says McClements. “It’s no accident that we’ve chosen one of the great events in our calendar, the Australian Open, to take the new brand framework and campaign global … We’ve always been strong as Australia’s natural home for major events – we have a significant gap over other cities on that front.”
Plus, events provide a handy time-keeping effect for marketing campaigns. “One of the great things about sports events is you know when they’re on and you’re either ready, or you’re not. So it’s been a very useful activity to do it that way. In the past, there probably wasn’t that level of co-ordination across the group.”
The GFC, 911 – the language that was expressed about what those cataclysmic events were going to do to travel didn't play out … So we took a position early on the travel as a category is more resilient than maybe some economists would have you believe … When you see the growth of travel, international travel in particular over a 30 year period, it's just one strong line of steady growth. It's quite extraordinary. It just goes up and up and up.
Data-driven, doomsday resistant
McClement’s confidence that the campaign will land and tourism’s recovery will continue is also underpinned by robust data and healthy scepticism.
“We have data that goes back 20 or 30 years, longitudinal studies that are relevant today about tracking Melbourne and Victoria’s attributes from a marketing perspective. So we have a deep understanding of what Melbourne and Victoria is famous for. We continued to track that all the way through the Covid period – and from that data we saw those strengths remaining strong,” says McClements.
“I guess philosophically we also took a view around some of the impacts of Covid. This is not an original thought, but sometimes the focus is on everything that’s going to change: ‘This Has Changed The World’. What’s really interesting, in most cases, is what’s going to stay the same. So we focused on that – because the status quo has an incredible power to reassert itself.
“Having lived through a couple big moments in time where there were quite significant pronouncements about the world changing forever – the GFC, 911 – the language that was expressed about what those cataclysmic events were going to do to travel didn’t play out,” he adds. “When you see the growth of travel, international travel in particular over a 30 year period, it’s just one strong line of steady growth. It’s quite extraordinary. It just goes up and up and up.”
Partly that’s because international travel is an aspirational activity, largely fuelled by middle and upper classes – as the middle class expands in the likes of China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, so travel will grow accordingly. For those that can afford it, “travel is a need and not a want”, says McClement, a line he attributes to Visit Victoria CMO Shae Keenan.
“So we took a position early on the travel as a category is more resilient than maybe some economists would have you believe. Sometimes looking back at history can give you some value and the GFC, 911 told us in this category, there’s some strength.”
Hence while last year’s focus was on consolidation, and “bumpy” at times, “broadly trend line will be going up – and we’ve seen that probably stronger than we even thought,” says McClement. “So this year we’re saying to industry it’s about going for growth.”
I’m really crossing my fingers that in the next budget cycle, what we see federally is greater support for Tourism Australia to do a fundamentally important job in international markets at the top of the funnel, driving awareness and consideration for Australia. No state can do it without Tourism Australia in those international markets, and international is recovering but not recovered. It's the growth opportunity.
A funnel-minded CEO?
Going for growth rests in no small part on Tourism Australia’s big push to drum up global demand and fill the funnel for the states and cities to convert. McClement’s a big fan of the work and – in a rare example of a marketing funnel-minded CEO – urges Federal Government not to scrimp on backing it with more media dollars.
“I’ve got nothing but praise for Pip [Tourism Australia MD, Phillipa Harrison] in the way her team have approached this task. As international markets have freed up, they have moved back into doing that really top of the funnel job in international markets.
“The world is incredibly competitive for tourism at the moment, so Tourism Australia’s job has never been more important – what are we doing to continue to drive demand? That is where we play, that is where Tourism Australia plays,” says McClement.
“I’m really crossing my fingers that in the next budget cycle, what we see federally is greater support for Tourism Australia, for Pip and her team, to do a fundamentally important job in international markets at the top of the funnel, driving awareness and consideration for Australia. No state can do it without Tourism Australia in those international markets, and international is recovering but not recovered. It’s the growth opportunity.”
‘It’s the vibe’
While Tourism Australia’s campaign is all about instantly recognisable iconography, Visit Victoria’s is almost a polar opposite. Yet the campaign’s focus on ‘the vibe’ has a direct ancestry to Australia’s most recognisably Melbourne film, The Castle.
Asked by the courtroom judge which section of the constitution has been breached by the compulsory acquisition of the Kerrigan family’s home by the neighbouring airport, luckless lawyer Dennis Denuto flounders for an answer: “There is no one part, it’s just the vibe of it … It’s the constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s justice, it’s law … it’s the vibe.”
Hence life – or at least advertising – imitating art.
“We had a previous interstate campaign that [The Castle’s production company] Working Dog, Rob Sitch and the team, produced for us, and in most of our discussion with them, that’s what we were talking about – ‘it’s the vibe’,” says McClements. “It’s this sort of intangible, the vibe – and we’ve talked to all sorts of industry operators around what makes Melbourne different … ‘it’s the vibe’ was always played back to us. So when we came back the other way and told people what we were thinking [for the campaign], it landed on pretty fertile ground.”
Now live, McClements is convinced Visit Victoria has a platform and campaign that will put “bums on seats and heads on beds” to keep growth powering – and maybe, just maybe, one that Darryl Kerrigan would deem worthy of going straight to the pool room.