The show must go on in Sydney


Sydney’s Royal Easter Show, an iconic agricultural fair is facing slumping revenues and a fight to remain relevant to city dwellers. Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

The number of visitors fell to a 15-year low of 769,000 in 2015, as rain and thunderstorms dampened attendance over the usually busy Easter weekend.

Though last year’s show coincided with two days of school holidays, the inclement weather contributed to a loss of $1.7 million on the show for the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW, the non-profit organisation that has brought the country to town for 194 years.

To offset the fall in show revenue, the RAS has cut staff from 145 to 130, implemented cost savings and is looking for ways to increase revenues from non-show activities.

Attendance can fluctuate by more than 100,000 visitors a year depending on the weather and whether the show coincides with the NSW school holidays, which it does not this year.

Non-show events such as Stereosonic at the Showground, accounted for about half the RAS’ annual revenue, and rose to a six year high in 2015 of $28 million. These events fund a wide range of non-profit activities and educational scholarships grants to educate the community on the importance of locally grown food and Australian farming.

The society’s chief executive, Michael Kenny, said “value for money” was a priority for his organisation when it was planning the Easter Show.

“We believe 12 hours of free entertainment is a very compelling and attractive offer for families. What’s more, every dollar spent contributes to the RAS being able to invest in programs to keep our regional communities strong,” he said.

“Even when you buy a scone from the Country Women’s Association, you are directly are contributing to their fundraising efforts.”

Mr Kenny said that just like Australian farming, “there will be good years and bad years – and we’re here for the long haul”.

Though show attendance dropped, the last five years were only slightly below those at its old home at Moore Park, which averaged around 853,000 for a 16-day show, two days longer than the current event.

Visitor numbers rose, unusually, to more than a million in the show’s last year at its old home at Moore Park in 1997 and in its first two years at the new Olympic Park.

Mr Kenny said the RAS was fortunate because its business model was supported by the Sydney Showground events that we run, and it remained in a strong financial position.

The RAS was also planning to fund renovations of buildings at the showground so more could be used all year.

Mr Kenny admitted that the agricultural organisation, formed nearly 200 years ago, was “always struggling” with how to remain relevant to city dwellers and show visitors.

He said the RAS would be doing more to make visitors aware that it was a non-profit, which raised funds for rural and regional communities.

The RAS was determined to expand activities throughout the year so it culminated when people visited the show.

The RAS hopes that the date of Easter will be fixed, and correspond to school holidays in future.

Zeb Coxsedge, a recipient of the RAS scholarship, is only the second person with his surname to study at university – his sister beat him, he said with a mixture of pride and sibling rivalry.

The 21-year old from Gilgandra couldn’t afford to attend university without a $5000 a year scholarship. It is one of $2 million in grants and scholarships funded from proceeds of Sydney’s Royal Easter Show and other activities by the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW.

Mr Coxsedge, who is in his fourth year of mechanical engineering at the University of Wollongong, says he has always been a bit of a mechanic.

“I’ve always liked pulling things apart, and tinkering with engines,” he said.

He first applied for a scholarship from the RAS, which runs the show, in his first year of university but missed out. That year was tough, his savings from summer jobs were rapidly depleted and he was forced to move into a share house.

Coming from a working-class family with no spare cash, he considered pulling out of university to earn enough money to study in the future.

Mr Coxsedge has now received a scholarship, allocated on the basis of financial need, for three years. In 2016, the RAS Foundation will award $400,000 in scholarships and grants to students and schools to develop skills needed in rural Australia, and encourage students in need like him to attend university.

Now in his last year at university, he wants to take his skills and apply them to everyday rural life. He is torn between a career in bulk material handling, and applying some ideas he has to make grain storage more efficient and easier for everyone, or working with hydraulics and machinery.