Peter Thorpe is one of those knockabout Aussie blokes you’d like to hang out with over a barbecue and a beer. Forthright and honest, he’s the boss you’re inspired to work for, staunchly loyal and armed with a can-do attitude, the type who rolls with the punches and just gets on with it.
Last year, however, the General Manager of Sydney Showground was sucker-punched. COVID-19 hit, bringing hundreds of events to an abrupt halt, including Australia’s largest annual ticketed event, the Royal Easter Show.
“It was cancelled a month before opening, everything was in place,” Peter remembers. “It was a huge hit, devastating.” More cancellations followed – exhibitions, sporting events, concerts and corporate bashes – around 400 events, all gone.
Peter’s Showground team of 87, comprising employees in sales, marketing, events, food and beverage, along with an asset team of tradespeople, were stood down without pay for two months before returning to work on staggered days when the government’s financial assistance package, JobKeeper, was activated.
Yet, it clearly takes more than a global pandemic to dampen Peter’s unrelenting enthusiasm. He and his team are bouncing back, single-minded in their dedication and determination to fill the calendar with bookings. The show must go on.
All of them, in fact. “All of 2020’s cancelled events have been rebooked and new events scheduled,” he says. “Sydney Showground will survive. Everyone is dedicated to getting this place back up and running.”
Peter has been overwhelmed by the support of his staff who have worked above and beyond their restricted hours, including his wife Kim, a “superwoman”, and the first to put her hand up to answer the phones when his receptionist was stood down.
“She knows the heartache and worry we’ve gone through and understands how this place gets in your bones,” Peter explains. “We love the event industry, I don’t know any other job where one day we help manage, feed and entertain 900,000 people over 12 days then run a live music event, then an exhibition, then an AFL game and then a corporate function. Every day we’re doing something totally different and I find that extraordinary.”
Sydney Showground, run by the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW (RAS), is housed at Sydney Olympic Park after being relocated from Moore Park in 1998 to become a venue for the 2000 Olympics.
The winner of multiple awards, the 30-hectare site features more than 22 integrated and flexible venues, and is a go-to location for trade, consumer exhibitions, incentive events, filming and live music concerts and festivals, including one-off international events such as the Invictus Games in 2018.
At its heart is the Giants Stadium, home to AFL’s GWS Giants, the Sydney Thunder cricket team and the Royal Easter Show’s Grand Parade. There’s also The Dome, the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, offering 7,200 square metres for dining, classrooms, cabarets, exhibition booths, or a cocktail party for 6,000. “When the showground goes off, it goes off,” Peter says.
“In the old days, about 80% of our revenue came from the Easter Show; now it’s worth 55% because of all the other good stuff we do. Our music festivals, such as Soundwave and RNB Fridays Live, attract up to 50,000 people. Then we have trade events for huge organisations like Bunnings, expos and events, whether it be gifts, mining, engineering, travel, craft, weddings, or Supanova and Oz Comic-Con for the gamers. “The hugely popular Dog Lovers and Cat Lovers Shows, both had to close doors when in Melbourne for the first time. They lined up for bloody miles!”
Sydney showground will survive. Everyone is dedicated to getting this place back up and running.
This is Peter’s second stint working for Sydney Showground, having joined the company as a tradie in 1980. After furthering his education in business, he moved on to venue and business management before leaving to become General Manager of Sydney Turf Club after the Olympics in 2000.
He returned to Sydney Showground in 2010, and as General Manager of its year-round business, is responsible for all the day-to-day operations including catering, cleaning, tradesmen, transport, security, sales and event management, to ensure its flexibility for clients.
He relies on a multitude of partners and suppliers, many of whom have offered innovative ideas to help navigate through the turbulent economic times triggered by COVID-19. He cites one initiative from venue cleaners, Quayclean, which altered schedules to enable a more cost-effective service.
“This company provides a whole new level of cleaning, first class,” Peter says. “But obviously, facilities and venues didn’t need as much attention during COVID-19, so they reconfigured operations. These guys are long-term and knew we’d emerge from this. We didn’t want to lose them either. They’re just good quality.
“Harry the Hirer is another. They provide all the furniture, marquees and event equipment, real high-end stuff you see at events like the Melbourne Cup, and they came to us with a solution to help both of us. They were paying fortunes for storage and said they’d rather pay us instead to store their equipment in one of our storage pavilions. These are just two of our partners who’ve offered help or compromise. I’ll definitely be looking after them when we come back fully operational.”
Sydney Showground is also home to the AV production arm of Harry the Hirer. It features a custom-built media hub that offers pre-recording, live-on-demand and preand post-production services for the broadcasting of events as well as the production of webinars, product launches and music.
“What they’ve got is a working studio they couldn’t afford to hire in the past, while we’ve got a studio our clients can hire much more cheaply because it’s permanently set up. It’s just one example of thinking outside the square to offer our clients more behind the scenes,” Peter explains.
Meanwhile, well aware another wave of COVID-19 could throw plans into complete disarray, Peter and his team are working diligently to cater to an extremely flexible 2021 calendar. “Everyone is clamouring around, some booking up to three dates to ensure a spot,” he shares.
“I’m anticipating an availability shortage down the track so our long-term clients are being prioritised over one-off events.” Naturally, the whole of the RAS will do whatever it takes for the Royal Easter Show to open on 1 April, not just for the benefit of the agriculture and rural industry but obviously for the 900,000 who visit and love it, as well as ensuring the event-related experienced staff are retained to plan for 2022, when the RAS celebrates its 200th birthday.
“I don’t know many companies in Australia that are 200 years old,” Peter reflects. “We have all these passionate people here, experts in agriculture and rural affairs – you just don’t hire them off the street. We have an affiliation with this place which runs very deep and no-one wants to go anywhere else.”
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