What fuels Australian ambition? Food

By Arnie Weissmann
Arnie WeissmannTourism Australia has its work cut out. The Sydney Olympics in 2000 triggered a record year for inbound visitation, but since then, Australia's market share of global travelers has remained stubbornly plateaued at about 0.8%.

And even though the absolute number of travelers from the U.S. has risen, the number of total American international travelers has risen faster. Australia's share of the long-haul market has declined from about 1.5% to 1.2%.

Against this background, those charged with attracting travelers to the country used the recent Australia Tourism Summit in Beverly Hills to announce an ambitious plan: Increase the number of annual visitors from 2.5 million to 4.5 million-5.5 million by the year 2020, and double visitor revenues from $890 million to $1.78 billion.

Tourism Australia Chairman Geoff Dixon, former CEO of Qantas, hopes to use the "Tourism 2020" initiative to overcome the "apparent lack of urgency" Americans feel about visiting a country they frequently put at or near the top of their bucket lists.

It's unusual for there to be such a gap between mind share and market share, for people to consistently express a desire to visit a destination but keep putting it off. Dixon feels that Americans place a "disproportionate focus" on the perceived distance, time and expense to visit Australia. Indeed, those three barriers are perennial topics whenever Australian marketers gather to discuss challenges in targeting North American travelers.

Dixon believes those barriers can be countered by a "compelling market promise that must be delivered." And he believes his ambitions will be fulfilled in large measure by a cuisine-themed campaign, "Restaurant Australia," which will roll out later this year.

Citing the country's "world-class food and wine," he noted that the setting for where food is eaten is an important part of the story, as well. A promotional video featured interiors of restaurants that could easily have been in Sonoma County, or even Bordeaux, but other shots pulled back to reveal spectacular seaside settings.

The country's first-ever TV commercials featured Paul Hogan enticing visitors with, among other things, "shrimp on the barbie." Although the Australian food scene has progressed enormously since then, it's instructive to look again at the Hogan ads, circa 1984.

I recently viewed three of them on YouTube, and apparently that campaign still has legs -- they've attracted a combined 385,000 views. Not bad for 30-year-old commercials. I had forgotten that food and the nation's multicultural background are featured in one of the ads, though "ethnic" cuisine is limited to a restaurant in Sydney's Chinatown ("Thanks, Trevor," Hogan says to his waiter.)

Viewed today, the commercials seem dated and chock-full of Australian stereotypes, but Hogan's archetypal Australian character is still appealing. It made me hope the new campaign doesn't forgo the country's idiosyncrasies in favor of a sophisticated, international foodie tone.

The lunchtime speaker was Australian chef Curtis Stone, who also has taken on a tourism ambassador role. Hearing his pitch for Restaurant Australia, I no longer worried about things becoming too serious (he earned celebrity in Australia on a TV show that managed to combine his two passions, cooking and surfing).

A few years ago, I became a fan of Australian cuisine through chef Neil Perry and his sometimes-daunting "Rockpool Bar and Grill" cookbook (the mac'n'cheese recipe alone has a dozen ingredients). Stone emphasizes the nation's multicultural heritage -- Asian, British, Oceania, aboriginal -- more than Perry does, and he spoke knowledgeably about another alluring aspect of dining in Australia: its wines.

Australia can, as Dixon hopes, deliver on this compelling promise. A survey commissioned by Tourism Australia found that those who have never visited the country were less likely to associate Australia with "good food, wine, local cuisine and produce" than they were with Italy, France, Spain, German, Greece, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. But among those who have been to Australia, it tops all those countries.

Ultimately, therein lies the challenge. The goal is, after all, to attract those who haven't yet visited, so preconceptions must be overcome.

Just as Australian cuisine has become more sophisticated over the years, so have consumer palates.

Australia must compete against long-haul destinations like India, Thailand and Japan, whose cuisines are well known and appreciated, as well as with destinations nearer to the U.S., such as Mexico, France and Italy, whose food identities are also well established. Relative to these others, when was the last time a group of your friends all agreed to order-in Australian?

This speaks to the need for an exceptional ad campaign. Food won't be the exclusive focus of the country's promotional efforts, but it's a centerpiece. If food is the fuel for Australia's ambition to double its U.S. visitors by 2020, the ads will need to make such an impression that they'll still draw hundreds of thousands of views 30 years hence, in 2044.

"We've got to close the perception gap," Tourism Australia's vice president for the Americas, Jane Whitehead, told the tour operators and destination marketers at the Summit. "When the world comes to dinner, we all benefit."

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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