Opinion: Margaret River Gourmet Escape divides region

We take a look at two sides of the argument swirling around the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, as funding decisions and contractual negotiations loom late in the year.

Opinions vary: Ian Parmenter (left) and Vasse MLA Libby Mettam weigh in on the future of the Margaret River Gourmet Escape.

Opinions vary: Ian Parmenter (left) and Vasse MLA Libby Mettam weigh in on the future of the Margaret River Gourmet Escape.

Last year, during her recent trip to WA’s Margaret River Gourmet Escape, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson posted to social media a photo of her with a joey, a photo that was shared by her 1.5 million followers on Twitter, and picked up by the international media.

This was but one of many tweets and interviews the star engaged in over a weekend which saw over 10,000 enthusiastic foodies and wine lovers, including close to 1,500 interstate and international tourists, visit the South West to learn tips and tricks from their favourite chefs, and indulge in the incredible local foods and premium wines.

Since its inception, the Escape has garnished interest throughout international and interstate food and wine circles, primarily due to the exposure from having celebrity chefs, like Nigella Lawson, Rick Stein Heston Blumenthal and Marco Pierre White headlining the event and promoting the Margaret River Region to the world.

No other event in Australia attracts the same number of globally recognised culinary talent, something we Sandgropers should all be very proud of.

Since 2013, the Escape has attracted over 80,000 direct visitors to the Margaret River Region, with over 23,000 room nights booked so far.

Last year it generated more than $9.5 million in local expenditure, a significant boost for local businesses and tourism operators in the South West. 

While the tourism industry calculates that this has resulted in more than $6.5 million worth of global brand awareness for Western Australia.

Its value stretches well beyond these figures with the event attracting food and wine critics from all around the world who continue to share their stories and photos of our great State.

According to the latest Tourism Australia figures, 36% of international visitors are seeking good food and wine and 38% are seeking world class nature.

This is why a culinary event like the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, in one of the best fine wine and gourmet food regions in the world with an abundance of natural attractions, ticks all the boxes when it comes to attracting international visitors, especially from key markets such as Singapore and China.

It is concerning that the new State Labor Government Tourism Minister has yet to commit to the funding the Margaret River Gourmet Escape for the next 3 years, despite being questioned in Parliament on this matter.

These concerns are supported by rumours the Mornington Peninsula have shown interest in bringing this event to Victoria. 

The Margaret River Gourmet Escape has put Western Australia on the global culinary map, promotes our State as an attractive interstate and international tourism destination and generates millions of dollars for our local economy, and we can ill afford to lose this event to our Eastern States competitors.

- Libby Mettam MLA, Member for Vasse

Dear Premier, as I am sure you are aware, during the last few weeks two stand-out cultural events have taken place in WA’s southwest: Margaret River Region Open Studios (MRROS) and the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival (MRRWF)

Whereas the MRROS had more than a hundred participants including painters, photographers, glassmakers, sculptors, installation artists, and more, the MRRWF, which took place last weekend, had 50 events and 40 speakers at eight venues.

With Michael Palin the headline act, other major contributors included the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien; Jane Caro; Tim Costello; author and regular contributor to the West Weekend magazine, Robert Drewe; popular food writers Anna Gare and Stephanie Alexander; Fremantle author Joan London; and South West locals Bill Bunbury, Sarina Lewis, and yours truly; along with many international visitors.

The total investment for these two events from the WA Government was around $100,000. No money was forthcoming from Tourism Western Australia (TWA) for MRROS. Both the Augusta Margaret River Shire and the City of Busselton, recognising the value of the event to the region, provided some funding and support.

Our cultural events, which include CinefestOz and Jazz By The Bay, along with events in Nannup, Bridgetown, and elsewhere are locally owned and managed. They draw on locals who are volunteers for their success. They yield a far higher return on investment than overseas owned and managed events. 

And that brings me to this – the running of Margaret River Gourmet Escape; in its sixth year - was handed on a plate by Colin Barnett and his government to British company Brand Events, with little consultation with southwest food and tourism bodies, or its food, wine, beer, and hospitality businesses.

While it was supposed to be about WA, many local producers have said they cannot afford to take part and to rub salt into the wound, they have seen major international food and drink companies such as San Pellegrino, Pimm’s, Lurpak butter and Rekorderlig cider being given great prominence and served up at official Gourmet Escape events. And most locals don’t attend.

TWA talks up the financial benefits, the number of attendees - which is in decline - and the benefit of promoting the region. Where is the evidence? What national and international media coverage has been achieved? How many interstate and overseas visitors have attended? Where did most of the patrons come from?

Original owners of the event, UK company Brand Events sold its Australian interests to US events giant IMG so one presumes that recent proceeds have been going to the USA rather than the UK. What few West Australians realise is that by the end of this year, some $15 million dollars will have been spent on Gourmet Escape – for six weekends over six years.

While not denying that some bigger local businesses gain from the Gourmet Escape, I firmly believe that WA is being short-changed by its principal tourism body and that in future the Government should do more due diligence on its – and other - event funding.

As can seen from the recent highly successful events that are locally owned and managed, the regions such as Margaret River can deliver the goods. 

By backing locally run events, Government is investing taxpayer money in up-skilling local human resources in the short, medium and long term.

Hopefully, with Paul Papalia as the new Tourism Minister, more emphasis will be given to West Australians’ involvement in regional events. 

- Ian Parmenter

Disclaimer: In 2011, Parmenter was awarded an OAM for services to the Australian food and tourism industries. His company, Consuming Passions P/L, ran events in Australia, USA and Europe. To date no one from the Government, EventsCorp/TWA has sought the help of this company.

This story Opinion: Margaret River Gourmet Escape divides region first appeared on Augusta-Margaret River Mail.