“I guess, ultimately, where we’re heading to is a seven-day-a-week operation…”
– Lardner Park CEO, Nicola Pero.
Ideally located in the south-east, Warragul’s Lardner Park is one of Victoria’s – if not Australia’s – premier events facilities. Yet there are so few people throughout the growth corridor who fully appreciate what’s on offer at the property right at their back door, as RUSSELL BENNETT explains…
Farm World and Beyond the Valley – these are the two events most commonly associated with Lardner Park off Burnt Store Road, a short drive out of the Warragul town centre.
And, truth be told, many people – even those in the nearby regions – may not know much more about it.
But there’s a real magic about the place – seemingly endless possibilities for a 300-acre property.
Established in 1963, Lardner Park has grown to host well over 120 annual events in a packed calendar.
There’s everything from exhibitions to conventions and conferences, festivals, markets, agribusiness functions, community events and livestock shows.
But even a quick glance at the website will tell you that.
The real magic lies in what goes on behind the scenes to make Lardner Park what it is.
Nicola Pero, the chief executive officer of Lardner Park, sat down with the Gazette recently to give some real insight into what makes it tick.
“I guess we’ve gone on a path of growth and diversification,” she explained.
“I think that with any entity, irrelevant of the structure, in this day and age you have to be very purposeful with all of the assets that you have.
“(But) we also live, I guess, in a day and age now where you can’t be a one-trick pony.”
Nicola took on the role of CEO two years ago. Her background is very much in venues and events, and using venues and events for economic diversification and tourism development.
“We strongly embrace the historic activities and the core principles of what Lardner Park is about,” she said.
“If we just look at those for a second – our core principles are around agribusiness; education, processes, practices, and engagement; and then events that help to promote and profile not just the local towns of Warragul and Drouin but profile the region – all of Gippsland – and you can do that when you have a venue that will take up to 1000 people.
“That has the ability to attract big conventions and conferences. That doesn’t mean to say, though, that agribusiness is our only focus. It just means that’s where our core and our roots have come from.”
Lardner Park also runs Australia’s only grass-based steer trial, which is in its 44th year.
But Farm World, clearly, is also crucial to its identity.
“Farm World is obviously very important to us, and we certainly consider it as the premier ag (agriculture) event in Victoria,” Nicola said.
“We pretty much sell out of exhibitor sites on that every single year and so what we’re now doing is constantly looking for new activations and new things we might bring in to Farm World.”
Nicola spoke about the ’80-20 rule’, specifically in regards to Farm World, adding: “With an existing event, if you change more than 20 per cent then people who are your loyal patrons don’t feel the connectivity anymore – they don’t feel familiar.
“If you change less than 20 per cent, people start to think ‘I don’t need to go every year because there’s nothing new’. You’ve got to change enough, but not too much.”
This year Farm World introduced ‘Farm World’s Fittest Farmer’, while 2018 also marked the second year for the Food and Fibre Fiesta.
But there’s so much more to Lardner Park than Farm World.
Together with the Institute for Drone Technology, they created CODE – the Centre of Drone Excellence – based right at Lardner Park.
“It’s the first Asia Pacific permanently established location for drone education, licencing, and training,” Nicola explained.
“Everyone is now starting to look at drones. We knew that we were getting into it pretty early, but the momentum is really starting to take off now, which is awesome.
“I’m really passionate about the drone side of things because it’s an opportunity for regional youth and regional careers to get a very distinct advantage.
“Every day it’s becoming more and more challenging to fly in places like city parks, so for a place like this to exist… regional youth have an opportunity.
“(At Lardner Park) you have an approved, designated place to fly.
“It’s huge, and people absolutely want to take advantage of it.”
Meanwhile Lardner Park has also formed a partnership with McPherson Media Group, which holds the Seymour Alternative Farming Expo.
They’re launching a new event at Lardner Park in November called ‘Harvest Fest’.
“It has four pillars, which are Grow, Live, Make and Eat,” Nicola explained.
“It’s got a target audience of 20,000 on November 9, 10 and 11 so I guess if you think Farm World, and scale it down – it’s one less day by way of duration and it’s more focussed to lifestyle farmers, urban warriors that would like to live off the grid but do it in their backyards; DIY-ers; producers; makers; and creators.”
She explained that any residents throughout the lower Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and the whole south east Melbourne corridor would be part of the target audience.
“Think organics, new energies, (and) sustainable farming,” she said.
“We’ve got pretty big expectations for that event.”
Harvest Fest is set to become a permanent, annual event.
But there’s also a real focus at Lardner Park on the continual improvement on its existing events and facilities.
Nicola spoke specifically about the livestock facilities, and what’s next on the cards for in regards to their relocation elsewhere on the property.
“It’s always terribly sad to have to make changes to things, but environments change and times change and the reason we’re doing it is not for any one, particular reason but for a multitude of reasons,” she explained.
“Those include the fact that these facilities were originally built by exhibitors but there’s no clear ownership, and of course that then translates down to do not necessarily having clear statements on maintenance and legal obligations should anything occur. So, these are aging and they’re now starting to age quickly so whether it’s this year or in three years’ time, they must move.”
Whether that happens now, or in the coming years, there’s a real sense of inevitability.
“While it might suit for the existing exhibitors there, we can’t bring in new cattle exhibitors and we’ve got new people who want to come to Farm World but there’s nowhere to expand for them over there (off Burnt Store Road) at all.
“One of the other reasons is that we want to do more with the beef livestock. We very much revamped all of the steer trial parameters last year and it went really, really well – it was hugely successful.”
That included a carcass demonstration day, with well in excess of 80 producers taking part.
“We’ve had lots of requests for more days like that, so again when you’ve got the steer trial over here and you’re expanding and lifting the profile and there are more people getting involved and they want to do more, we have to look at our other beef industry activations,” Nicola said.
“I think there’s an opportunity for a two to three day beef event…and we’d like to think we could draw from South Australia, Victoria, and the lower parts of New South Wales. We have entries for our steer trial that cover three states, so it’s actually nationally significant.”
Nicola said they’d like to expand the cattle yards at the Lakeside Arena, add more, permanent infrastructure, and relocate the cattle stalls down there.
The plan is for the relocation to be completed by Farm World 2019, but 2020 might be the reality.
But while agribusiness and agriculture, more broadly, will always be central to Lardner Park’s core, it’s constantly looking to entirely new horizons when it comes to showcasing the facility’s potential – such as hosting cos-play conventions, the State Youth Games (which were just held over the Queen’s Birthday weekend), and even, potentially, rodeos.
Lardner Park also works closely with Heritage Seeds on seed research and development, and is also home to an agroforestry plantation which the Gippsland Agroforestry Network is also involved in.
But at the other end of the scale, Lardner Park also plays host every second year to the Australasian Road Rescue Challenge which involves teams from all around Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore. This year that will be held from 23 to 29 July.
The Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby, meanwhile, also calls Lardner Park home.
In regards to accommodation, Lardner Park is looking to continue explore camping and glamping opportunities, while also developing more permanent on-site accommodation in the future.
“I guess, ultimately, where we’re heading to is a seven-day-a-week operation where you might have the occasional bus come in and the café would be open and you could have lunch and a wander around the property, the kids can ride their bikes, you can experience some of the agri-tourism stuff we’re looking to put in, and then away you go,” Nicola said.
“Lardner Park, I think, has been a well-kept secret. Certainly before I accepted the offer on this role, I talked to about 15 people in Melbourne I knew who were all in events and venues and out of those 15 people two had heard of Lardner Park and one had been here.
“To me, that shows it’s ripe for opportunity.
“I talk to so many people who say ‘you do Farm World’. Yes, we do, but there’s lots more (on offer). It’s exciting because it just creates masses of opportunity and areas in which to chase and target.”