Serving the nation: Australia's future as a culinary destination

Tourism Australia's managing director John O'Sullivan at Bennelong in Sydney

Tourism Australia's managing director John O'Sullivan at Bennelong in Sydney

Cook it and they will come. Australia's tourism chief tells Helen Anderson why the future is on the table.

Two recent events - one professional, one medical - have improved John O'Sullivan's menu choices dramatically.

In early 2014 he was appointed managing director of Tourism Australia, and within eight months he had focused the attention of the nation's peak tourism marketing agency squarely on the pleasures of the table. He launched a campaign called Restaurant Australia to tap into the global groundswell of interest in epicurean tourism and tackle a "perception gap" about the appeal of Australia's food and wine experiences, and since then he's learnt much about his country and its cuisine.

"The amazing thing about Australia's food and wine offering is its diversity," he says from the agency's scenic 29th-floor office in Sydney's CBD. "It's everything from incredible fine dining to laneway bars to shucking oysters to barbecuing barramundi beside a river in the Northern Territory. And all the characters you meet along the way."

The other event was just as transformative. "I grew up being told I was allergic to crustacea," says the 46-year-old. "Then I was tested a couple of years ago and found that I wasn't. It opened up this world of seafood. I rediscovered prawns and crab."

Although shrimp and barbies are again part of the tourism message, Restaurant Australia confounds stereotypes rather than reinforcing them. And it's a broader message than the name suggests, focusing on three key elements of a traveller's food and wine experience - people, produce and place - and relying on farmers, chefs, winemakers and tourism operators to tell their stories.

Launched under the flagship "There's Nothing Like Australia" campaign, Restaurant Australia was designed to close the gap in attitudes between those who had been here and those who had not. Research in 15 key markets showed travellers who had visited the country ranked it second for food and wine pleasure - behind France and ahead of Italy. Only 26 per cent of people who had never visited Australia associated it with good food and wine.

"That was a real marketing problem," O'Sullivan says, "and closing that gap is really important because food and wine continues to be the third most important driver in picking a destination internationally across our markets."

Restaurant Australia's first big event, Invite the World to Dinner, drew 86 international food and wine "influencers" and media to an ambitious program of food-focused research trips in November 2014, culminating in a dinner for 252 in a subterranean gallery at MONA in Tasmania. The result, according to Tourism Australia, has been 119 research trips reaching a global audience of 6.1 billion.

The second phase of Restaurant Australia aimed to show the nation's unique produce and heritage through the eyes of one of the world's best chefs. More than 150 global media and culinary figures were hosted by Tourism Australia at a 10-week pop-up in Sydney by Copenhagen chef René Redzepi, of Noma fame. The wildly inventive menu based on indigenous produce - magpie goose, unripe macadamia nuts, fermented kangaroo and more - was developed by Redzepi and his team during research trips supported by Tourism Australia.

"From a marketing point of view, René's immersion in the Australian culinary landscape was priceless," says O'Sullivan. "Suddenly a global audience had their eyes opened to this unique pantry."

The word about Noma Australia spread like wildfire beyond media types - all 5,500 places, at $485 a head, were sold in four minutes, with a waiting list of some 27,000.

Restaurant Australia's third date-claimer is the World's Best 50 Restaurants awards to be held in Melbourne next June, which will be witnessed by another armada of food-andwine luminaries hosted by Tourism Australia and bookended by research trips and events.

The investment has been substantial - about $75 million from Tourism Australia and partners in the past two years. And the return? "Outstanding", insists O'Sullivan. The target to increase international visitor spending on food and wine by at least $500 million by December last year was achieved six months ahead of schedule; even better, he says, the extra spend now exceeds $1 billion. Australia's overall ranking as a culinary destination among existing and potential travellers has risen from number 10 to number six. And there's the further benefit of encouraging the tourism and hospitality industries to recognise "they're one and the same", says O'Sullivan. "But for me it's some of the softer stuff that's just as important," he says, citing a few of the unscripted connections made when chefs and producers have a platform from which to tell their stories to millions.

Born in Sydney and raised in Brisbane, Australia's chief tourism marketer spent simple, quintessentially Australian holidays with his parents and sister at the Sunshine Coast, the Gold Coast and Port Macquarie. He fancied the idea of becoming an activities officer at a Whitsunday resort, and enrolled in leisure studies at Griffith University. One of his lecturers, leading sports administrator Lois Appleby, steered him towards event management and sports marketing and became his first boss. O'Sullivan rose quickly through executive roles at the Sydney 2000 Olympic organising committee, Football Federation Australia, Events Queensland and Fox Sports. His conversation is peppered with sporting parlance. "I often compare chefs with footy coaches," he says. "Food is now celebrity, as much as music, as much as sport."

O'Sullivan believes food and wine will continue to fuel the growth of Australian tourism and will be crucial in hitting a shared industry target of annual tourism spending of between $115 billion and $140 billion by 2020. On current performance, he says, the industry is firmly on track.

With 12 offices abroad, O'Sullivan travels extensively for work and spends holidays around Australia with his young family. He loves street food ("though street food doesn't always love me") and along with his reacquaintance with crustaceans he continues his quest for the world's best hotel club sandwich. "I check in, and there's a Pavlovian response now," he jokes. "As soon as I shut the door, I look at the phone, look at the menu." The benchmark so far is set by the Shangri-La Hotel, Tokyo, "but I'd call it an ongoing project."


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