The first weekend of Fairfax Media’s major new events division project, the Spectrum Now festival, has seen a disastrously low public turnout.
The free Spectrum Playground event in Sydney’s Domain saw just a few hundred people attend at any point over over the weekend at a venue which has a capacity of tens of thousands.
The costs of Spectrum Now have been underwritten through a multimillion dollar sponsorship deal by headline sponsor ANZ bank. The low turnout is likely to lead to tough questions for Fairfax from ANZ on whether its sponsorship investment has been wasted.
A spokesman for ANZ blamed recent rain for the “smaller than hoped” attendance but expressed confidence in the remainder of the festival.
The Spectrum Playground event was the site of one of ANZ’s biggest event activations of the year including building a dedicated pavilion for ANZ customers, priority queuing for ANZ customers in onsite bars and free ANZ picnic blankets.
But the low turnout across the weekend meant that queues were not an issue and the dozens of food stalls and bars at the event mostly stood empty.
The Spectrum Now festival is the biggest project led by former Tourism Australia boss Andrew McEvoy, since joining Fairfax Media just over a year ago.
After reports of desolate audiences on Saturday, Mumbrella visited on Sunday afternoon to a similar low turnout estimated at less than 300 people. The same venue has seen crowds of around 100,000 for film festival Tropfest.
(March 17 update: Fairfax has told Mumbrella that “9,000+ people” attended Spectrum Playground over the weekend, but declined Mumbrella’s invitation to break down how it reached those numbers.)
ANZ admitted attendance could have been better.
“The turnout for the first free Spectrum Playground event was smaller than we hoped but not surprising considering recent bad weather,” a spokesperson said. “This is just one component of the festival though and we had a full house last Thursday for the launch of our emerging talent series, ANZ Blue Rooms.
“We also expect the Full Spectrum speaker series (on March 22. 26, 27) to be popular.
“We’re committed to our sponsorship of Spectrum Now and believe it will be a positive partnership for ANZ.”
With traditional newspaper revenues falling, Fairfax has signalled that it sees a significant part of its future business model based on building mass public events.
The Spectrum Now arts festival is intended to extend the brand of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Saturday arts supplement Spectrum. When McEvoy was appointed, Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood said: “Events are a growth sector in the Australian economy and Andrew’s appointment will drive new revenue and greatly enhance Fairfax’s performance in the sector.”
In its financial results for the first half of the financial year, Fairfax said that revenues in its events business were up 35% year-on-year. The company also says that McEvoy has been involved in eight other new or expanded events since joining. However, Spectrum Now is the largest to date.
When Mumbrella attended, the specially built ANZ House was almost empty.
And although the bank had installed ATMs, they were getting little use.
The priority queues for ANZ customers were also unused, because the bars had almost no customers.
Performers at the free show including including Tiny Little Houses, pictured, had to do so to a nearly empty field.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s own stand was also virtually abandoned.
Fairfax remained upbeat, telling Mumbrella that Spectrum Playground drew a “good crowd and great feedback, although poor weather kept some people away as you would expect.”
“Momentum will build this week for the event,” a spokesperson said. “Spectrum Playground is just one of more than 200 events part of the inaugural Spectrum Now festival in March, with several events having already sold out.”
The Spectrum Now festival began on Wednesday and runs until March 29.
Spectrum Now sponsors
Other sponsors of the event include Audi, Hendrick’s Gin, Little Creatures and Handpicked Wines.
Fairfax claims more than 9,000 people attended over the weekend
*A previous version of this story noted how people were dancing alone in the No Lights No Lycra Trundle. It has since been pointed out that this is a one-person-only venue.