Event Director Interview Series: Australia's oldest wine festival & the lady responsible for making it happen

By Rebecca Gardner

Australians are renowned for their love of good food and excellent wine, which is perhaps just one of the reasons why the Rutherglen Winery Walkabout event has been attracting 12,500 wine lovers annually to the Rutherglen region for over 40 years.

We spoke to Natalie Ajay, Rutherglen’s Executive Office for Wine and Tourism - the woman currently responsible for making one of Australia’s oldest wine festivals happen. Natalie joined the team 18 months ago and 2016 will be her second year of organising this legacy event.

Natalie Ajay - Winery Walkabout Event Director, & Rutherglen Wine & Tourism Executive Officer Natalie Ajay - Winery Walkabout Event Director & Rutherglen Wine & Tourism Executive Officer

We uncovered the logistics that go into making an event like this happen, the challenges she faces as an event manager and how online ticketing has impacted the future of this event.

“Logistically it’s a real challenge”

From speaking to Natalie you quickly start to get an idea of just how logistically challenging this event is. The numbers alone are enough to send any experienced event managers mind into overdrive.

Just consider more than 13,000 wine glasses and 10,000 bottles of water that need to be allocated to each of the 18 independent wineries in the weeks leading up to this event. Travel around the region alone requires an extra 30 dedicated event shuttle buses and 400 privately registered buses that move people between cellar doors.

“The logistics of this event will always be difficult, but we’re definitely managing it better”, says Natalie. We asked her to share her tips on how she’s managed to achieve this. “This is the first year we’re selling all event tickets online, and being able to scan the event tickets really helps the wineries. Before ticket scanning there was money flying everywhere, tills, eftpos machines and more. All that can now disappear.”

“Ticket scanning just streamlines the process and makes it easy to manage.”

Other tools that have helped Natalie to manage the Winery Walkabout efficiently include some free online tools such as Cognito forms that enable her to collect all the registration details for private buses in an online form. Post event feedback is invaluable for any event manager and Natalie recommends Typeform and eSurv to send out surveys after each event she runs, “they are great for post event survey analysis, and it allows me to do detailed data exports and facilitate mass communication to event participants”.

“The event attracts people to the region, helping businesses to flourish”

It’s not only the sheer size that makes this food and wine event truly unique, but also the length of its tenure and it’s personal ties to the local community and businesses. As with any event of this size it has a noticeable impact on the local economy, in fact it’s what Natalie finds most satisfying about the job “I’m helping to improve the sustainability, profitability and viability of many small local businesses in the region, which is rewarding”.

“People here have a formula – they go into Winery Walkabout mode”

“It’s a small town that’s quite close knit”, says Natalie. Natalie openly shares that there have multiple generations of people doing this event a lot longer than she has, “the wineries really know how to perform best at busy times, it’s all hands on deck - they call in family and friends.” They service a huge amount of people over one weekend, but with a small town vibe.

 

Getting the word out

So what’s the secret of promoting such a long running event that continues to pull in such big numbers year after year?

“Word of mouth is our strongest tool”, says Natalie. “This event draws people from all over Australia and all over the world, with many wanting to book months in advance of the event happening.”

Social media has been a game changer for Natalie who talks to us about the benefits of being able to target a younger audience in metro areas who have already shown an interest in food and wine events. Social media, in particular Facebook and Instagram, also gives Natalie the opportunity to express the event visually with some of the beautiful images they’ve collected of the region, “it’s the best way to sell the dream of a winery escape”, she says.

 

So what’s next for the Rutherglen Winery Walkabout?

This is the first year they’ve moved to 100% online ticket sales and so there’s more work to do in the upcoming months around educating people about the new way of buying tickets. The aim in the future is to have all tickets online and sold out a month in advance of the event, “that’s my dream! Getting everything locked away – it would make my life much more predictable.”

Natalie also has plans to attract more young people to the event from the major cities, “now we’re learning how to communicate more effectively through online channels it’s really helping, combined with the fact that they can now buy their tickets online and lock in the weekend early.”

Of course the ultimate goal lies around attracting more and more people to visit this beautiful region outside of event time. However, building the reputation of the region as a major regional tourist destination, on the back of iconic wine festivals and other events, is a great foundation from which to deliver this goal.

 

Interested in finding out more about the event – or want to buy a ticket? Visit the Rutherglen Winery Walkabout to purchase tickets online or check out the Rutherglen Winery Walkabout Facebook page.

 

UPDATE: We are pleased to report Natalie’s "dream" has been realised with the festival now sold out (3 weeks out from the festival weekend): looks to us like Walkabout’s patrons have truly embraced the move to 100% of tickets being pre-sold online.

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