By  on November 21, 2007

SYDNEY — Currently enjoying its 16th year of uninterrupted economic growth, Australia's economy is going gangbusters. And the business sector is feeling jittery.

To try to cool the growth, earlier this month the Reserve Bank raised interest rates for the 10th time since 2001 — with more on the horizon. Adding to that are a drought, which continues to push up food prices, and concerns about the potential for a change in government after this weekend's federal election, following 11 years under the John Howard administration.

The jobless rate is at its lowest in three decades, and though Australia might simultaneously be experiencing its highest birth rate in more than thirty years, that's little comfort for what is rapidly emerging as a critical labor shortage.

"We've got all these shows we want to do and we can't find the staff," said Marie Kinsella, managing director of Melbourne-based Australian Exhibitions and Conferences.

Over the past three years AEC has spun off successful components of its Fashion Exposed juggernaut into a series of smaller satellite shows.

The company is not launching any new fashion shows this year, but for the first half of 2008 will both tweak its offerings and value-add to the Fashion Exposed experience by making the show the anchor event of an entire fashion festival called Fashion State, which will comprise up to nine different events in venues across Sydney, from business seminars to exhibitions.

The new Leather Bags and Accessories Fair, launched in February 2006, is being extricated from the two-year-old Australian Shoe Fair and attached to Fashion Exposed, which will run from March 9 to 11 at the Sydney Convention Centre, and to which more than 10,000 attendees are expected, a 10 percent increase from March 2006. At almost 54,000 square feet, the March LBA will nevertheless be double the size of the inaugural LBA show in February 2006.

The Australian Shoe Fair, which runs from Feb. 15 to 17 at the Sydney Convention Centre, will be the same size as February 2006, nearly 81,000 square feet, with roughly the same exhibitor (150) and attendance (3,000) numbers anticipated.

At 242,000 square feet, Fashion Exposed and its high-end Preview component won't be any bigger than in March 2006. Of the approximately 500 exhibitors that are expected, AEC has cut middle- to lower-end exhibitor numbers by 50 percent to maintain the quality of the event.Launched at Fashion Exposed's Melbourne event in September, a new streetwear-denim section called Streetlab is expected to grow 10 to 12 percent in March in Sydney. Fashion Exposed's beach and body area will be up by 15 percent over March 2006.

"All indicators are that it's going to be a very strong March fair," said Kinsella. "Our take-up has been very high. We could have grown the show, made it larger to accommodate more demand. But we decided to keep it to the [same size]. That was a decision based on reworking the types of companies involved. We just want to be a forum with everything on offer for the fashion retail market and we need to have a good mix. The retailers need more quality.

"The economy is good; however, we are being very much affected by the drought," she added. "I still think it's pretty tough out there."

Reed Exhibitions is also adjusting its show offer for 2008 — in Reed's case by dropping its disappointing new Adelaide Gift Trade Fair altogether. The show will return in 2009 as a biennial event.

The Sydney Gift Trade Fair took up nearly 167,000 square feet of the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre in February 2007, a 10,700-square-foot net increase on the February 2006 show, by utilizing four tents in the adjacent Tumbalong Park. The Melbourne Gift Trade Fair grew 14 percent to 64,600 square feet from 2006 to 2007. Sydney is currently at capacity and cannot grow. However, Melbourne is expected to further increase in size this coming year.

Exhibitors at the Sydney Gift Trade Fair grew 7 percent to 818 from 2006 to 2007, and Melbourne by 6 percent to 390. Attendance at Melbourne grew by a mere 14 visitors, to 8,412, while attendance at the Sydney show shrank by 3 percent to 28,335 in 2007.

"I think pretty much many fairs in Australia, especially in retail, are tailing downward — but we're holding firm," said Omer Soker, exhibition director at Reed Gift Fairs.

One component that is tracking upward at Reed is fashion-accessories. Once a tiny component of the company's Gift Trade Fairs, fashion and accessories grew from 26 percent of exhibitors at the Sydney Fair in 2006 to 33 percent in 2007, according to Soker, who expects this segment to continue to perform well."We want to make sure we are providing value in each of the segments," said Soker. "For fashion and jewelry, we launched fashion parades in February 2007 and also did them in Melbourne in August. It adds a whole lot of buzz to the floor, people get excited."

He added: "I think definitely it is tough, I think the market has changed. We've done well but we've had to be much more assertive. We've been smart at selling and have been adding value to our fairs and it's come at the expense of competitor fairs. I don't think the market has grown that much. I think you'll find that 2008 is going to be a tougher year. If you want to offer value to your visitors or customers you're going to have to keep upping the game."

Rosemount Australian Fashion Week is Australia's highest-profile fashion show — notably the spring-summer showcase, whose 13th annual edition will take place at Sydney's Overseas Passenger Terminal from April 28 to May 2.

According to communications manager Graeme Lewsey, the spring-summer 2008-2009 event will boast a similar size and configuration to 2007: three on-site runway show tents with capacities for 723, 600 and 372, respectively, and an additional 11,000-square-foot exhibition space called The Source, with anticipated attendance of 25,000.

In May, 80 designers showed on RAFW's runways, a 4 percent drop from May 2006. Almost half were completely new to the event, leading to criticism that RAFW is light in terms of talent.

Having used RAFW as a springboard, more and more Australasian fashion stars are now bypassing Sydney and heading to international runways — a fact that was presumably not lost on the 250 attendees of Fashion Group International's Fashion Flash trend forecasting breakfast last Saturday at Sydney's Sofitel Wentworth Hotel.

Part of FGI's quadrennial international conference, which was held in Sydney from Nov. 15 to 18, the breakfast featured a video of seven local designers who had shown their spring collections in New York and Paris: Jayson Brunsdon, Aurelio Costarella, Willow, Josh Goot, Toni Maticevski, Collette Dinnigan and New Zealander Karen Walker. According to FGI's Sydney chapter, it's the same video that is currently being shown to theorganization's 6,000 members across the world.

Noted Lewsey of Sydney's fashion brain drain, "There are times when those businesses feel the need to rejuvenate their Australian markets. We are confident that we will have, yet again, a really good balance of established Australian ready-to-wear designers, as well as that emerging sector. We've taken onboard feedback that some businesses were not up to scratch."

He added, "We do have a priority to continue on with our Asia-Pacific strategy, which really is about providing a good platform for designers in the region to show at RAFW, as a one-stop shop into this market. We're getting lots of inquiries from people saying 'We are interested in showing.'"

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