Features

Canberra: Cool moves

31 Aug 2019 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
Aerial view of Canberra from Belconnen in the morning - Credit iStock/IIIShutter

In less than a decade, Australia’s capital has managed to evolve from ‘no go’ to ‘creative cool’. How has it done it?

It’s rare that a school excursion creates long-lasting problems, but in Australia’s capital the thousands of schoolchildren descending on Canberra each year to visit Parliament House and the bush capital’s other institutions have had an unintended side effect. For many Aussies, sixth grade was the last time they visited Canberra and, upon becoming adults, most assumed nothing had changed since.

It was just one of numerous image problems which dogged Canberra for decades. “It’s full of politicians,” Aussies whinged, ignoring the dual reality that first, parliament only sits for 18 to 20 weeks a year and second, those politicians come from other parts of the country.“It’s so organised,” detractors said, leading one to wonder: why would disorganised be good?

Even Canberrans themselves weren’t selling the city’s benefits, a fact not lost on the Australian Capital Territory’s leadership. “We didn’t necessarily have the greatest level of endorsement from many people, particularly younger Canberrans,” says chief minister Andrew Barr.

In 2013, therefore, the city launched a major branding campaign. Whether by luck or design this was good timing, as it coincided with a range of other shifts that have, together, achieved what many thought was impossible: making Canberra cool.

Today, not only are tourism figures up – there was a 17 per cent increase in visitors in 2017 – but Canberrans themselves are voting with their feet.

“In its first 50 or 60 years, Canberra used to be a place people would come to work. Then they’d retire and go back to where they came from. Now the situation is that people stay here when they retire, and their kids and grandkids stay too. Plus we are continuing to attract young people,” Barr says. An impressive turnaround, for sure. But how did it happen?

For visitors at least, part of the attraction to the “new” Canberra neatly dovetails with the tide turning in the travel press. In 2014, a writer from The New York Times was one of the first to start waxing lyrical about Canberra, noting its “big-sky beauty, breezy civic pride and decidedly hipster underbelly”. That same year an influential travel editor from The Sydney Morning Herald surprised even himself by writing that “Canberra is cool”, noting that something “strange, momentous even” had taken place in the nation’s capital.

By 2018, things became frenzied when Lonely Planet said the city had been “criminally overlooked” by travellers, naming it one of the world’s hottest destinations. “That sort of third-party endorsement is very significant, and people would forgive us for promoting the hell out of those,” Barr says, laughing, of the dream run of coverage any tourism body would crawl over hot coals for.

Of course, good press is no use if locals themselves aren’t enthusiastic about their hometown. “Marketing prompted some people to have a second look, but it’s then been their word of mouth that’s made the biggest difference for us, combined with Canberrans themselves – they are more likely now to invite their friends and relatives to come here,” Barr says.

He is the first to admit that a good marketing campaign isn’t enough to change the vibe of a city. “You can’t bullshit your way through this. Marketing campaigns are very important, but they only go so far. There needs to be authenticity behind it and then when people see it, they make up their own mind.”

Lake Burley Griffin and Parliament House Canberra at Australia Day - Credit iStock

Keeping it real

It’s authenticity that seems to be doing the real heavy lifting. Somehow, over the last decade Canberra has become a place where ideas thrive and locals feel happy to sing their city’s praises.

It’s hard to pin down how much of all this change has been influenced by the shift in the region’s key employers. Famously known as a city filled with public servants, the Commonwealth Government used to employ around half of Canberra’s workers. Today, it’s more like one in four: recent employment growth has come from areas like education (a big growth area) or tourism, hospitality and service industries (up 7 per cent).

The latter is particularly visible. Fifteen years ago, asking locals where the “hip” parts of Canberra were, may have led to a doubtful “Um, Civic?” (the city centre, which is many things, but not hip). Or, they’d point to the one-off cafés or restaurants which are scattered amongst the city’s small suburban shopping strips.

Those still exist, but today, like all good cities, Canberra also has “precincts”. The first player is Braddon, just north of the city centre, where cafés, restaurants, bars, boutiques and yoga studios now replace the area’s former car yards.

After that, all roads lead to New Acton, another hub on the city fringe, this time in the direction of Lake Burley Griffin. New Acton’s success is likely in part due to looks (Ovolo Nishi, formerly Hotel Hotel, has won numerous awards and is visually enticing) and in part to the strong arts, culture and community focus that now enlivens a formerly underutilised part of the city.

For all that, Canberra has Johnathan Efkarpidis and his brother to thank. And maybe their father. “My brother came back from London in the early 2000s and I was thinking of moving to Sydney. Our father [Tim Efkarpidis] wanted us to develop New Acton,” says Johnathan, director and co-owner of the Molonglo Group, the company behind the precinct.

The project started with modest plans – “we were considering townhouses” – before the brothers changed tack completely, using their travels as inspiration. “We had scrap paper and wrote down all the things we would like to live next door to. A cinema, bar, bookshop,” Efkarpidis says.

Building a community into an urban, mixed-use area took time. “It was really hard to establish a community in New Acton. One, it was new; and two, people were still thinking old-style Canberra – something quiet. [They’d say] ‘I want my space… I don’t want another café next to me.’ But that’s changed now,” Efkarpidis says.

That shift in sentiment is something Ben Willis knows well. The chef and co-owner of multi-award winning restaurant Aubergine, located in the leafy inner southern suburb of Griffith, copped flak upon opening in 2008.

“We used to get a lot of flak for not having tablecloths, and taking away from the formality… Initially, I didn’t really want to run a high-end restaurant; I thought Canberra had enough of that. [But] because of my skill set and the desire to put a good product out we were pigeonholed,” he says.

For Willis, Canberra was never a deliberate decision as the home for his entrepreneurial desires, but the changes in the city have made it a more enjoyable place to be. “Everybody is doing things around lifestyle. It’s not a boring one-dimensional town anymore; there’s so much activity, including in the nature and bush around it,” he says.

Canberra Airport

Flying high

The story of Canberra’s reincarnation would be incomplete without mention of the airport. Unlike many airports, Canberra’s is family run. It’s a fact which has seen its owners invest substantially in the space while also lobbying for years to turn it into more than a domestic facility (international flights now run direct to Singapore and Doha, with more destinations in the pipeline).

“An airport is the gateway to a city: it needs to send some messages about that city. Canberra is modern, sharp, innovative, technology-focused, environmentally aware and a garden city. We had to be a reflection of that,” says managing director Stephen Byron, a third-generation Canberran and son of billionaire and passionate Canberra local, Terry Snow.

It’s well recognised that the family’s commitment to Canberra came long before the rest of the world caught the “Canberra cool”. “We’ve always been believers in the city and been able to look through and beyond the negativity some outsiders have had,” Byron says.

Byron believes Canberra’s current popularity has multiple drivers, including the evolution of the city’s restaurants and hotels, the boom in entrepreneurship – and even social media, which has allowed Canberra to show its other side.

“Over time, the rest of Australia is seeing there are two Canberras. There’s the one that is political, that they don’t like. But there is the city – that has a character of its own, that is stylish, has depth and culture, and is seriously pleasant to be in. One of the great tourism assets we take for granted is the quality of the air, the landscape, and the ease of being in this city. Sydney is one of the great cities of the world, but you don’t often feel relaxed there,” Byron says.

Relaxing it may be, but as Canberra evolves (and to many, has finally earned the right to be called a city rather than a town), other descriptors are popping up with increasing frequency.

Take Ben Willis. The Aubergine restaurant chef is living proof of the data showing that locals are now happy to tout Canberra to the world. “For years we were looking at where we would go and what we would do,” he says. “Now… we are more proud of it I guess. When I travelled overseas years ago and said I was from Canberra, people would say, ‘Really? People live there?’ Now they say, ‘That’s great – I’ve been there and it’s really cool.’ That positivity improves every part of it.”

Sue White

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