More than just a mane event

Equitana’s turning 20! Ute Raabe takes a peak behind Australia’s favourite horse festival to find out who is responsible for the much-loved event…

There’s no question that Equitana is a must-attend on every horse lover’s calendar, but few people know the story of how the event came into existence as an idea from a dedicated and passionate group of people.

Rod Lockwood

Rod Lockwood is Managing Director of Definitive Events and Equine Productions, the two companies behind the Equitana brand. Definitive Events are known as one of the leading event organising companies in Australia – just as an example, they are the event services provider for the Anzac Day Commemorations in Gallipoli. But while their portfolio of events has changed much over the years, Equitana’s been a steady cornerstone. “It’s like an old friend,” Rod Lockwood muses. “Events are like that; they are living, breathing things and they have to be treated as such.”

Equitana actually started in Europe, in 1972. Worried about the fact that horses seemed to falling out of fashion, entrepreneur Wolf Kröber startled the then still somewhat sedate equestrian world by presenting the first edition of Equitana, complete with different disciplines, hundreds of breeds, liberty demonstrations and more. More than 40 years later the event has become a European institution, held bi-annually over nine days and attended by over 200,000 people.

It was a few decades later in Australia when Victoria in particular felt the need to demonstrate that the State was not just seen as supporting Thoroughbred racing and the Melbourne Cup Carnival. The Government wanted to support the equine industry in a broader sense and approached Definitive Events who

had already established a great relationship with the Victorian government through other successful events and were one of the few organisations that specialised in outdoor major events, for help. Did they know anyone who could possibly stage an event with an equine focus?

Rod Lockwood and Definitive Events CEO, Daryl Herbert became the ‘Wolf Kröbers’ of Australia, so to speak – believing that they could create a viable multi-discipline horse event that would be appeal to a broad range of people.

State Government and Tourism Victoria set three main criteria: they wanted an event that would showcase equestrian sport, bring the industry together — so it needed an expo and education component — and would be able to attract a broader community through a shopping and entertainment part.

Rod recalls, “We did our homework and worked out that the model of Equitana Germany was absolutely perfect for what they were wanting to do.”

A call to Equitana Germany followed, Daryl Herbert and Tourism Victoria’s Brendan Downey jumped on a plane and met with organisers Reed Exhibitions in Germany. Shortly after a deal was sealed over a few beers at an Irish pub with Reed Exhibitions agreeing to a 20-year license for the ‘Equitana Asia-Pacific’ brand.

The first Equitana Asia-Pacific was held in 1999, but despite using the proven German concept the early years were far from smooth sailing. Rod admits that the event had its fair share of doubters. People said it couldn’t be done, because many of the disciplines didn’t speak to one another, let alone like each other. The old cliché of Western riding versus the Olympic disciplines came to the fore. “Overcoming that negativity was probably the hardest thing,” he says. “We were naive in thinking that everyone would embrace the idea of a great big international showcase of equestrian sport, what could

possibly go wrong? Turned out, just getting people in the same room together was a challenge, let alone getting them to talk and recognise each other and once we’d managed that we had to prove to the retail businesses that there was a reason to showcase products and services and that it would be a good business investment.”

For the first few years Definitive Events tried to apply a carbon-copy of the German formula. One of the highlights of Equitana Germany is the hugely popular Hop Top Show, a colourful entertainment night showcasing horses, riders, sport, liberty acts, breeds, music and more, but in Australia it was too theatrical for horse people and too horsey for the broader community!

“We realised then that if we did a high-level European-style competition in a very nice environment with comfortable seating and professional arenas and surfaces, we could attract the horse people,” Rod remembers. “It took six years and a huge amount of personal and financial commitment to refine and polish the event. Our accountant said we were nuts, but Daryl and I really believed in it,” Rod adds.

These first six editions of Equitana Asia-Pacific were held at the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre. The arrangement worked well, until a number of logistical and specific ‘equine-related’ issues made it unpractical. The temporary stables had always been a cause for concern. They were erected in the loading dock area, a less than ideal environment for horses, with freeways and train lines so close by. Building the arenas was also a very expensive undertaking and complaints about leftover sand and lingering horsey odours increased. Then the ‘pièce de résistance’ — horse urine got into the underground pits for cabling and supply lines and seeped through into the car park below. One particular car affected belonged to the boss of the Exhibition and Convention Centre, which didn’t go down well.

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A new home had to be found. Equitana was in one of the tender groups for refurbishment of the Melbourne Showgrounds, and while they didn’t win, the venue did undergo a major upgrade by 2006 that revitalised the 19-hectare site and broadened its appeal as a place for major events. In 2008 Equitana Asia Pacific was held at the renovated Showgrounds and the new venue gave the event significantly more scope. The economic value for the Victoria is staggering – in its best year the event generated 23 million dollars in economic impact. The inaugural event reported 30,000 spectators through its doors, and in recent years that figure has reached 50,000.

“The thing that Tourism Victoria loves about us is that more than 50% of attendants are from overseas or interstate, not many other events can boast that sort of statistic,” says Rod. “It is a great success story for Tourism Victoria, and they can point to the fact that their idea of a horse industry showcase has grown into an organic event.”

Rod has many favourite moments but one sticks in his mind vividly: “I was backstage during one of our Mane Event nights. A cowboy and a dressage rider were standing together, waiting for their turn to perform,” he says, “I thought to myself, this could go either way, when they started talking and comparing notes. They were clearly enjoying each other’s company. There was this dressage rider in top hat and tails chatting to this cowboy complete with cowboy hat and boots. I thought this was fantastic, this is exactly what this event should be doing, horse people realising that they actually have a lot in common. They have the same issues with their horses and when they are brought together they realise that even some of their techniques are similar. These two people had never met before, but our event had brought them together — for me that was a golden moment.”

The people aspect is key to what keeps the Equitana team going year after year. Friendships are formed and strong relationships built, networking is such a major component of the event. This year Equitana is almost going back to its roots, having secured a sponsor from Germany in premium saddlery and clothing brand Schockemöhle Sports, and the 20-year anniversary will also include a one-off comeback of the famous Mane Event night to commemorate the inaugural years. Also this year the McDowells Australian Brumby Challenge is back in a bigger and better format, as is the IRT All-Star Way of the Horse, Equitana’s prestigious horsemanship challenge. Then there’s the ConneXion Challenge, a new training competition incorporating all disciplines from dressage and showjumping to liberty and horsemanship.

Rod’s philosophy behind this is clear: “If you don’t grow the event every year, if you don’t refresh it and innovate, then it will die. If you serve up the same offering to people year after year they stop coming. They say, I did that two years ago, I don’t need to come again. We are always experimenting and moving and trying. Some of the time we get it completely wrong,” he says cheerfully, “but we are trying.”

A new 99-year license for Equitana Australia and New Zealand has recently been signed with Germany’s Reed Exhibitions. That should see you and me through for a many more hours of shopping, Masterclasses and everything horsey under the Southern sun.

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