Bringing the buzz back to Melbourne: what’s it going to take?

Melbourne is ready for business and to entice Victorians to stay and play in metropolitan Melbourne the State Government is releasing travel vouchers. But is this enough to revitalise the city?

March has traditionally been the jewel in Melbourne’s events calendar with the best weather of the year a welcome backdrop to international events like the Grand Prix and a range of other local festivals.

While the events cupboard is not bare despite the postponement of the Grand Prix, marketing expert Associate Professor Con Stavros, says generating enthusiasm and engagement with what remains presents unique difficulties.

“Bureaucrats need to think far beyond blunt sales promotion techniques such as vouchers,” he says.

“The State’s ultra-cautious approach in managing the pandemic has made marketing Melbourne, normally an easy task, into one with significant challenges. 

“While the pieces of what makes the state special remain, the marketing messaging, where it even exists, needs to be of wholehearted and authentic optimism, which is what fuels consumer confidence. 

“As consumers look for clues as to what the future might hold, clarity and positivity are the secrets of marketing success. 

“Whether now is the time for that or not can be debated, however if Melbourne lets March slide by it would be forsaking a significant opportunity to shift its narrative from caution to confidence.”

Changing our habits formed in lockdown

While a scheme like these vouchers may temporarily activate the city, economist Dr Meg Elkins says we need to change ingrained behaviours developed in lockdown to truly bring the city and suburbs back to life.

“Melbourne, our once vibrant cultural creative centre, has lost its sparkle – the people who activate a city,” she says.   

“While the City of Melbourne has engaged in activations with high profile musicians and local buskers, the real power in activating a city and its suburbs comes back to the principle of social norms.  

“Going out in the current circumstances is complex with social distancing and knowing when to wear a mask in public. We’re still working out how to engage and feel safe in the new normal. 

“But the reason why people don’t go out isn’t all about the money, it’s about ingrained behaviours developed in lockdown.  

“We have found new ways to fill this void of cultural engagement which have become habits, such as staying in for Netflix and engaging with the family. 

“A voucher is an extrinsic motivator of behaviour, but whether people engage in the scheme depends on their intrinsic motivation to participate in culture and tourism. 

“It will work if it is not a one-off form of engagement but part of a plan to return again and again to Melbourne’s activity centres. 

“We have to form new habits to draw us back.” 

Melbourne has lost its sparkle. According to RMIT experts, it will take more than just a voucher to bring the city back to life again.

Melbourne has lost its sparkle. According to RMIT experts, it will take more than just a voucher to bring the city back to life again.

Focus on bringing people back into the CBD

This voucher scheme may be the shot in the arm Melbourne needs says Director of RMIT Activator Matthew Salier, , but more is needed for the CBD.

“There’s no doubting it’s needed; these businesses are worried about how to pay their rent and their staff next week,” he says.

“Unfortunately, the last lockdown has been the last straw for another group of CBD businesses. 

“Small businesses are telling us they need foot traffic to return to the CBD.

“They’re desperate to get their customers back and tills turning over again.

“With the Roadmap to Recovery program, what we’ve identified and are delivering is a need to set small businesses up for long-term success. 

“We are enabling business owners to be thinking about their own economic recovery and necessarily different ways to work into the future. 

“Longer-term economic sustainability for small businesses in the CBD is crucial for a vibrant and thriving city environment and at RMIT Activator we are committed to support them to get there.” 

Lockdowns, working from home, and the previous distance restrictions forced Melburnians to make greater use of their local environments, says Dr Lucy Gunn from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research.

Local activity centres in Northcote, Fitzroy, and St Kilda are buzzing with people not needing or able to travel into the city for work or play.  

While this is great news for inner metropolitan areas, says Gunn, Melbourne’s CBD is in desperate need of revitalisation – and a key component of this is people.  

“While considered a liveable city, for a metropolis like Melbourne to be sustained, both socially and economically, it requires more than the people living in the CBD.”

“Office workers and visitors are required to bring the city and its economy back to life and a voucher system will only go part of the way to doing that.  

“The new vouchers may inject some temporary buzz back into the city, but it is vaccinations and sustained confidence that comes from having certainty that will bring the city back to its former glory.” 

Story: Chanel Koeleman and Amelia Harris