Opinion: Has Sydney Reached Peak ‘Vivid’?

On Tuesday, Vivid Sydney revealed this year’s attendance figures – a record 2.33 million people over the event’s 23 days but this also represented the slowest growth in the event’s history at 1% up on the previous year. In other words, just an extra 20,000 visitors.

Attendance growth has been declining since after 2014  – the year after the Sydney Harbour Bridge was introduced into the event – and by this trend, should mean future editions of the event would have smaller crowds than in previous editions which has never happened before. This is because next year could see Vivid entering negative growth for the 1st time.

Graph showing the growth of attendance year on year since the 2010 edition (2nd ever edition)

The only good news is that interstate & international visitation, at 247,712 visitors, is still growing at 35% up on last year. This should signal that the Sydney/New South Wales (NSW) market for Vivid has reached it’s peak. In regards to Sydneysiders and NSW residents, this means the number of first-time visitors to Vivid Sydney is now being outweighed by the number of visitors who think the event is no longer worth visiting.

This could be the result of several effects:

  • Crowd Levels

The crowds have been increasing year on year particularly in the ‘iconic’ area of Vivid Sydney – Circular Quay. Due to a combination of a rare East Coast Low & poor crowd control for the increased attendance after that weather event, last year’s event saw near-crowd crushes occur. Organisers have since improved their crowd management arrangements and had the fortune of no significant weather events this year too. On weekends, crowds around Circular Quay have reached uncomfortable levels resulting in the weekend visitors not returning as regularly as they should due to the experience, particularly as their availability to visit on other nights is more limited due to work and school etc. even if they are local. This is no doubt a contributing factor.

  • Terrorism Fears

Whilst the least likeliest of the reasons to be contributing, the pedestrian nature of Vivid Sydney combined with the road closures & very high crowd levels, in today’s environment, may be enough to put people off particularly once they have visited the event for the 1st time, knowing they have experienced it once in their lives, they don’t have to risk it again.

  • Innovation Perception

Vivid Sydney consists of 3 parts – Light, Music & Ideas. The latter two only make up approximately 14% of the event’s visitation. This is partly because they are ticketed niche events in limited capacity venues. Vivid Light, therefore, is the main attraction. It is a free mainstream event & in venues without capacity limits (though if crowds do increase any further, capacity limits may be needed. Good thing they already implement crowd controls on the busy nights!). No wonder it makes up 86% of Vivid’s visitation!

Vivid Music & Ideas are easy to give people reasons to return to. A new, rather than repeating, line-up of musicians & talkers always allows new audiences to experience these parts of the festival as long as the line-up participants are popular enough to sell significant amounts of tickets. They also increase the possibility of returning visitors as they already know the event’s standard.

Vivid Light, though, is more difficult. To most people, it is just lights & patterns. This is despite new narratives being told via light each year & organisers giving new artists the opportunity to shine. After all, lighting artists aren’t exactly the most well-known type of artists.

This is probably Vivid Sydney‘s biggest problem particularly when combined with the crowd levels. Why return, to suffer in the crowds, when it looks the same as last year? If they want NSW visitors to return, they need to revitalize Vivid Light. Organisers have done this in previous years with the introduction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Darling Harbour in 2013 (to great effect) & Taronga Zoo and the Royal Botanic Gardens in 2016 (both proving popular).

But once introduced though, they don’t visually innovate which sees audiences leaving as they ‘have seen it all before’. For example, the Lighting Of The Sails (Sydney Opera House projection show) was introduced when the event started in 2009 as a projection show of patterns. 8 years later, despite incorporating new narratives, themes & artists to the show annually, still ‘looks the same’ to the everyday person.

Making things look different would help but it will be a great challenge. If this is not solved, Sydney/NSW visitation to Vivid will decline. So let’s assume they don’t visually innovate as the case has been since 2009…

The usual strategy of expanding the event by making ‘major-mini Vivids‘ (complete with their own projection show) in new locations to solve this problem won’t work (though it will solve crowd problems to an extent if they are to iconic locations such as Bondi Beach & Manly) as, unless they visually innovate regularly, it will lead them back to where they are. It would give a brief one-off attendance boost though.

Given the event is a government event (run by the NSW Government), governments are mainly focused on:

  • Publicity (e.g. social media) – this allows them to promote Sydney to future visitors of Sydney.
  • Revenue (e.g. Music/Ideas ticketing & NSW Government-run public transport) – this goes towards event costs as well as other NSW Government expenditure.
  • Economic Benefits (e.g. gross domestic product growth etc.) – visitors to Vivid increase revenue of businesses such as accommodation, restaurants, airlines etc. which, in turn, raises revenue for other businesses along the supply chain that, again in turn, helps pay their employees & lastly in turn, raises revenue for the NSW Government through taxes etc. to spend on community services (such as Vivid & public transport), which brings the economic cycle back to full circle.

Vivid Sydney currently brings AUD$143 million to the NSW economy.

If organisers decide to focus on interstate/international visitation from now on, given it’s continued growth & increasing economic impact, a reasonable strategy would be to reduce the Vivid Light Walk to it’s 7 ‘must-sees’:

  • The Lighting Of The Sails (Sydney Opera House projection show)
  • 32 Hundred Lighting’s annual Sydney Harbour Bridge & city buildings interactive light display
  • Harbour Lights (Sydney Harbour ferries/boats lit up)
  • Royal Botanic Gardens walking trail
  • Museum Of Contemporary Art projections
  • Customs House projections
  • Cadman’s Cottage projections
  • Bangarra Dance Theatre’s annual projection show on the south-eastern pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Plus the other 2 ‘must-sees’:

  • A Light For The Wild (Taronga Zoo)
  • Darling Harbour’s multimedia show

This means all the smaller light exhibits (about 50 in total) along the Vivid Light Walk would disappear, allowing more focus on the internationally iconic light displays & more space for crowds to flow. These smaller light exhibits are targeted more towards Sydneysiders so if organisers want Sydney/NSW visitation to be stable in the short term, another reasonable strategy would be to give these smaller light exhibits new homes in the Sydney suburbs. Chatswood would be a great place to start to test this out but it could be expanded to include certain ferry wharves along Sydney Harbour with it’s nearby parks/public spaces:

  • Manly
  • Parramatta
  • Watsons Bay
  • Cockatoo Island
  • Milsons Point
  • North Sydney
  • Mosman Bay
  • Birchgrove
  • Cabarita
  • Kissing Point

Having them near ferry wharves allows them to be linked to the central Vivid hub of Circular Quay by Harbour Lights. In the end, it depends which Sydneysiders like Vivid the most – is it the ones who live on the Sydney Harbour foreshore, the ones who live in the eastern suburbs or the ones who live in the western suburbs? If they are in places far away from Sydney Harbour like in Campbelltown, maybe they can incorporate Vivid into the rail services with a Light Express or Light Rail (pun intended)? Connecting railway stations could be decorated with lights & maybe some train carriages could be spruced up with special lights for the occasion. Other locations that could accommodate the small light exhibits could include:

  • Fort Denison
  • Other Sydney Harbour Islands
  • Barangaroo Reserve, Barangaroo

We said earlier that moving to new locations would not work but just to emphasize what we said earlier, that is only if they do not visually innovate those locations each year so if they move the smaller light exhibits to the above locations, it should work as long as new small light exhibits that look completely different from previous years’ exhibits are put on display each year.

Given it is a NSW Government event, smaller crowds can provide incredible political ammunition particularly when the event is spectacular, extravagant & expensive (Vivid costs nearly AUD$8 million – slightly more expensive than Sydney New Year’s Eve). It also does not help when climate change, electricity prices & economic downturns are political issues as they increase the motivation for political opponents to attack the NSW Government for producing an event that less and less people attend.

As long as Vivid Sydney attracts sufficient positive publicity & produces a profit or economic growth that outweighs the event’s costs, the NSW Government is going to support it even if attendance declines. If Vivid does not do one of them or crowds begin to decline, political opponents will begin to argue that:

  1. The NSW Government mismanages events or;
  2. People have forgotten or are going to forgot it’s existence hence argument 4 (below) or;
  3. People do not care about it anymore hence argument 4 (below) or;
  4. It is a waste of taxpayers money.

If crowds begin to decline next year, political debate could begin. Of course, like I said earlier, visual innovation is key here & could allow all that to be avoided. But if the status quo remains unchanged, crowds will decline, likely to result in major changes that do not help the event regrow (such as less lights) especially if interstate/international visitation declines too. The latter would guarantee all the arguments to be thrown at the NSW Government as it allows the failure of all key factors for government events. The NSW Government, unless they visually innovate the event, would, as a result of growing pressure, withdraw Vivid‘s funds resulting in it’s obvious cancellation.

Vivid Sydney Attendance
Graph showing Vivid Sydney’s attendance to date, our predicted attendance rates & what the attendance trend would have been had attendances not grow even further in 2013 when the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Darling Harbour were incorporated into the event for the 1st time

At the current rate, Vivid may cease to exist in 4 years. We hope not. So if you are not from Australia or from interstate & wish to experience Vivid Sydney in all it’s glory, it’s probably time for you to check it out. Just in case the lights switch off…permanently.

And if you are from Sydney or NSW, try & support Vivid by attending next year (particularly if you have never been) or encourage your friends/family members who haven’t been before to go & see it for the 1st time. It is a truly iconic Australian event, a Sydney Spectacular. Otherwise, you must be over Vivid so prepare for a eventual return to Sydney’s dim & empty winters unless, of course, organisers revitalize the event beyond our wildest dreams leaving us no choice but to visit again!

So Sydney, are you really over Vivid? It seems like you are.

If you are from Sydney or NSW, tell us what would bring you back to Vivid. Is it more security, better crowd management or just something new and worthy of seeing? Tell us in the feedback form below: