Back in 2013, three South Australian guys had an idea to create an alternative Fringe space to the Garden of Unearthly Delights and make it accessible to everyone.
Tom Skipper, one of the trio behind the success of the Royal Croquet Club, who also run Little Miss Miami and Crab Shack, created the Fringe event after a successful run during the Ashes.
“Myself, Stuart Duckworth and Sam Weckert had an idea to use Victoria Square as a potential site for the Fringe. We saw an opportunity to provide an alternative to the Garden of Unearthly Delights, which is a Victorian investment. We thought it would be great to have another South Australian offering in a different part of Adelaide,” Skipper says.
“We put on an event in line with the Ashes series on the riverbank back in 2013. That was extremely successful and the Adelaide City Council expressed to us that they would be interested in us putting together a similar format together for the Fringe.”
Skipper and his partners looked at a variety of sites for the Fringe event and settled on Victoria Square so they could offer a wide range of entertainment and facilities.
According to Skipper, the Adelaide Council had put forward a significant investment of close to $24 million and, with Tour Down Under there as well, they wanted to showcase the Square.
In that first year, the timeline was short and the RCC was not entirely up to the standard Skipper and his team envisioned.
“We were granted a lease one week prior to Fringe registrations closing, so that made it extremely difficult to curate a world class performance program. I’ll admit we were pretty light-on for content in the first year and we had a much smaller footprint,” Skipper says.
“That sparked criticism of our event and our motivation for doing it. A lot of people thought we were just opportunistic and trying to make money from a very large bar in the middle of the city, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
Despite the RCC’s rising popularity and the fact that over 120,000 people visited last year’s event, the criticism continued into 2015.
“In the second year, there were eight applicants who all put submissions to the Council. Ours was a 135 page booklet outlining exactly what we would do. It was selected as the winning tender from that process. That submission incorporated a five week road closure,” Skipper says.
“Unfortunately during that time, we were going through a Council election period so our Expression of Interest was revoked after being approved and we were in a holding pattern waiting for it to go through or not. It was finally granted again with conditions and scaled back. The road closure was not approved and we had to fight pretty hard with nearby stakeholders to end up with partial road closure. Our licence was approved and given to us one week before the event started.”
Despite disparagement from some parts of the city, Fringe Festival revelers have embraced and adored Royal Croquet Club with over 210, 000 visitors joining the fun this year.
Tom Skipper says they didn’t respond to public negativity surrounding the event because their motivation behind RCC is genuine and they weren’t prepared to enter into the politicking.
“We didn’t want to buy into a debate. We’re all about cultivating a great event for Adelaide. The public support is there and the people love it. They are voting with their feet by attending, so we didn’t want to get into a political smear campaign with the AHA and every other invested body who have come out against the event,” he says.
“The reason I am coming to the press is that there is a threat of the event not going ahead. The Council is deliberating whether major events are to be held in Victoria Square and whether Fringe is a model that fits that.”
The Royal Croquet Club has created over 500 jobs, engaged local food vendors and showcased local artists and musicians.
The creative bars like Miss Lee’s Laundry were designed and constructed by South Australians and Skipper says the intention has always been to invest in SA.
“We heavily invested in the Fringe this year. We had a budget that grew by $1.2 million. We put on a huge amount of acts and invested in artists; it was massive in every aspect,” he says.
“We are all Adelaide born and bred and, whilst we have expanded the Croquet Club to tour to other capital cities, its grass roots are firmly planted here in South Australia. In fact, we’ve signed up as a member of Brand South Australia. We’ll be using their logo in all our promotional activity interstate. We are flying the flag for South Australia and are very much invested in this state.”
Another criticism of the RCC’s residence in Victoria Square is the wear and tear on the grass during the Festival, but as Skipper explains, the turf was laid incorrectly prior to the major events.
“When Victoria Square was first renovated, the contractors who laid the turf didn’t lay it properly. Back in 2014, TDU and RCC used the grass, which hadn’t had time to take. That wasn’t Council’s fault; that was the contractors who laid the turf. They rushed the job because they were behind schedule. When they tried to do remediation works over winter, the damage was too far gone so the Council wrote it into capital works for 2015 that they would replace that,” he says.
“Tour Down Under and Royal Croquet Club used that site again this year and there was a lot of foot traffic. 800,000 people used that square for the best part of eight weeks. Although the capital works carried out on that northern aspect were pre-booked by Adelaide City Council and had no reflection on usage by Royal Croquet Club or Tour Down Under, we split the remediation costs for the rest of the square.”
Frustrated with the idea that Council’s perception of the grass issue may stop them holding the event in Victoria Square in future, Skipper hopes his original plan for RCC might offer a solution.
“I can’t believe we’re the only state where turf holds more weight than culture. It is ridiculous that grass would take a front seat in people’s minds over an event. Of course, if you’re going to have a major event in the middle of the city, it’s going to walk all over the grass,” he says.
“However, you can minimise the damage on the grass with a road closure for five weeks and most of the infrastructure in the middle of the road. This would minimise the impact on the grass dramatically and certainly would provide us with a better platform to deliver a more aesthetically pleasing site. That was the initial plan, but it was scaled back by the Council.”
The Royal Croquet Club has toured to Victoria and was so well received, it will be going on the road to Brisbane and Sydney in the not too distant future.
However, while they enjoy national success, Skipper would prefer to keep the Club’s roots here in Adelaide, but this will depend greatly on Adelaide City Council.
“This event is a great event. It’s well received by the public so it’s something we want to share with other states. Whilst Adelaide will always be unique, other capital cities have expressed interest in us touring. We branched out into Melbourne this year, which was a great success; over 120,000 attended that event over 17 days. We’re going to Brisbane this year, Sydney and then Perth in 2016,” he says.
“Our commitment is firmly embedded here in South Australia. We’d love nothing more than to have a major global event based here that’s owned and operated by South Australians.”
The Royal Croquet Club creates a buzz in an otherwise quiet area of town; it adds to the vibrancy and beauty of the culture that is Adelaide.
Tom Skipper wants to work with bricks and mortar businesses in and around the Square to embrace the Fringe Festival and add to the colour of our city.
“There is a whole industry body and a whole group of traders crying out for festivals in order to piggy back off the success. You can’t tell me after ten years, that Rundle Street traders don’t welcome the Fringe rolling into town. They embrace the Fringe because it’s a great thing for business. The East End comes alive. And the same thing will happen around Grote Street, Gouger Street and Waymouth in a few years, once the Royal Croquet Club is established,” he says.
“We just want a fair go, like the one extended to Gluttony and the Garden of Unearthly Delights. We are looking at going through an EOI and request for information for our event, which unfortunately no other event in South Australia has to do.”
“We’d like the Council to stand behind our event and recognize the significant input we have in the city. And to the AHA, we’d like to say we’re not about stealing trade from bricks and mortar venues. We actually want to form a harmonious relationship. There are a number of venues trading exceptionally well off the Fringe and that’s because they embrace it wholeheartedly. If we are subscribing to a vibrant city, which is what the Council is pushing, that comes with some change that people will have to adapt to.”
Click here to vote for the RCC’s survival at The Advertiser’s poll.
By Libby Parker
Feature photo by Royal Croquet Club