Tara Toomey is founder of the upcoming Seasons of New England, a producers expo which injects $1.4 million into the local economy. Ms Toomey spoke with Newcastle Herald business journalist Penelope Green for this report.
Where did you grow up, and what influenced your career?
I was born in Newcastle and we moved to Uralla just before I turned 8. When we lived in Newcastle I was a fish, living between backyard pools and the beach. Then in Uralla I had a borrowed horse in my backyard. Growing up with this sense of freedom and belonging left me with a deep appreciation of how fortunate we are to have communities like Uralla, and how important it is to foster them.
What did you do after school?
I studied a Bachelor of Arts, spent a season working on an archaeological project in Greece, then somehow fell in to work in dispute resolution in Sydney. More study in law and psychology, then home to Uralla with lots of ideas!
When (what year) did you start Seasons of New England and what was the seed that started it?
By the early 2000s I had also started my own food business and by 2012 I had opened my B&B. I realised there was a gap in terms of events that would draw travellers, but also that there was no local forum where my product could be appreciated in a regional context or without having to compete against mass produced, imported products.
So, I started working on the concept of a New England platform for the makers, creators and producers of the region in mid 2013, with the first Expo being held in March 2014.
What issues were small producers and artisans having in terms of getting their product to market?
The challenge really lay in finding the market to sell in. There was a lot of travel to outside markets, which was costly in terms of time and dollars. And it still left the New England relatively undiscovered by the rest of NSW in terms of the products that are made here.
What year was the first event and how did it play out?
The first event was in 2014 with over 50 stalls, an incredible 3200 patrons (Uralla is a town of just 3000), and the atmosphere was magic. Every food stall sold out, traders had record sales and the overwhelming feedback from the crowd was that this was the formula they wanted to see more of. The local musicians who played throughout the day and into the night were - of course - a key part of the success too.
How has it grown in size since?
The concept has evolved significantly, with the platform now including a significant hamper business, online store, retail shop in Uralla, dining events and of course the all important Expo.
The Expo crowd has grown to more than 6,000 and stallholders are well over 100 now, and our retail offering is growing rapidly.
How did COVID impact your event?
In March 2020, the pandemic cancelled the Expo just two weeks out, but we were able to move online for a virtual event where each business sent in a short video about who they were, what they made and how to shop with them.
For 2021 there were still restrictions in place that forced us to move to a click and collect concept, followed by a small live music and New England food event.
What lessons were learnt in that period and how does that reflect in the 2022 event?
We learnt that people really do want to shop with the maker, that they want access to better quality product and that a regional context matters. For 2022 we will have improved click and collect option in place, which will take advantage of our retail space in the Uralla main street as well.
To the uninitiated, what is the New England renowned for that is reflected at the Expo event?
The New England is renowned for having four distinct seasons, and for its spectacular gorge country and horse riding.
The Expo tells the untold story of the character and personality of the New England, by helping people discover the products that are made here and the people that make them.
How vital is this event to local producers?
We know the Expo has an economic impact of around $1.4million each time we hold it, and this income then goes back to every corner of the New England. The impact is huge.
What will be highlights of the March 26, 2022 event?
Definitely the shopping experience that the Expo creates. We have an open air venue, a full New England bar, 12 hours straight of live music drawn from across the New England, a kids tent with free activities and around 100 artisans and producers heading to the Expo.
Do you think consumers are now shopping locally more often because the pandemic has affected supply chains and shown people that "small is good" where possible?
Absolutely. People look for ways to connect with small producers and makers where ever possible now, with a heightened awareness of how much more reliable local networks and supply chains are.
What do you like about being a resident of the New England?
My experience in Uralla has been of a warm community of clever, hard working people, a place where people still ride their horse around town and nobody bats an eyelid, and of great country pubs and a superb climate.
Of all the places I've lived, it'll always be home.
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