I spent two days last week at ‘Shepp Square’ — the initiative to sell Shepparton to Melbourne in Federation Square.
It was a good staging ground from which to meet Melbourne-based contacts, but also to chat with the random Melburnians and tourists that flow through the square on a daily basis.
The council staff were engaging, friendly and handing out free Modi apples.
In a busy city where more and more people are interacting with their devices rather than each other, it was a welcome gesture of country hospitality.
Every man, woman and child wanted their photo taken with one of the Mooving Art cows on display.
There was a Furphy tank in the middle of a pop-up restaurant serving a Goulburn Valley-inspired menu.
Behind the restaurant bar was a large poster of the Tallis winery at night, showcasing one of the most beautiful landscapes in the region.
The overall impression that we got from passers-by in the square was that people have no idea how big Shepparton is, and what it has.
The perception is of a large country town, propped up by a struggling fruit canning business, and an area that has significant social challenges.
It is great to able to inform people that SPC has stabilised, reported a profit last year and is pushing Australian fruit products into China.
People were genuinely surprised that we have La Trobe and Melbourne university campuses in the city.
There was a genuine interest in new varieties of fresh food, who was growing it, and where.
It is possibly a lesson to us that provenance is becoming more important in food marketing.
I got the feeling that Melburnians would come to Shepparton if there was a food production trail — showing the orchards, cheese manufacturing and meats.
The Goulburn Valley has always been more ‘‘working farms’’ than ‘‘tourist farms’’. We have left that to the King Valley, but there are more opportunities for our region in terms of tourist trails.
An expats function on Friday night hosted by the Committee for Greater Shepparton showed how many influential ex-Sheppartonians are out there.
Our aim is to have them informed in the areas of our advocacy, whether it be water, rail or education.
There is a big network of people who care about Shepparton, the region having nurtured them as children. Harnessing that network can take us even further forward.
Overall, Shepparton has sat in the shadow of other regional areas for many years, but is building in confidence and is making a statement to the nation.
Brand-making exercises are not cheap, easy or quick, and you don’t perfect everything the first time around.
But bold initiatives are necessary in a competitive world, and we have a great product to sell.
Sam Birrell is the Committee for Greater Shepparton’s chief executive.