Canada

Why festivals will be key to Canada’s post-COVID economic recovery

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Across Canada, summer is peak festival time — at least it was before the pandemic — and in the nation’s capital, RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest is the boisterous, packed and sprawling centrepiece of the season.

Over 10 days in July, up to 300,000 people flock to the grounds of Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum at LeBreton Flats Park, squeezing together to see hundreds of acts on multiple stages that in recent years have featured A-list headliners such as Lady Gaga, Foo Fighters and Kanye West.

It’s a behemoth of an event that transforms mild-mannered local residents into marathon partiers who fortify themselves with snacks and beverages as they zip from stage to stage to catch the bands with the biggest buzz, stopping only to grab a T-shirt or a poster at the merch tent. 

After more than 25 years in operation, the festival is a well-oiled machine that takes over the city, relying on a core staff, hundreds of contractors and more than 3,500 volunteers to make it happen.

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The crowd at Bluesfest Sunday, July 14, 2019, closing night of the festival.
The crowd at Bluesfest Sunday, July 14, 2019, closing night of the festival. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

“If you live in Ottawa, you can’t ignore it,” says long-time Bluesfest volunteer Jenn Hood, who takes vacation time or even unpaid leave during the festival to serve as part of the backstage hospitality team. An avid live-music fan, Hood started volunteering 15 years ago, initially to see concerts for free. She comes back every year because of the camaraderie. 

“It really is a family now,” she says. “Most of my friends are people I’ve met at the festival. We joke that it’s like summer camp — we all come home to see music and go to summer camp.” 

For the second year in a row, “camp” has been cancelled due to the pandemic, and Hood is among many who are lamenting the loss.

“It would be so nice to get out there and hear the music,” she said. “I love watching the energy from the crowd, feeling the bass, seeing the energy of the music. There’s nothing like that.”

While Hood misses the social aspect of the festival, the businesses that depend on the festival are struggling to keep afloat as they head into a second summer without live events. And for festival organizers across the country, COVID-19 presents a whole new set of challenges in how they operate, from incorporating safety procedures to dealing with restrictions on gatherings. 

Chris Ibey, CEO of Toersa Security, Purple Potties and ARX Fencing was able to pivot and adopt a new business strategy after COVID-19 saw festivals and outdoor events cancelled. TONY CALDWELL/POSTMEDIA
Chris Ibey, CEO of Toersa Security, Purple Potties and ARX Fencing was able to pivot and adopt a new business strategy after COVID-19 saw festivals and outdoor events cancelled. TONY CALDWELL/POSTMEDIA Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

In a normal year, Chris Ibey’s network of businesses would employ close to 1,000 people during the summer season in the Ottawa area. His flagship company, TOERSA Security, supplies Bluesfest with about 200 security guards every day of the 10-day event.

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They’re the men and women in red T-shirts who handle the entrance lineups, oversee the beer tents, control crowds in front of the stages and roam around in pairs generally making sure that things run smoothly.  

Behind the scenes, he has other crews at work, too. Some work for Ibey’s fencing and logistics company, ARX, which provides temporary fencing, his environmental services company, Purple Potties, which supplies portable toilets and handwashing stations, or his first aid company, Priority One, which offers first aid services at events. 

All four businesses were launched because he identified a need for them as Ottawa’s festival scene expanded. Normally, there’s a festival or event in the area happening every weekend between May and October — from the Canadian International Tulip Festival to Halloween and Oktoberfest shindigs, not to mention the 40-year-old staple of the Ottawa winter calendar, Winterlude, and summer music festivals devoted to jazz or classical music. 

Although Ibey and his team have managed to pivot the businesses — they send security guards to construction sites and retail locations these days instead of events — the cancellation of two summers’ worth of festivals represents a loss of millions of dollars, and a workforce that might not be there when it’s time to go back. 

“We lost 2020 and we’re going to lose 2021,” Ibey said. “That’s close to four million in lost revenue.  And it’s going to be a lot more challenging to get that many part-time staff. People aren’t counting on this industry for stability so they’re seeking jobs elsewhere.”

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Virtually every Canadian city has a big event like Bluesfest, whether it’s the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Edmonton Folk Festival, the Calgary Stampede or Quebec City’s Festival d’été. Each one is part of an ecosystem that supports everything from audio-visual services to security to catering companies, with thousands of contracted suppliers such as Ibey and devoted volunteers such as Hood, as well as the core staff of each organization. 

With live events completely shut down, the pandemic’s impact has been profound. In addition to the loss of jobs, a survey of more than 100 Canadian festivals and events conducted last summer by the Ottawa Festival Network and Festivals and Major Events Canada (FAME), found that festivals expected to lose $177 million in income in 2020. Two-thirds of the organizations surveyed had laid off staff, 60 per cent of sponsorships evaporated and cumulative deficits within the industry were estimated at $150 million. 

Bluesfest executive and artistic director Mark Monahan put it this way: “Festivals are hanging on by their fingertips.”

But festivals and live events are also being called upon to play a key role in Canada’s post-pandemic economic recovery. The recent federal budget included $400 million to support festivals, and millions more to be available to the broader music and arts industry.

Erin Benjamin, the Ottawa-based president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, who had been lobbying hard for federal funding, called the budget a “historic” vote of confidence for the battered industry. 

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“As far as I know, the words ‘live music’ have never been carved out in a federal budget, in good times or bad,” she said, describing the funding as “the game-changer we need it to be. I think it shows the government understands the plight of the live-music ecology and they expect the live-music industry to be part of a really meaningful rebuild and reopening.”

Details on how the spending will roll out are not yet available, but Monahan is encouraged.

“When you’re just hanging on, you don’t take risks. It’s all about turning inward and making sure you don’t go out of business,” he said. “I’m hoping this government funding could give us the ability to take risks again. Are we going to reemerge stronger than ever, the same as we were or in a lesser form? Government funding is going to make the difference.” 

Monahan and other festival directors in Canada have been working for years for their industry to be taken seriously as an economic force. When they banded together to form the national organization Festivals and Major Events Canada (FAME) 10 years ago, one of the goals was to prove their value to governments.

“The government never said that these events are not important,” said Monahan, “but the attitude was, ‘Show me. Where’s the evidence to prove that these events are economic generators?’” 

The challenge prompted festivals to start gathering data. Over the years, Bluesfest contracted independent, third-party consultants such as Acuity Research and Nanos Research, whose findings showed that the event’s total economic impact is close to $32 million. 

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A not-for-profit organization that supports several music-education programs, Bluesfest’s budget is in the range of $15 to $20 million, with about 80 per cent of its revenue coming from the public in the form of ticket sales and on-site purchases of things like beer and merchandise. Another 10 per cent or so is generated by corporate sponsorships, but that’s usually tied to the exposure that comes from hosting an event. During the pandemic, the only chunk of revenue left is public funding, which represents less than 10 per cent of the budget. 

Monahan said the wage subsidy program has been vital to the organization’s existence during the shutdown. His office, which also organizes Ottawa’s CityFolk festival and the Eastern Ontario edition of the Festival of Small Halls, employs a staff of about 20 full-timers, including many who have worked there for 10 years or more. 

“It took years to build up that crew and the value of their expertise cannot be replaced,” Monahan said of the staff. “There would be huge repercussions in losing that talent base.”

The volunteer workforce is no less important, he added, noting that it would cost more than $800,000 to hire them. What’s also invaluable is their connection to the community. 

“They are our ambassadors,” he said. “They’re the ones who care about it happening, maybe more so than anyone else, and they lead us to many of our corporate sponsors.” 

No question, festivals are big business in Ottawa, supporting more than 68,000 jobs and attracting audiences of 2.6 million, according to research conducted by the Ottawa Festival Network in 2019, based on an analysis of 2016 data from 40 festivals. The sector generates $222.6 million in total spending, including about $122.5 million in visitor spending, a number that is music to the ears of the tourism sector.  

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Catherine Callary of Ottawa Tourism
Catherine Callary of Ottawa Tourism Photo by Wayne Cuddington /Postmedia

“Festivals are an important generator of tourism in Ottawa, for sure,” said Catherine Callary, who’s vice-president of destination development at Ottawa Tourism. “We promote all of the reasons to travel to Ottawa, but festivals do give a very time-specific window: ‘This is the weekend you’ve got to come.’”

To ramp back up to hosting events, Carole Anne Piccinin, the executive director of Ottawa Festivals says festivals will have to be flexible. Organizers may have to create new business models to incorporate COVID-safety protocols such as providing more space for distancing, instigating rapid testing or vaccine requirements, adding more handwashing stations or offering virtual activities in addition to on-site ones. 

Of course, the pace of the recovery will also depend on the public’s willingness to go out after two years of limiting contacts. 

“We certainly hear that there’s a pent-up need for joy,” said Piccinin, pointing to a recent Nanos Research study that shows 42 per cent of people surveyed are ready to return to outdoor events immediately, or as soon as it’s deemed safe to reopen. That day is not expected to come before fall at the earliest. 

In the meantime, festival organizers will be reviewing safety practices, keeping tabs on music trends and holding their collective breath until the federal funding comes through. 

“We want to help build consumer confidence,” Piccinin said. “Festivals are still here, we’re working hard and we’re just as eager as you to come back.” 

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

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