When organizers at the renowned Spruce Meadows show jumping venue in Calgary debated pushing ahead with their annual summer series, they faced uncertain conditions and plenty of potential problems. The rescheduled Tokyo Olympics could mean overlap with pre-qualifying events and a resurgence of COVID-19 cases cast doubt on both the reopening of the Canada-U.S. border and whether large-scale events would be allowed at all.
Large summer events across Canada are making similar tough decisions under ever-shifting conditions. While the current public health plans of provinces like Alberta would allow large-scale events to take place if COVID cases and hospital admissions decrease by summer, organizers of music festivals, fairs and other big events say they can’t wait for official word from the government before deciding if they can proceed.
“Everyone’s trying to see if they can salvage something this year and still engage their community with some sort of programming,” said Christina Franc, executive director of the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions.
She noted many large-scale summer events have only a few days or weeks each year to generate enough revenue to keep going.
“Last year we did a survey that showed one in 10 of our organizations would have to shut down without [financial] support. This year, if we don’t see events again, everything could be magnified and multiplied.”
In Spruce Meadow’s case, the series – four show jumping competitions over five weeks – typically attracts 1,000 horses and athletes from 20 countries. What can be a complex event to organize in a normal year becomes a logistical challenge in the middle of a global health crisis. In the end, they concluded it was too risky to stage events this summer and delayed them until the fall.
“We decided that it would be in our best interest to get ahead of the situation,” said Ian Allison, the president and chief operating officer of Spruce Meadows. “I think it would be a big ask for athletes from around the world to come in quarantine for 14 days.”
The events at Spruce Meadows will instead take place over three weeks in September, which Mr. Allison hopes will attract athletes eager to jump back into competition. “There’s a huge hunger to get back competing at Spruce Meadows, but we want to be able to do it in a very responsible and respectful way,” he said.
Other major events that have already been delayed – or cancelled – include some of Canada’s biggest music festivals, such as the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, which announced its cancellation last week, and the Vancouver Folk Folk Festival, which has been held in the city’s Jericho Park for 43 years and pulled the plug on this summer’s event in March.
Debbi Salmonsen, the Vancouver festival’s artistic director, said public gathering restrictions in the province meant organizers wouldn’t know until June if they’d even have access to the grounds this year. “That isn’t enough time for us to put the infrastructure and the ticket sales together for our events,” she said.
Lynne Skromeda, executive director of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which has also been cancelled for this year, said organizers surveyed concertgoers in early March about the prospect of a modified event.
“What came back to us was that people really wanted the full festival experience,” said Ms. Skromeda.
“They want to be able to spend the day in the fields and be able to camp for the weekend. We quickly realized that’s not an experience that we’re going to be able to provide this year, so the writing was really on the wall that we were going to have to make a decision much more quickly.”
Ottawa Bluesfest organizers recently announced the cancellation of their event. Mark Monahan, executive director, said the popular festival faced the same planning struggles.
“You can’t just flip the switch,” he said. “You need time to confirm the acts, you have to make financial commitments to suppliers, artists, all these kinds of things. And we just couldn’t do that.”
Mr. Monahan said while he’s optimistic that Bluesfest will be able to run a deficit and come back in full force for 2022, he is concerned that the long-terms effect of the pandemic on music festivals.
“The backbone of the industry is people. My fear is that many of the people have been forced to leave,” he said.
Fairs and exhibitions like the Fair at the PNE in Vancouver and Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto and the Calgary Stampede are also encountering many of the same issues as they sort out whether it’s possible to still hold events this year, even if that means significant changes.
The CNE’s executive director, Darrell Brown, said it’s too early to say what will happen with the event, which typically starts in mid-August.
“We don’t anticipate pulling the plug anytime soon, but the challenge is making it work with the numbers,” he said. “Last year we suffered a 95 per cent decline in revenue. We’ve depleted our own resources and we’re now borrowing from private lending institutions. It’s a challenge.”
Vancouver’s PNE is also the largest employer of youth in B.C., a factor that organizers are taking into consideration.
“Nobody, including the health authorities, have crystal balls but we want as many [people] working as possible,” said Laura Ballance, head of media relations.
Ms. Ballance anticipates that by May most festivals will have a better idea of whether their events will be able to proceed – and in what form. But she stressed that it’s important for organizers to communicate their plans clearly with the public.
“We need to be definitive, and we need to act on decisions in order to save the event itself,” she said.
In Calgary, Stampede organizers are committed to having an event this year, even if they haven’t sorted out the details yet, said interim CEO Dana Peers.
“[The outdoor space] really provides us with an opportunity for greater flexibility to welcome the community back,” he said. “I hope that the Stampede 2021 can be one of those things that really is about re-engaging and relaunching the economy,” said Mr. Peers.
“Hopefully coming into May we’ll be able to get a better idea of how things are going.”
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