It's festival season in Calgary ... and The City's helping folks to throw a good party

Above: Record crowds at Canada Day 2017, celebrating Canada 150

By Kara Bussey

The City of Calgary

Whether a festival of art, religion, food and drink, a harvest or even a national holiday; all festivals aim to bring people together to celebrate a common purpose. This age-old tradition of festivals is very much alive - and even growing in popularity in Calgary.

From Canada Day (and Canada 150!), to New Year’s Eve and Culture Days in September, Calgary isn’t lacking in holiday celebrations. Entertainment, sports and community events like the off-the-wall Beakerhead festival, world-famous Calgary Stampede or the sizzling street festival, SunFest, also add to the festival mosaic of Calgary.

We all love a good party, right? -- but there’s more to it than that. The benefits these events bring to our city are invaluable. It’s no wonder The City of Calgary and thousands of others work year-round to produce events of all kinds.

There’s no business like show business

We’re all happy to show up and enjoy the entertainment, but how often do we stop to think of what exactly goes on behind the scenes to make events like these happen?

It takes many moving pieces and people to bring an event together. Teams of event planners, like the small team of staff for the not-for-profit Beakerhead, work tirelessly on their events year-round designing the details, booking acts, hiring security, coordinating volunteers and just generally putting together the show. To accommodate the crowds, thousands of staff and volunteers work to organize and run each event. Last year, 8,200 volunteer hours were contributed to Beakerhead alone to make the festival happen!

But any major event taking place in the Calgary is bound to cross paths with a park or road and will of course be subject to local legislation, such as building codes and municipal bylaws – and this is where The City can help the puzzle make sense. To assist event organizers in bringing their vision to life while navigating The City of Calgary’s infrastructure, resources and bylaws, The City has its very own Interdepartmental Event Team (IET), led by Calgary Recreation.

Members of the City Events Team, on New Year's Eve, with Mayor Nenshi

This past year the IET, a committee made up of City business units and community partners, assisted with an impressive 274 events.

2016– Calgary major events with IET assistance

  • Festival -- 52
  • Community event -- 31
  • Community program -- 90
  • Parade -- 11
  • Sport/recreation -- 80
  • Commercial -- 10
  • TOTAL -- 274

“Our job in organizing festivals and events is like producing a theatre show – everything looks smooth on the surface, while hard work happens behind the curtains,” says Teresa Byrne, superintendent of Event Services in Recreation.

It’s all about coordination. As required, an event coordinator will be assigned to assist with areas like:

  • Festival and Event Permits
  • Venue Selection
  • Funding for Festivals and Events
  • Production Services
  • Operational Plan
  • Site Map/Route Map
  • Emergency Response Plan

“The Event Team is there to provide guidance and support so [the events] can connect with the right people in The City who are dedicated to working towards solutions. This produces more successful events rather than turning them away so they can try figure it out on their own but struggle and often give up,” explains Byrne.

Inglewood Sunfest. Photo courtesy Jennifer Rempel

Jennifer Rempel, a private-sector event organizer who plays a big part in some of Calgary’s biggest festivals like SunFest, Lilac Fest, Fiestaval and Taste of Calgary, also speaks to the value of the Interdepartmental Event Team, “The City brings all of the players together. We can all talk about the event on the same page as professionals in the event planning field. It’s useful for growing your event and problem solving – especially if someone was new to organizing events in the city.”

In addition to annual events, (Canada Day, Culture Days and New Year's Eve) the Event Team works on orchestrating sizeable and last-minute events like the Vancouver Olympic Torch Relay in 2010 or the Calgary Stampeder’s Grey Cup victory event in 2014.

The City Event Team doesn’t take all of the credit for these mega-events. Just like private events, the show does not go on without the support of volunteers and external vendors to setup, clean up, direct guests and many other tasks that the Events Team and City partners couldn’t complete without additional manpower. Calgarians are eager to help out – whether to give back to their community, build new skills or meet people - an overwhelming number of people stepped up to the plate this year to help with the Canada 150 celebration. Even Byrne herself was a volunteer with The City before working for the events team. Volunteering as a fortune teller at a Canada Day event after graduating high school, she could not have foreseen that she would become the lead of The City’s events team.

Crafting a culture of community

As years pass, Calgary is seeing an increased appetite for festivals and events. In fact, a survey conducted on New Year’s Eve shows that the overwhelming majority (83 per cent) believe festivals such as the one on New Year’s Eve are important.

The jury is in - Calgarians enjoy events and are supportive of using park space and City resources to host them. On Canada Day, more than 650,000 people attended City-organized Canada 150 celebrations with 80,000 people attending the main stage despite inclement weather and a two hour delay.

Events like Beakerhead and Country Thunder are also seeing the benefits of this public support. Last year, in its first year, Country Thunder sold out a three-day concert with crowds reaching 17,500 in Prairie Winds Park and this year they plan to up that total to 20,000. Meanwhile, Beakerhead smashed participation records in 2016, with 130,000 people encountering one of their experiences – this year they expect that total to be even higher. Anyone who has ever been to Lilac Fest in May knows how busy the community-based street fest can be when the weather is nice.

Why are we seeing this surge towards participation on large festivals and events? Calgary’s mayor had this to say:

“Festivals are a showcase of what makes Calgary great: our diversity, our creativity, our commitment to community. No matter their size or content, festivals are a perfect opportunity for people to come together, breathe the same air as their fellow citizens, and celebrate. Every festival makes Calgary a better place for everyone,” explains Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Simply put, people like them. In a world where we are increasingly busy and tuned into technology, events give us a chance to socialize, connect with friends, family and neighbours.

The Inglewood Night Market

The benefits of festivals are many and far-reaching.

“Events really enhance our communities,” says event organizer Rempel. She explains that not only is our sense of community bolstered by our social interactions, but the communities we live in also benefit from more visibility, increased spending with local businesses and enriched cultural vibrancy. “People are attracted to live in certain areas because it increases the vibrancy to have these festivals near them,” says Rempel.

There’s no better proof of the community benefits drawn from events, than the summer of 2013 – a.k.a. “the flood.” Following the major flooding from June 20-23, our city was in a sad state. Downtown was largely deserted, hippos nearly escaped into the Bow River and millions of litres of water were being pumped out of homes and buildings - but that wasn’t going to stop the City’s Event Team from making sure the Canada Day celebrations happened just a week later.

It’s also certain we’ll never forget that the Calgary Stampede was going to go ahead in early July, come “Hell or High Water.” Thousands of volunteers and staff came together to revive our downtown, create a safe environment and made these events happen – for Calgary. Same for Folk Fest, that went forward on Prince’s Island, despite being under nine feet of water only a month earlier.

Recent and upcoming events in Calgary this summer

Musician at Expo Latino

Planning an event in Calgary

With the increased desire and number of events being planned in Calgary, it was a natural fit that The City would adopt a policy to help support them.

Although the IET had been around in some sense since 2004, the City formalized the Festival and Event Policy in 2010 - with the purpose of “fostering increased vibrancy in Calgary.”

If hosting a large event on City land, especially with alcohol or fireworks, each event organizer must submit an Event Opportunity Form. Upon receipt, The City will check to see if the requested venue is available. If available, the site will be tentatively booked for the event. The organizer is then asked to complete the Festival and Event Application process and be evaluated by the Event Advisory Committee. This Council Committee looks at the event plan to ensure it’s complete and that it includes the requirements for The City and all partner organizations.

Then the IET will determine the types and levels of service and support required – that’s where the behind the scenes magic happens.

With each event, the level of support varies, but one home-grown event that presents some interesting challenges is Beakerhead. From setting up in multiple venues, to translating safety requirements into temporary, outdoor spaces and working with artists who aren’t familiar with safety standards – there is no shortage of interesting hurdles.

“How do you translate requirements in those scenarios to remain fair but still safe? The last thing anyone ever wants is to compromise public safety -- – It can be a challenge when an artwork is not designed for public space to alter it in a way as to not compromise the artistic integrity and ensure its safe for public consumption,” Byrne explains as she details the work of the Event Team.

The colour and crowds at Fiestaval. Photo courtesy Jennifer Rempel

A helping hand

In addition to working closely with artists and organizers to overcome these challenges, The City offers two courses each year to inform those interested. Hosted annually in the spring, Festival and Events 101 helps event organizers, both small and large, navigate The City’s process for event planning. For artists, a series of Public Art 101 sessions are hosted throughout the year to help transition their work from the studio into the public realm.

Offering more than just event planning assistance, the Festivals and Events Subsidy Program is another tool available to organizers to supplement the costs of permits, event spaces and other City-related expenses. In 2017, 146 Calgary events are projected to receive subsidies.

“The event subsidy has been crucial in allowing Beakerhead to exist. The style of public installation and events that Beakerhead produces require a lot of unconventional thinking and infrastructure. As a non-profit organization, the subsidy program helps us be efficient with our budget while focusing on creating delightful experiences for Calgarians and tourists,” says Jasmine Palardy, Senior Director, Beakerhead.

In the case of subsidized events, the IET may provide equipment and support, for example staging, policing, road closures, tents and bike racks for festivals and events like Folk Fest, Reggaefest and Run for the Cure.

“They can sometimes get up to $20,000 worth of equipment from The City,” explains Byrne - support that is invaluable in terms of costs for smaller festivals and events. It’s value that translates directly to festival-goers in ticket costs.

Culture Days

Do I need to fill out an Event Opportunity Form for my event?

Groups need an Event Opportunity Form if they are planning to host a new event on City land that will involve any of the following:

  • Serving alcohol
  • Fireworks or other types of pyrotechnic display
  • Setting up one or more tents or stages with a combined area of greater than 600 sq. ft
  • Utilizing parks or pathways AND roadways or sidewalks

What comes next?

“As long as I’ve worked here, I’ve always wanted to shut down downtown Calgary, like they do in Montreal [for L’ile de Montreal],” Byrne said when asked about the future of events in Calgary. “We also need a large event space in Calgary that can accommodate 30,000+ people and has all of the amenities necessary to create a great audience experience but still ensure the safety of citizens.”

There’s currently no plan to close down the downtown core for an event, but with over 8,000 hectares of parkland managed by The City and a city full of people excited to attend festivals and free events, the future looks bright for events in Calgary. Armed with the Festival and Event Policy and the Interdepartmental Event Team, The City is ready to support and assist.

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