Sunday, March 22, 2015

Balancing Risk with Reality

Last week's council meeting featured our decision on supporting three community events, using the previously budgeted $50,000.  I asked that the three requests be separated, but was refused, so I had to vote against all three, even though I only have serious reservations about the realistic prospects of one, the proposed Borealis Music Festival, which asked for, and received, $15,000 of the total amount, as well as $15,000 of in-kind support.

Of the three, only the baseball tournament actually managed to put in its proposal a year ahead of time, which is one of the prerequisites, but most other councillors were okay with approving all three.  The reasoning behind having groups submit proposals a year ahead of time is the recognition that a successful event of provincial or national scope cannot be pulled together in the space of a few months, but in this case, impatience ruled the day.

It was unfortunate that one councillor chose to respond to my questions with personal insults rather than reasoned debate, but I guess that's what you do when you don't have good answers.  Responding that way does no favours to either me, the rest of council, or the public, and it certainly doesn't provide the public with what they deserve - a council that shows it is thoughtful before spending tax payers' money.

My over-riding concern with the proposed music festival is that, while I'm sure the proponents are well-intentioned, they haven't done the required homework, and they're trying to be too big, too fast, before they know whether this is a good idea or not.  I know that you never know if something will work for sure before you try it, but I also know that most successful ventures didn't spring fully grown and massive their first year.

For example, the music festival has a projected attendance of 5,000 people a day.  That's a lot.  They compare themselves to other festivals, ignoring the fact that these festivals have long histories, and have built reputations and a client base over that time.  So while it might seem reasonable to feel that this festival would be comparable to Ness Creek, held near Big River, which has an annual attendance of around 4,000, the hard fact that has been ignored is that Ness Creek has been around for 25 years, has developed its brand of ecological awareness and home-grown music, and its attendance in the first year was around 200.  It grew over time, which is only reasonable.

The promoters have not identified the type of music that will be offered, saying that they don't want to tie themselves down.  Unfortunately, by not having a brand, they aren't likely to attract people who are unfamiliar with the specific bands that will be there.  If you like folk music, you may go to the Regina or Winnipeg Folk Festivals, even if you haven't heard of all of the musicians, because you know that music in a style that you like will be offered.  But if you don't even know the genre, why would you drop $50 (for one day) on the off-chance that you'll like the music.

The promoters are also thinking that transporting people in from the lakes will swell the crowds.  My gut feeling is that people who go to the lake on a long weekend do so because they want to be at the lake.  If the weather is good, why on earth would you be interested in coming back into the city?  If the weather is lousy, attending an open-air music festival isn't going to be a popular option.  And people are likely to be unwilling to depend on a bus to get them back and forth - people like the flexibility that having their own vehicle offers, even if there is totally inadequate parking.

Merchandising is a big part of their proposed business model, with projected beer sales of 2 per attendee, and the assumption that most attendees will spend money on a T shirt.  Again, if I've spent $50 just to get in the gate, I'm not going to be willing to spend that much again on beer and a T shirt, so perhaps testing the waters for demand in the first year would be prudent, rather than sinking money into merchandise.

And probably most crucial, this all has to be pulled together in four months.  That's not a lot of lead time when you still need to put together the organizational team, and sign enough acts for three days, especially when they say that they will be operating in multiple, undefined venues. Both Ness Creek and the Regina Folk Festival are advertising their line-ups now, and are selling passes.  The Borealis Music Festival web-site is still under construction, with only five acts listed.  The proponents haven't even set up the required registered non-profit group, but are operating through the Tourism and Marketing Board.

As I said, I got no answers to my questions, which isn't surprising.  It's not that I'm against Prince Albert doing what it can to attract people, but we shouldn't extrapolate numbers from other events, or other communities, and assume that the same results will occur here, for a product that hasn't been defined, on a long weekend.  Yes, people travel from outside the community for events at the Rawlinson Centre, but there aren't 5,000 of them at a time, and they aren't coming for a non-defined event.

I'm sure that the reason that I didn't get answers to my questions is because the organizers don't have them yet.  Part of that may be because they've rushed into this, without realizing the time, people and research required to reduce the risks and increase the odds of success.  It's a shame that, because they're in such a rush to do something this year, they may reduce the chance of building something that would last.  And that will make it harder to get support in the future - a big price to pay for not doing the research up front.

"Sometimes questions are more important than answers." - Nancy Willard

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