Virtual, drive-in festivals 'the best we can expect' for 2021, says Festivals and Events Ontario

The pandemic has already forced many festivals to cancel in person events for 2021. CEO of Festivals and Events Ontario says there won't likely be a return to the normal large gatherings until at least until the end of September.

Sherwood Systems goes from supporting 100 events weekly to 1 or 2

K-W VegFest is on this Saturday at Kitchener's city hall. It'll be outside if it's good weather or inside if the rain shows up. (K-W VegFest/Facebook)

For summer events and festivals, the outlook for 2021 is pretty bleak.

There won't likely be a return to the normal gatherings and festivities until at least until the end of September, according to Dave MacNeil, CEO of Festivals and Events Ontario.

"If we look at what some people were able to do last year with virtual, dive-in or drive-thru experiences, I think that's probably the best we can expect again this year," he said.

This year marks the second year many festivals and events have had to cancel, postpone or go online. MacNeil said pre-COVID, more than 2,500 festivals took place across municipalities in the province, many organized by staff who are also members of Festivals and Events Ontario.

"A lot of those departments have been closed down and the people have been re-assigned somewhere else or laid off," he said, noting some festivals have been hard hit and may not return.

"One thing is for certain, going through two years with no ability to generate revenue makes it really hard to keep things going."

Hoping for the best in 2021

Rob Barkshire, president of the Kitchener Blues Festival, said it was hard to cancel the festival last year, especially because it was also their 20th anniversary.

"Like anybody in this industry, we were really, really disappointed but understood the need," he told CBC News.

He said organizers instead put on the True Blue Summer Series, which involved some live music and local restaurants. Barkshire said they are hoping for the best this year.

"At this point we're hoping it's going to be a go, hoping that we can stage a festival and we plan to do so," he said.

"But at the same time we recognize that it may not happen and if it doesn't, we'll turn a look at other opportunities."

Barkshire said his music festival has not been as hard hit as others during the pandemic as it is mostly volunteer-based.

"We've positioned ourselves to be extremely low cost in terms of overhead and ongoing fixed costs, so we can wait this out a little bit with no issues at all and stage the festival when it's time to stage it," he said.

Ripple effect to other industries

Ryan MacAdam, account executive at Sherwood Systems in Kitchener, said his business has deeply felt the absence of festivals during the pandemic.

He said Sherwood Systems rents out equipment, does the set up and tech for popular festivals like the Kitchener Blues Festival, Kultrun World Music Festival and Oktoberfest.

"Through the summer season we would have done, in some weeks, 100 or more events. And a good week this year would be one or two," he said, noting even those few events have been virtual.

MacAdam said many of Sherwood's employees, himself included, are looking forward to the day when they can "get back to it".

"We just want to be able to practice our craft," he said. "It's heart breaking, truthfully."


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