Oktoberfest considers big changes after operational review

Oktoberfest is considering some big changes to help keep the annual Bavarian cultural festival sustainable for the future.

Oktoberfest has lost more than $300K since 2018, according to its executive director

Oktoberfest recently contracted the Toronto-based consulting firm Optimus SBR to conduct a review on its operations.

Oktoberfest is considering some big changes to help keep the annual Bavarian cultural festival sustainable. 

Executive Director Alfred Lowrick said the festival has lost more than $300,000 since 2018. That figure includes the cost of developing a new "Festhallen" at the Lot42 event space.

The Toronto-based consulting firm Optimus SBR recently conducted a review on festival's operations. 

Lowrick spoke with CBC News this week ahead of the organization's annual general meeting, and explained some of the challenges Oktoberfest is facing.

CBC: First of all, attendance has been decreasing. Why is that? And is this something you'll be able to turn around?

AL: I think we have to understand why the number of Festhallen disappeared, in particular Waterloo, and make ourselves a little more open and family-oriented to the community. That's a concern of mine. Obviously the people that have grown up with the festival are continuing to go. That's great. But we need to attract a larger pool of people from outside. 

Can we turn it over? Absolutely. And it's going to happen. It's just a matter of how to make that happen.

The community has changed significantly. The German or Western European influence that kind of built Oktoberfest, the way it was 50 years ago, has given way to a different culture in the downtown and all through Kitchener-Waterloo, and [Oktoberfest] doesn't speak to everyone. 

We need to pivot here, in certain ways, to make it more open and family-friendly and culturally-friendly, while understanding that we're not making a multicultural festival out of this. It is a celebration of our German heritage in our community. That's the underlying differentiation that we have in our festival. But we just have to make it more acceptable to others.

There's a whole bunch of different ways of doing that — things like approaching it from a culinary perspective, entertainment, music, that sort of thing. 

What new sponsorship opportunities do you see for Oktoberfest? 

We have to understand that our community has altered. Look at organizations like Schneider's. They still remain a very strong, probably the strongest partner, that we have and we hope it continues for for a long, long time. But it's not on Courtland Avenue anymore, it's down in Mississauga. And you know we'll still stay connected, but the organizations that are very prominent in our community right now are more service and high tech. We have to somehow connect with that group or that sector of our economy and have sponsorship that speaks to them. 

And that may not be Festhallen the way they have seen it for the last 50 years. It may be a music festival, maybe a culinary spin, you know?

What about offering craft beer?

Well one of the things that we have a relationship with Molson's on is during the month of October, for our signature events. That's our domestic beer of choice.

Now, if we want to make craft part of the festival, that's a negotiation that we'll have to have with a major like Molson's or Labatt's. This coming year Molson still has a domestic sponsorship. You have to give the customer what they want, and whether that's a Waterloo Dark, or a craft beer of Four Fathers or one of the craft brewers in the community, we certainly want to make that available. But all that takes away from the financial resources that we have.

Molson sponsors this festival in very, very significant ways. In essence, what they've done is they captured or covered off the fixed assets or fixed costs of running this festival. And when we introduced the German beers last year that sponsorship dropped, to say it, quite significantly.

So you know, it's opening it up right now to have a look at what the future will bring and how they interact with us in the next years to come when the contract is to be renegotiated, to see what part craft plays in this. We know that the craft and the German beers, and all the others, can't play in the same market as the majors in support of the festival. 

So how does it fit in? It'll play a part. All I can say is it'll play a part in it somehow. 

There's also the Miss Oktoberfest contest. How might that change? 

You're going to have some people that are adamantly opposed to it and saying it has no bearing in this community at all anymore, and then you'll have other people there saying this is the most important part of the festival.

And so we struck a task force on this, and I thought, "Oh well, this one would be relatively straightforward to come up with a recommendation because, you know, we've been talking about this being an ambassador program for the last 20 years."

It hasn't been a pageant for 20 years. Gone are the days when Miss Florida comes up and wins this Oktoberfest title. It has to be a local girl that wins. For the last 20 years it has been that way. And it hasn't been a pageant at all. The people that have all won have viewed this as a jumping-off point for their careers. A CEO of a larger engineering company is a past Miss, people that own businesses, people [from all walks of life], they've all benefited from this growth opportunity that was called Miss Oktoberfest.

So this isn't a clear cut "yes or no." I think what we've done wrong is we haven't advertised the fact that it's an ambassador program for a long time.

Are you considering cutting any Oktoberfest events? 

I can't tell you exactly what they are right now because we have some confidentiality or some communication processes that have to go through. We're not going to be able to say some of these events are going to be dismantled. There is a whole bunch of them, and they all have merit, and we'll have to stand on how much support the organization needs and whether it's profitable or not.

So it was interesting to note that when we were speaking to the municipal mayors, they thought, for instance, things like our "Tour de Hans" biking program was something that an organization external to Oktoberfest was running. But we were running it. I think they had about 40 people on that committee that did everything from marshaling, to set up, to ensuring that there's safety parameters, and you know all the other things we do, engaging the police force to cover and close off intersections, etcetera.

We decided last year that it didn't make economic sense anymore. It cost us a fortune to do all this and a lot of resource time. So instead of spending time on that we have rededicated staff to other things. That's a good event to possibly flip over to a person or to an organization that does biking in the community.

All those things are being looked at.

You have a lot of big decisions ahead.

It's all a work in progress. It's something that we need to do. Things were not sound from a financial standpoint. We lost some money and we can't continue to lose money, otherwise we're just not going to be here.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.