North·In Depth

Yukon's Sourdough Rendezvous: Can it survive another 55 years?

The Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous festival in Whitehorse is both haunted and kept alive by its legacy and traditions.

'Times are changing and we have to change with the times,' says society president

Dave Blottner, executive director of the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous, and Darren Bartsch, the society's president. 'We want to become one of Canada's premier festivals,' Bartsch said. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Dave Blottner says there comes a time every fall where Rendezvous dreams meet Rendezvous reality.

"Here's the 'dream festival,' and here's what we have to work with," said Blottner, executive director of the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous Society. "It's a heartbreaking endeavour."

Over a series of meetings, Rendezvous board and staff members look at how much has been raised in sponsorships, how many volunteers are needed for events, and what turnout has been like over the last few years.

Then they start making the hard decisions.

And this year, some of those decisions have definitely gotten Yukoners talking:

  • No snow-carving competition.
  • No Shipyards Park.
  • No aircraft display.
  • And very nearly no fireworks, until an anonymous donor jumped in to cover the costs.

"There wasn't a person on our board who was like, 'We should cut the fireworks,'" Blottner said. "But at the end of the day, at $15,000 a year — that money doesn't come from just anywhere."

The Rendezvous society scrapped some events for this year's festival, including the popular snow-carving competition. (George Maratos/CBC)

Now in its 55th year, the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous festival in Whitehorse is both haunted and kept alive by its legacy and traditions. Gold Rush fever courses through its identity, along with a fervour for can-can dancers, saloons, and the trapper lifestyle.

Long-time Yukoners are quick to reminisce about past versions of the festival, and will argue over whether it was better on the Yukon River, or when it filled up Main Street, or whether it was more fun as a debaucherous party, or now as a family-friendly event.

As it stands, it's billed as a "community festival" run by local partnerships — but organizers dream of making it one of the country's "premier winter festivals."

The bigger question now, though, is: can Rendezvous even survive?

'Unforeseen hardships' in 2018

Blottner and the board say corporate sponsorships this year weren't what they were in years past, and every penny counts.

Last year, those pennies added up to nearly $1 million. They raised just over $890,000, then spent all of that plus an additional $60,000.

Sourdough Rendezvous revenue and expenses from 2013 to 2018. Last year, the festival spent about $60,000 more than it brought in. (CBC)

Darren Bartsch, the president of Rendezvous' volunteer board, described 2018 as a "deficit year" with "unforeseen hardships."

"We had contractors not fulfil their contracts, and we have such small margins being a non-profit society that even though it might be a few thousand dollars, that really hits us hard," he said.

Rendezvous took those contractors to court and won damages, but still had to cover legal fees and other expenses as they wait for that to be collected.

Beyond that, Blottner says operating costs for the festival continue to grow every year. He attributes a lot of that to making the festival more professional.

"Getting the right people who know the right things to do their job, getting the right volunteers together," Blottner said.

The society's financial reports from the last five years show that wages and employee benefits grew by nearly $100,000, to $210,383 in 2018.

Blottner says operating costs for the festival continue to grow every year. (CBC)

"To become a professional festival, you need to pay a living wage and create a professional team," said Blottner.

He says the festival can't count on volunteers the way it has in the past, and so paid staff are "filling those gaps."

"We want to become one of Canada's premier festivals, and in order to do that we have to have the horsepower in the office working year-round for the corporate sponsorships and partnerships with other organizations," added Bartsch.

Last year, that amounted to three full-time positions, and two short-term contract positions leading up to and during the festival. Blottner says his team has cut the contract positions this year.

'Handshake deals and high-fives'

Performance fees, supplies and event production costs also shot up over the last five years, growing by nearly $160,000 to a total of $339,545 in 2018.

Blottner says that reflects changes they've made to their bookkeeping.

"In years past ... Rendezvous operated with a lot of handshake deals and high-fives in the community," he said.

The Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous parade, late 1970s. 'In years past ... Rendezvous operated with a lot of handshake deals and high-fives in the community.' (Tim Kinvig)

After a new finance committee came on a couple of years ago, festival organizers decided to bring Rendezvous more in line with non-profit accounting standards. For example, they started recording the actual value of volunteer performances and in-kind donations, both in revenue and in expenses.

Blottner says that shows a more realistic picture of what Rendezvous actually costs.

Rendezvous's challenges are not unique, says Martin Roy, executive director of Festivals and Major Events Canada, a national association of 28 event organizations.

He says festivals across Canada are in constant struggle to stay viable and relevant. 

"That of course is a challenge when you are a young event … but imagine after 65 or 70 years?" he said.

"Each and every year you have to ask yourself: Am I doing this activity for the right reason? Or because it was done for 10 or 15 or 20 past years? Is it still relevant?'" 

No event is sacred, he says.

The ever-popular chainsaw toss competition, in 2015. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Competition from other non-profits

Rendezvous is also under growing pressure to adapt to an environment where there are more organizations competing for volunteers and donations.

"Every time there's a new festival, the pie gets thinner because the business that has been supporting us is now being asked by that many more non-profits," said Blottner.

He says Rendezvous is saving money and manpower this year by not doubling up on its rented facilities each weekend, by moving to the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre from Shipyards Park, and by bringing in the "Canadian Playboyz" burlesque, instead of the traditional female show.

"We're about 150 different events, and [the budget of] each event was touched in one way or another," said Bartsch.

"And every event is near and dear to somebody's heart," Blottner added.

Corporate funding for the festival has steadily risen in recent years, but much of that growth comes from the fact organizers now tally all in-kind donations. On top of this, more festivals are now competing for this money. (CBC)

Some of the changes may be risky or unpopular, but organizers believe they are necessary for the festival to survive "for another 55 years," according to Bartsch.

"Times are changing and we have to change with the times," he said.

Once this year's festival comes to a close, Bartsch, Blottner and the rest of the Rendezvous family will gather to reflect on their choices, and to create a new five-year plan that will lead to Rendezvous's 60th anniversary in 2024.

Some ideas include getting out into the communities more, or bringing in larger acts. They've got lofty ambitions, considering the finances, but Blottner seems sure Rendezvous will survive.

"If the Society closed tomorrow, there would still be a Rendezvous of some sort or other. There would still be Yukoners coming out, shaking off those winter blues, getting together and being a little bit crazy," he said.

"That's at its heart what Rendezvous is."

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