Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Canadian Tulip Festival plans world-class event on shoestring budget

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“This year we have to do with less staff, so that’s the biggest change. There are fewer of us doing the same huge job.”

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The Canadian Tulip Festival used to be known for its spring concert series and a grand-finale display of fireworks. This year, you’ll see movies and a drone show instead.

With the festival’s funding from government bodies down by more than 50 per cent, organizers have been working around the clock to trim costs while still putting on a free event that grabs the interest of the 400,000 or more visitors expected to attend, producing an estimated $40 million in economic impact for Ottawa.

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This year’s festival starts May 10 and runs until May 20, with most of the action in Commissioners Park amid hundreds of thousands of tulips planted and tended to by the National Capital Commission. The colourful beds commemorate the first gift of tulips bestowed by the Netherlands in 1945 as a symbol of gratitude for Canada’s support during the Second World War, and the festival has always paid tribute to this military history.

But how do you plan a world-class festival on a shoestring budget? Executive director Jo Riding says it takes a lot of creativity and more than a little help from friends, family, sponsors and supporters of the event.

“The goal is to make sure it looks just as wonderful as always, if not better,” Riding said, “but also to make sure I’m keeping on budget. This year we have to do with less staff, so that’s the biggest change. There are fewer of us doing the same huge job.”

According to Riding, the cash crunch stems from a dramatic reduction in funding from all levels of government. The festival, which usually costs $800,000 to produce, saw its recent allotments from the Ontario government and the City of Ottawa both halved, while Department of Canadian Heritage funding was just a quarter of the $200,000 ask.

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What’s more, the City’s current contribution of $50,000 is expected to be cut to zero next year, Riding added.

However, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe this week said it was too early to know about specific allocations in the 2025 budget, and hinted at other options. 

“I know there’s lots of concern about the future of the Tulip Festival,” Sutcliffe told reporters Tuesday. “I think there’s a whole range of options available moving forward. I know Ottawa Tourism has been looking at ways it can support festivals in Ottawa and support an event in May that coincides with the tulip season. There’s still many possibilities for how we have amazing events at tulip time in Ottawa. I’m confident that as a community we can work that out.”

A former producer in the Toronto film industry, Riding is accustomed to long hours and has a knack for delivering maximum entertainment at minimal cost. With this year’s Tulip-organizing team cut by half, from seven full-time positions to three full-time and one part-time, she has her hands full, not only enlisting her husband, son and sister to help whenever possible, but also counting on more than 500 volunteers that sign up every year.

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One of the new volunteers has already proved herself indispensable, Riding said. Former Ottawa TV journalist Kimothy Walker, who heads her own high-profile marketing company, stepped up to offer her services after learning about the financial challenges facing the iconic festival.

“I just thought maybe Jo needs some news releases written or other things I could do relatively easily,” Walker said, describing how the role had “bloomed” into her becoming Riding’s sidekick.

After covering the tulip festival for 25 years as a journalist, Walker wanted to help because May was her favourite month in Ottawa and she grew up in a military family.

“I truly thought it was resonating with me in a very personal way,” she said. “I thought, if they’re in trouble, I can help.”

Of course, one trick to mounting an economically sustainable festival is finding partners: corporate or otherwise. The 2024 tulip festival includes a partnership with Canada’s military to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force, with opening and closing ceremonies sponsored by Ottawa-based military contractor Calian Group. Other partners include Neo Financial, presenting sponsor of the Tulip Town kids’ areas, along with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Canadian Geographic and more.

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Festivities at Commissioners Park start Friday (May 10), but the official kickoff takes place at 11 a.m. Saturday (May 11) with an opening ceremony that features a CF-18 fly-over, music by the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces, a parade of Royal Canadian Air Cadets, a Griffon helicopter and a VIP-studded list of guests and dignitaries.

Eight days later, the 8:30 p.m. closing ceremony on May 19 will feature the nightly sound-and-light show followed by an aviation-themed drone show instead of the traditional fireworks display that lit up the skies on Victoria Day for decades. It was cut from the program last year, ostensibly replaced by the sound-and-light show until Riding realized that people were looking for more to do.

“We noticed that, when people finished watching the sound-and-light show, they were still ready to party, so we wanted to give them something they can sink their teeth into,” she said.

The drone show is a new addition to the schedule, and it has some big advantages over fireworks in that it’s cheaper, safer and quieter, lacking the explosions that cause family pooches to scramble for cover. (One year, I found my poor old dog trembling in the shower stall after a Canada Day fireworks show.)

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Kimothy Walker and Jo Riding Canadian Tulip Festival
Former Ottawa TV journalist Kimothy Walker, left, volunteered to help Canadian Tulip Festival executive director Jo Riding as the event’s director of communications. Photo by JULIE OLIVER /POSTMEDIA

Riding said the cost of fireworks “went through the roof” in 2022, driven by a surge in the price of sulphur, plus there’s a hefty cost to closing streets in the area.

“People don’t quite realize when you do fireworks you have to close a lot of roads. You don’t have to do that with a drone show,” Riding said, describing how 200 lighted drones will create a tribute to the RCAF over Dow’s Lake after the sun sets on May 19.

Another valuable partnership was forged with the ByWard Market District Authority to host tulip-related events in the Market, including a Mother’s Day flower market and a Saturday-night Tulip Palooza with the TIMECODE DJ crew on May 18. The authority has also helped subsidize the cost of the Hop On, Hop Off Tulip Tour, a shuttle that travels between the ByWard Market and Dow’s Lake, bringing the price down to $5 per round trip. (Book in advance at https://grayline-ottawa.com/tulip-festival-shuttle/ or pay cash when you hop on).

Note, too, that Riding wrote the script herself for this year’s sound-and-light show. Entitled Operation Manna, it tells the story of the humanitarian efforts of Canada’s military, including the RCAF, in airlifting food to the Dutch after the post-war famine known as the Hunger Winter.

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Riding drew from the memoirs of two Canadian veterans, Ottawa resident Ron “Shorty” Moyes, now 98, who will be an honoured guest at the opening ceremony, and Windsor’s Bob Upcott, plus the recollections of a Dutch woman who was a little girl at the time of the food drop. The 15-minute show takes place at 9 p.m. nightly from May 10 to 20 at the Blacklight Boardwalk.

Also back on the program this year is the free outdoor movie series featuring family-friendly titles such as Trolls and the Lego Movie in the park during the day, with this year’s addition of concert movies on weekend nights after the sound-and-light show. Riding jokes that it’s a lot more cost-effective to bring Bruce Springsteen or Ariana Grande to a big screen than it is to book the actual artists to perform.

As for the main attraction — the tulips — the early bloomers are ahead of schedule, but there are still hundreds, if not thousands, to come. Among the later bloomers are the Canada 150 variety, with their red-and-white stripes, and one of this year’s featured flowers, the “Rescue” strain. It’s a creamy yellow bloom with crimson stripes and a feathered edge to the petal. The colours represent the yellow and red of the RCAF’s search-and-rescue aircraft.

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“The public will get a better view of the late blooms than usual,” Riding said. “You have to see the Rescue tulip; it turned out really well. They’re gorgeous and I’m excited to see them come out here.”

Complete details on the Canadian Tulip Festival schedule are available online: https://tulipfestival.ca/.

To check on the progress of the tulips, see the NCC’s Tulip Meter at https://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/tulips-in-the-capital.

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

(with files from Peter Hum and Blair Crawford)

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