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Making the Elvis Festival Work! (Posted On: Thursday, July 17, 2008)

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As the days draw closer to the annual Sirius Satellite Radio 14th Annual Elvis Festival in Collingwood the activity in Downtown Collingwood reaches a fever pitch.  There are stages to be readied, parking lots need to be transformed into; patios, performance areas and even playgrounds.  It is Elvis time! Collingwood looks at the weekend as its favourite summer party.

To the general public the final few days before the festival may appear to be the preparation time.

Behind the scenes though this is actually the beginning of the end of work that started a short time after Jay Zanier claimed the 2007 title with his tribute performance of “My Way”.

Peter Dunbar (Chair of the Municipal Services Board that operates the event) says one of the keys to making the festival better every year is that the people involved in preparing the festival are very good at taking a critical look at the work they have done. 

There is a physical tear down each year after the festival, and Collingwood is returned to its pre-Elvis state.  At the same time the committee does a technical tear-down, looking at everything that was good about the weekend, and anything that may not have worked.

“We do take a break,” says Dunbar.  “There is actually a time where you are not even allowed to say Thank-you, Thank-you very much in my office. Amazingly enough, the short break is long enough to have everyone chomping at the bit.”

“Before we take that break” adds Dunbar “we all believe it is important to sit down and go over every aspect of the weekend.   We do it right away because that is when it is most fresh in our minds.  It is a very valuable piece of planning time.”

For sports fans who think the off-season is too short for their favorite professional league, it maybe a bit mind boggling to see that by the middle of August the committee is already moving ahead for the next event.

“It may seem like a very short break,’ says Dunbar “but it is critical to start putting the pieces together to be ready to have that party again next July.”

This year marks the 14th year that the best Elvis Tribute Artists will be gathering in Collingwood to entertain fans and compete for Festival Titles.   The top award is $3,000 in cash and an entry into the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest in Memphis next month.

Collingwood Mayor Chris Carrier is very aware of where the success of the Festival lies.  “Without the work of the Municipal Services Board and all of the committees there is no way this can work.”   The Mayor adds, “So much of the work that goes into getting the town ready for Elvis is done by volunteers, we don’t have the Municipal resources to make it work like it does.”

The Town of Collingwood does support the festival through sponsorship and staff resources to help operate the Municipal Services Board.  The festival though doesn’t get a free ride.  There is a cost for furniture rentals and town facilities and the Festival pays the going rate.

Everyone is familiar with the economic impact of having tens of thousands of visitors in town for the weekend, but there is more.   The town has benefited from many capital improvements thanks to the Festival.

This year the festival is spending money on upgrading electrical facilities for the parking lot to the south of the Eddie Bush Arena and the arena itself.  The same was done several years ago to the Pine Street Parking lot. 

“One of the things we noticed at the end of last year was that the Pine Street Parking lot couldn’t hold the crowds that wanted to be in the licensed area,” says Dunbar “we had grown out of the spot. So, now we have moved that across the road and set up a new entertainment area for families in the Pine Street lot, and given more room to the “beer tent” area over in the Saint Marie Street lot.”

The money to pay for the upgrades comes out of the Festival budget, but the benefits are there for the town through out the year.  “It helps with other events, and helps draw other events when you can offer that kind of service” says Dunbar.

Fans of the shows in the Eddie Bush Arena will notice a change this year as well.  The Festival has bought a new removable floor to put over the ice surface.  “This will make it more comfortable for the fans,” says Dunbar “and again the floor will be available if a major conference needs the kind of floor space that a 200’ by 85’ ice surface can offer”

Dunbar says that ice users will appreciate the move as well as the new floor will minimize the effect on the ice surface that remains under the surface during the festival. Hockey and skating programs start up as soon as the rink is returned to normal.

The Mayor says quite simply that “This is a truly major event, in fact THE major event of the year.”  Mayor Carrier adds; “From arranging artists, to sponsors, to changing and improving individual events this board is very good at crossing and dotting the letters to make it work.”

Rosemarie O’Brien is the General Manager of the Festival and Dunbar points to her as being a core to the annual success.  “Along with keeping track of how plans are coming together for each year she also has that special touch needed for dealing with artists and entertainers.”

“Rosemarie knows how to handle these situations; she is great at making sure that everyone is heading in the same direction.”

“The reality is in order to have an Elvis Festival you have to have Elvis Tribute artists,” says Dunbar “and Rose is the person to make sure the interaction between the artists and the organizers goes as smoothly as possible.”

Dunbar says that sitting down and talking about putting the Festival together is a tough thing to do.  “There are so many people that deserve credit.  Some have been here a long time, some are new to our committees.”

“The one thing I am always afraid of doing is missing a thank you or two.” Dunbar continues “Everyone who works on this event is important; they are crucial and such a vital part of its success.   I know they are there, and I know we wouldn’t be here without them.”

Crunch time arrives quickly for the Festival.  After about forty board meetings through the year, and countless other meetings with sponsors, participants and other officials it all comes down to what happens the last weekend in July.

“This is when it really gets fun” says Dunbar.  “The whole weekend is an adrenaline rush.  The committee, the volunteers, and the employees all throw it into high gear”

Residents of the town can come and go through the weekend, and virtually any time they are at the Festival they will see Dunbar and his crew.  “It is an all hands on deck weekend,” says Dunbar “it is Elvis, sleep, Elvis, sleep.  Sometimes sleep is an optional item.”

“Maybe some year I can get someone from the media to do one of those “ride along” stories they sometimes do with Police.” Dunbar jokes, “It would give people an interesting perspective of what happens behind the scenes and what a fantastic effort I get to witness every year.”

“And while I am on the subject” he says, “Let’s not forget the great job the police and all the emergency services folks do over the weekend.  Their presences keep things in check, and the cooperation we receive from them is invaluable.”

Friday is always a good example of just how ready the organizers have to be.  It is an amazing sight to see.  As crews in the downtown are putting the final touches on the preparations that began the day before the fans start coming.  Rows and rows of lawn chairs start staking their claims to treasured spots near the main stage, often hours before the first performers are ready.

“This really pumps people up” Dunbar explains, “when the fans start arriving there is a special excitement in the air.  They want to see their favourite Tribute Artists, and they want to see what new Elvis treasures they can find from our vendors.  You can’t help but get excited about the whole weekend when the crowds start flowing in.”

This year the festival budget is in the neighbourhood of three quarters of a million dollars, just a few years ago it was a bit above three hundred thousand dollars. Festival records show that about a third of the budget is invested directly into the community making significant contributions to the economy even before you factor in the economic impact of the tens of thousands of visitors.

“We aren’t losing steam” says Dunbar, “Each year we work to get better.  Each year the fans come back because they experience the results of the work the committee does to make this a must see event. The budget keeps growing as we meet growing expectations.”

“When fans come to our town they see how welcome they are.  They can feel how much support there is from a community that opens its doors to tens of thousands of visitors.  The fans also know that the Tribute Artists love the event; they know that dozens and dozens of the best make it a point to be here.  We don’t just have one or two of the top names, what ever venue you visit you know there is an artist that is among the best at this craft.”

The old saying goes that “it ain’t bragging if you can do it”.  The Festival has a legacy of awards that are worth bragging.   Included in those honours is a place on the provinces “Top 50” festivals to see in Ontario.

“That label is important to us, and it is important to the town” points out Dunbar. “Being on that list means the province sees us as one of the reasons tourists come to Ontario.  People come to our festival, and many make it part of a longer vacation in this area and throughout Ontario.  It is one of the things that inspire the committee to new heights.”

Along with the “Top 50” ranking for the festival, area residents have named it their favorite festival in newspaper polls.  The festival has garnered acclaim for it’s promotions, its program, the internet site and even for community involvement.

“The recognition of the community support is a very big thing” says Dunbar. “That really shows that others recognize, like the committee does, that the people of this town help make the event a major success each year.”  He adds; “I can’t imagine where we would be if that support wasn’t there every year.”

Mayor Chris Carrier weighs in on the success of the event.  “It is quite simple; there are many niche events out there.  But our festival is different.  The committee, the volunteers and the town itself makes this an event that crosses all boundaries.”

As you make your way through Collingwood during the Elvis Festival you will see smiles, you will see over 133 of the best Tribute artists, you will see fans who revel in the memory of the man they rate as the greatest performer ever.

You will see Peter Dunbar, you will see his “crew”, you will see an event that makes Collingwood a place they will always remember.

What you won’t see is that while you are enjoying this Elvis Festival, there are people are already working on making sure you enjoy it again next year.

Please visit the Collingwood Elvis Festival website.

Written by: Dale West



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