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‘We cannot wait for people to come’: local BIAs cheer return of in-person festivals and events | Ottawa Business Journal


With the first official day of summer around the corner, neighbourhoods across the city are coming to life, preparing for what residents and businesses hope marks a return to ‘‘normal”. 

For Ottawa’s central business improvement areas, the warm weather signals the highly anticipated return to in-person festivals and events that allow them to showcase and celebrate all that their local communities have to offer. 

“Collectively as downtown BIAs, we all agree that creating a sense of life and energy in the core is what we owe our businesses and our neighbours to get people excited again about the idea of being in public spaces together,” said Dennis Van Staalduinen, executive director of the Wellington West BIA.

OBJ reached out to some of Ottawa’s BIAs to find out what impact the return of in-person festivals and events for the first time in more than two years is having, or going to have, on their local member businesses and communities.

Wellington West BIA – WelliWow –  May – July 2022

Representing the interests of the eclectic Hintonburg and Wellington Village business communities, the Wellington West BIA has partnered with Ottawa-based community arts organization MASC to unveil a new kind of event experience that celebrates the intersection of culture, creativity and diversity this neighbourhood community is already known for.

The WelliWOW 2022 Performance Arts series will see outdoor arts and performance events popping up all around the Wellington West community, the plan being to animate local parks and public spaces and introduce a diverse range of artists and art forms.

The BIA hopes the free series will attract area residents, as well as encourage Ottawa-area or visiting art-lovers to stop by and see all that Wellington West has to offer.

“We are very intentional, trying to be as open and multicultural and as diverse an area as is humanly possible, because we believe that creativity, prosperity and great communities are built on diversity, with people meeting people who aren’t like them and then forming surprising partnerships and projects,” said Van Staalduinen.

Preston Street BIA – Italian Week Ottawa – June 9-19

The marquee event in the city’s Italian community social calendar, Italian Week Ottawa is Little Italy’s 10-day open invitation to come and celebrate all things Italian. Returning to the streets from June 9-19, Italian Week offers something for people of all ages. Visitors can enjoy live music, local artists, shopping and, of course, great food. 

Lindsay Childerhose, executive director of the Preston Street BIA, said members are incredibly optimistic and excited about the return of in-person events.

“The Italian Festival represents such an important opportunity to celebrate and to be on the street together. Celebration within the community is such a big part of the Italian culture, the spirit of ‘la vida bella,’” Childerhose said. 

“There has been a huge transformation in our neighbourhood, and many street improvements have been made to enhance the visitor experience. We cannot wait for people to come and see for themselves, to remind them that we are here, and to encourage them to shop and support local.”

Bank Street BIA – The Best of Times – June 18-19

Kicking off its summer festival season with a shake, rattle and roll, the Bank Street BIA is collaborating with Optimal Show Experience to offer a unique ticket-free event called The Best of Times. The event on June 18 and 19 will feature themed decorations, activities, sights and sounds from the ’50s to the ’90s, giving attendees a chance to step back in time. 

Whether folks are strapping on roller skates and going for a spin or just taking in the atmosphere, the main theme is fun and connection. Sabrina Lemay, the assistant director of the Bank Street BIA, stressed that while some of the BIA’s members are still getting their feet back under them and full recovery will take time, the return of live events has brought a feeling of excitement and optimism and is driving more foot traffic and tourism dollars to the area.

“When we did the Fire and Ice winter festival in February, we heard all our businesses say that they had an increase in sales,” Lemay explained. “We saw families in a different demographic on Bank Street than we’ve ever seen before, which goes to show the urgency to want get back out, and that connection that people have been missing that they want so badly.”

Sparks Street BIA – Ottawa Asian Fest – July 22-24

With Ottawa Ribfest done and dusted, the Sparks Street BIA is going full steam ahead on preparing for its next outdoor event, the Asian Night Market in July. According to Kevin McHale, the BIA’s executive director, the response to Ribfest from local foodies and BIA member businesses alike was fantastic.

“I heard from several restaurant owners that they had downtown business offices scheduling parties of 20 or 30 in a group to have their first staff events in person in years,” said McHale.

For the Sparks Street BIA, helping member businesses by getting foot traffic back in the area with events is critical to helping them recover not only from the economic effects of the pandemic, but also from the devastating impact of the trucker convoy occupation earlier this year. 

“We want residents to start thinking of us as their front yard, as a place where they come and hang out and relax and bring their friends here, a place to be proud of,” said McHale. “That’s a long term goal of ours, and we do that by creating a great space and great events.”

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Spiro president on the future of events: ‘don’t wait for change, embrace it’

Spiro president on the future of events: ‘don’t wait for change, embrace it’

“Change and evolution are the only constants today,” says Jeff Stelmach, global president of Spiro, part of the global event management company GES. “We’ve had to embrace change to make things work for clients instead of letting change happen to them.”

That’s why GES has unveiled its new brand experience agency, Spiro; to keep the company abreast of changes in event management and across evolving consumer demands. Following the pandemic, the events industry changed for good, with a renewed focus on creating omnichannel experiences – and that’s here to stay. Customers are increasingly seeking events and spaces that prioritize connection and provide flexibility.

“We’ve evolved in the way we view experiences and how we create them,” adds Stelmach. “Spiro brings together our collective abilities, legacy of excellence, and global power to develop integrated solutions for our clients.”

GES realized pretty early on that life – and events in particular – wasn’t going to return to where it was pre-pandemic, so its Spiro offering allows marketers to hold events anywhere their audience is without having to compromise on networking opportunities, redefining what it means to come together.

Here, now, somewhere else or later?

Spiro was forged out of a need to change how events were traditionally run. Spiro sees in-person, virtual and hybrid events as equal opportunities for immersive, interactive storytelling and loyalty-building for brands with a capacity for conducting different sorts of events at scale globally.

The pandemic shifted the collective understanding of what constitutes an event, with more people opting to attend events digitally during the height of lockdown. Having greater flexibility and autonomy around how people attended events complimented growing interest in establishing a better work-life balance.

“Pre-pandemic, an event was a gathering of people with shared interests in a specific location, at a specific time,” says Stelmach. “Now, events and experiences exist beyond time and channels. We now meet, share, and learn across multiple mediums and spaces, because how people choose to engage with, show up for, and consume experiences has changed. An event or experience can be here, now, somewhere else, or later.”

The ‘new now’ reality

It’s important to create experiences that restore choice to event attendees and provide them with the option to consume content in a way that suits them at a time that’s convenient.

Stelmach adds: “Spiro is creating experiences that meet audiences where they are, with the global resources and structure to help industries and brands evolve into our ‘new now’ reality.”

Spiro is designed around a proprietary system that redefines how experiences are conceived, created, delivered, managed, monetized, and quantified. The process is known as community-centered experience design (CCXD), which maps out how economic, cultural, emotional, and behavioral shifts occur in event spaces across services. This provides brands with a clearer idea of what consumers want and how to cater to them.

Embracing all real life (ARL)

Spiro’s ability to tap into consumer needs and provide options that fit their criteria, while accepting their habits will inevitability change, is pioneering.

“Foremost is our concept of ‘there·ness,’ and how we design experiences that meet audiences where they are,” says Stelmach. “All of the new ways that empower us to attend events and experiences mean individuals can now decide what that means to them – which is relative to our individual preferences and choices.”

Prior to the pandemic, the possibility of pivoting to digital was a much-discussed conversation topic, but it wasn’t until consumers had to change their habits that interacting in this way became a possibility.

“We now effortlessly toggle between digital and physical spaces,” says Stelmach. “We live in a new space which we have to embrace. In the new now, we are together and remote; asynchronous and live. We call it all real life (ARL), where we can engage with experiences regardless of time, place, space, and medium.”

Adopting a medium and channel agonistic approach to events feeds into the current era of personalization and tailored experiences, but Spiro’s commitment to providing community through its CCXD allows for interactions to occur even after meetings are officially over.

Coming out stronger

The pandemic proved testing for the events industry – something Stelmach believes was one of the most impacted industries.

“Remote work, resource strain, financial belt tightening, and overwhelming uncertainty created stress and anxiety for everyone,” he says. “Those challenges were compounded by limiting our most effective coping mechanisms – in-person teamwork and co-worker support.”

Through regular feedback with his own employees during the pandemic, Stelmach realized the need for streamlining processes and considering individuals on both a professional and personal level.

Spiro was launched “as a strategy, to not only survive the pandemic, but to come out of it as a stronger world-class marketing solutions agency.”

Hybrid events are here to stay – but GES’s new Spiro offering recognizes the importance of evolving its propositions to continue meeting customers’ needs.

“We are not waiting for an ‘old normal’ to return or looking at hybrid event execution as an inconvenience,” says Stelmach. “It is a way to meet our clients and their customers where they are, by it offering a new set of monetization possibilities and approaches. This is the future.”

The future of meaningful connections

As technology continues to develop, Stelmach predicts so too will Spiro’s prowess, particularly in the way businesses can interact and connections can meet.

“Spiro will continue to change the way we engage,” says Stelmach. “What’s most important is to not lose sight of our purpose: people attend events and experiences, fundamentally, to join communities.”

Making meaningful connections at events plays a powerful and purposeful role. Event attendees seek to enjoy moments within event spaces and build their networks – something Spiro provides through its flexible and tailored offering.

Stelmach concludes: “We intend to create immersive moments so impactful that they expand into ongoing micro-experiences and robust contiguous communities.”