Among them is TD, involved with the festival for at least half its existence. It will mark its 10th anniversary as title sponsor in 2014, following the extension of an agreement that would otherwise have ended this year.
The long-standing sponsorship relationship could be considered somewhat unusual considering the challenges local events have faced in recent years. Take the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, which was left without a title sponsor for about two-and-a-half years after the departure of Nortel. It only this past February named Tim Hortons as title sponsor.
The Ottawa Race Weekend will as well cross the starting line this year as its first since 2004 without a title sponsor.
Catherine O’Grady, executive director of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, acknowledges that her event was fortunate to land a sponsor with strong financial success that’s also interested in jazz – in fact, TD adopted several other jazz festivals through its association with the Ottawa event, including, most recently, the high-profile Montreal International Jazz Festival.
However, she notes that the past few years haven’t been completely smooth sailing, even with the security of a major sponsor like TD.
“People who aren’t participating with us this year said, ‘Come back next year once the Olympics are over,’ because the Olympics really sucked the life out of most corporate sponsorships in the city,” she says.
The harmonized sales tax will also be a concern, as the jazz festival – which as a not-for-profit currently does not pay provincial sales tax – straddles the July 1 start date, creating a conundrum about how to fairly price passes.
Ms. O’Grady adds the jazz festival has felt some of the effects of the downturn, losing Primus as a sponsor in 2009 due to the telephone company’s difficulties in its U.S. operations. Hotels, which would normally provide in-kind support in the form of accommodations for musical performers, were forced to cut back on provisions due to a decline in travel spending.
The numbers speak for themselves, however, and according to them the jazz festival is a hit: It made a $100,000 profit on $2.8 million in revenues last year, Ms. O’Grady says. And although it lost Primus, the event added new supporters and saw increased contributions from existing sponsors this year.
The festival’s relative strength is reflected in other events across the city, says Ottawa Festivals executive director Barbara Stacey. Although there are currently no concrete statistics for local festivals and special events, she says she hasn’t seen any large-scale downsizing among her organization’s 51 members.
“Our members are run very well, they’re very good business models for success,” says Ms. Stacey.
She speculates that recent increases in support from all three levels of government may have played a role in helping local festivals attract and maintain corporate sponsors, since government funding typically equates to increased visibility and an indication that the event is viable.
But even without government funding and with no title sponsor, the Ottawa Race Weekend is an example of the health of the local festival industry.
Spots for the popular half-marathon race sold out in March, ahead of schedule and a month earlier than in 2009, and the 10-kilometre race, which still had spots available at the start of last year’s event, also sold out.
“It’s hard to say what level it would have reached if we didn’t have caps on the registration,” says Run Ottawa general manager Jim Robinson, adding that registration numbers are capped in September.
There’s no doubt that the loss of ING as a title sponsor last year was a blow to the race, says Mr. Robinson, but just as with any other business it simply led them to re-examine inefficiencies.
“Balancing the budget this year was an exercise that took a little more innovative ways and means, but … we’ve always managed our budget responsibly,” he says.
"The Olympics really sucked the life out of most corporate sponsorships in the city." - Catherine O'Grady, executive director, Ottawa International Jazz Festival
“As an organization, we always sit down at the beginning of our year in July and we looked at areas where we could reduce cost without eliminating anything that would affect the experience of the runner.”
The race’s operating budget has remained relatively the same this year at more than $2 million, and organizers continue to offer add-ons that make the race more attractive, including an elite athlete program that awards cash prizes to top runners.
Another solution to the title sponsor question is the retention of several smaller sponsors, although that can be a challenge when considering the “double-whammy” of the recession, says John Brooman. He’s the executive director of the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival and the new president of Ottawa Festivals.
“In 2009 there was definitely a dip; it wasn’t enormous in the end but we felt it for sure,” says Mr. Brooman. “In last year’s climate, you wouldn’t have phone calls answered … It’s a tremendous shift this year, but the shift would have existed even if we had had a title sponsor last year.”
On top of that, says the Race Weekend’s Mr. Robinson, sporting events tend to face a disadvantage to the arts in retaining government grants, which places more pressure on organizations such as Run Ottawa to find corporate sponsors.
“We’re a member of (Ottawa Festivals), and while we see a lot of money allocated to separate festivals, there seems to be a policy that excludes sporting events … (But) it’s more of an even playing field for corporate sponsorship.”
At any rate, the Dragon Boat Festival’s Mr. Brooman says, Ottawa’s larger festivals and special events ought to be able to ride out the remaining tremors of the downturn.
He adds it’s “absolutely typical” in the industry for any event that loses a title sponsor to find a replacement within about two years, and predicts that the visibility of an event such as the Race Weekend means it’s likely to find a main supporter “by next year if not this year.”
After that, he predicts a virtuous cycle much like what he’s seen with his own event. “With Tim Hortons on board, it’s given us a sense of legitimacy and a backbone – people recognize the name and now they’re calling us … There’s a sense of permanency and that we’re here for the long haul.”
A TALE OF THREE FESTIVALS
OTTAWA JAZZ FESTIVAL
Years running: 30
2010 operating budget: $3 million
Title sponsor: TD
Number of corporate sponsors (2010): 52
Approximate percentage of corporate sponsorship (including in-kind): 30%
OTTAWA DRAGON BOAT FESTIVAL
Years running: 17
2010 operating budget: $1.4 million
Title sponsor: Tim Hortons
Number of corporate sponsors (2010): 56
Approximate percentage of corporate sponsorship (including in-kind): 20%
OTTAWA RACE WEEKEND
Years running: 35
2010 operating budget: $2 million
Title sponsor: Currently none
Number of corporate sponsors (2010): 21
Approximate percentage of corporate sponsorship (including in-kind): 25%