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Bluesfest drive image provided by Media Plus

The show goes on: Live events benefit from innovation and collaboration during COVID-19

When the pandemic forced Mark Monahan—Executive Director of Ottawa’s RBC Bluesfest—to cancel his massive annual outdoor music festival, he resolved that the show must go on. He shared his story to the over 300 event professionals and media who attended Re-Eventing Ourselves, an online session hosted by Ottawa Tourism.

The purpose of the live interactive webinar was to help event planners and organizers who were confronting unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19. Two of Ottawa’s industry leaders, including Monahan, shared how innovation and collaboration allowed them to overcome numerous obstacles.

With the cancellation of Bluesfest, which is one of the top outdoor music festivals in the world, Monahan started thinking outside the box. “We felt we owed it to our fans, our sponsors, and the artists to make live music happen during the summer of 2020,” said Monahan. “We’d seen other drive-in events starting to happen, so we decided a drive-in was the way to go.”

Mark reached out to a partner who was developing a site close to Lebreton Flats, the outdoor space where Bluesfest is held each July. The location could fit a stage and 440 vehicles. The partner agreed to allow the festival to use the site.

Bluesfest is renown for featuring top talent from around the world, spanning all music genres. The always-stellar lineup normally attracts hundreds of thousands people to the popular 10-day event each year. Since international acts were not allowed into Canada due to travel restrictions, the festival team focused their sights on top Canadian talent. “The industry was very receptive and artists wanted to be a part of it,” recounted Mark.

However, sponsors and artists deserved more than the limited audience that could fit into 440 cars. “So we started looking for a technology solution—some way to bring the live festival to fans beyond the actual drive-in site,” said Monahan. “We spoke to some partners and realized we couldn’t do it on our own.”

That’s when Bluesfest reached out to the live music team at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (NAC). The NAC had already teamed up with Facebook to livestream Canadian acts under the banner Canada Performs. “The NAC was very open to partnering with us, so the event then became Canada Performs at RBC Bluesfest Drive-In,” said Monahan. Bluesfest also worked closely with local public health officials to safely host those attending in person. Audience members were required to stay in their vehicles and listen to the music on their car sound systems.

Not only did the five nights of Canada Performs at RBC Bluesfest sell out, but the event’s livestream was viewed by over 2 million people.

“The experience was a game changer for us,” said Monahan. “The partnerships, the live streaming technology—it all came together so that in the end, we were able to create a new live experience unlike anything we’d done before. We had never livestreamed any of our festivals, but going forward, it’ll always be part of what we do. It gets the Bluesfest brand, the artists, and our sponsors in front of a much wider audience.”

In early September, Bluesfest organizers once again leveraged partnerships—this time with the NAC and Parks Canada—to stage its annual Chef’s Table series at the NAC’s restaurant. The event featured gourmet food and musicians performing on a floating stage on the Rideau Canal.

“Live events have been challenged to find new ways to adapt and continue pushing forward,” concluded Monahan. “We were determined to deliver live music to masses of people unable to gather, and through collaboration and innovation, we’re doing that.”

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