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A turn of events

How event attraction plays out in urban economic development

COVID has had a keynote presence at events throughout the province for the past three years. While the pandemic did a number on many industries in Manitoba and Canada, the event industry was one hit particularly hard as isolation orders forced the cancellation of in-person events.

“(COVID) obliterated event tourism and economic development in Manitoba. Events were cancelled or postponed, resulting in significant economic losses for local businesses, event organizers and the broader community,” says Stacy Wyatt, director of events for the University of Manitoba and president of Event Professionals of Manitoba. “While some events adapted to virtual or hybrid formats, these have often been less financially lucrative than in-person events, and the lack of physical attendance has reduced the positive spillover effects on local businesses.”

Even when in-person events were able to return, disrupted supply chains and labour shortages continue to plague the industry. Companies were left with a new, untrained workforce and higher staffing costs, not to mention price increases that have been felt everywhere.

The events world is still picking up the pieces over three years later. Those in the industry are coming to terms with the fact that things may never return to “normal” as the world and people have changed.

“We are still navigating what the new normal is,” says Jared McKenzie, director of marketing and ticketing for the Keystone Centre in Brandon. “There is no doubt that we are not seeing visitors at pre-pandemic levels. However, our clients have been eager to get back to business and that has been a huge step in jump-starting the events business here at the Keystone Centre. There is a sort of ‘making peace’ with the reality that people are going to ‘return to normal’ at their own pace, and we have to be okay with that. Our goal is to bring events to Brandon that make getting out to the Keystone Centre an easy decision.”

What exactly those events look like has now changed as attendees’ expectations have evolved and the priorities and values of both individuals and organizations have shifted post-COVID.

As we all learned during those dark days of the stay-at-home orders though, sometimes we must adapt, and events are no different. While virtual or hybrid events have become mainstream, event professionals continue to reinvent in-person events to broaden their appeal and make events more meaningful to get people away from their screens and back into venues.

“In the next five to ten years, events will continue to evolve and adapt with the biggest changes coming in tech,” says Wyatt. “The use of AI [artificial intelligence] and AR [augmented reality] will become a game changer as people begin to use these technologies in their events for everything from food service to communicating with event goers to elevating the overall event experience for attendees.”

Other shifts are a greater emphasis on sustainability and environmental responsibility over financial metrics, and a focus on remote work and digital transformation, says Wyatt.

“There is now a shift, for example, on lessening the vulnerability of events and building resilient, locally based supply chains less susceptible to global disruptions. If we have learned anything from this, we are, as an industry, entirely at the mercy of uncontrollable elements, and the race is on to address this and find ways to take back that control,” says Wyatt.

The province of Manitoba is doing its part with grants to foster the local event industry, as well as entice event planners beyond the province to look to us as a location of choice. Last year, the $100 million Arts, Culture and Sports in Community (ACSC) Fund was announced, as well as operating grants provided through the Community Festivals and Events program.

More recently announced, the Keystone Centre is receiving a sizable coffer of up to $7.9 million over the next five years to support a new multi-year sustainability plan in addition to $3 million for major renovations through the Arts, Culture and Sports in Community (ACSC) Fund.

“The Keystone Centre is going on 50 years old and for a facility this size that has historically been underfunded, you can imagine there is a long list of upgrades and general maintenance that needs to be undertaken just to remain operational every year,” says McKenzie, who described the pandemic as devastating and debilitating for the Centre. “Keeping the Keystone Centre operational produces the greatest impact for both the economy and the community. We are in a great position where we fulfill roles as both a hub for community events, and a destination centre for provincial and national events.”

As Wyatt says, events can be a catalyst for economic development, community growth and positive change. Something Manitobans could all use a little more of right now.


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