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Festival industry takes a hit in 2020-21

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COVID-19 has hit the festival industry – companies relying on festivals for their livelihoods – hard in the past 18 months.

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“It’s been difficult for the festival industry, the last two years have been very, very difficult,” said Gus Sakellis, owner of Ribs Royale BBQ, one of two rib vendors featured at last weekend’s Tillsonburg Ribfest.

When the province entered Stage 3 earlier this year, some rib festivals offered hybrids in the form of drive-through or walk-up events.

“Depending on the venue size you could have a certain number of people and vendors,” said Sakellis.

That helped rib vendor companies recover some losses, but it was nowhere near normal revenues.

“But we could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

“We are getting calls from different cities that want to sit down and talk about next year.”

The challenge now is that COVID-19 restrictions and protocols can change on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. No one knows what the pandemic will be like in seven or eight months months. At the same time a lot of festival and rib vendor planning needs to happen in the winter months.

Vendors and festival organizers are hoping ribests are ‘back in action’ next year, he said, and that the CNE is back to normal operations, as well as air shows and more.

“Three years without some sort of normalcy is going to be devastating.”

After conversations with MPs, vendors have been told it depends on vaccine status, which at this point is looking good. So unless there is a pandemic ‘curve ball,’ an unexpected variant unaffected by vaccines, they should be moving forward soon.

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“I just can’t see us not being able to have at least a reduced capacity (event) next year.”

Sadly some long-running festivals won’t recover from the pandemic shutdowns, he said, but in some cases that will open the door to other charities and organizations in those cities to replace them with new events, raising money for their communities.

“We we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” said Sakellis. “We’re praying for a somewhat normal year next year.

“Anything’s possible, everything’s on the table. We’re planning for the best and we have different models in mind already.”

The economic value of ribfests is significant, he said. Vendors are spending money on hotels, eating at restaurants, buying fuel, shopping for supplies, and most important, they draw people into the community.

“It’s a trickle down economic effect. It’s not just us selling ribs, there’s a byproduct from these festivals.”

The Sept. 24-26 Tillsonburg Takeout Ribfest was Rib Royale’s final festival of the season, in one of the smallest communities to host a professional ribfest (Amherstburg’s urban population is close).

“It’s amazing,” said Sakellis, enjoying his weekend in Tillsonburg.

“First of all, no matter how big or small the city is, being able to operate and seeing the smile on people’s faces, that’s why we do this. No matter how big or small the charity that is involved – in this case the Tillsonburg Thunder – it makes people better. And to be honest I like the small-town feel better than the big towns, the big cities. I’m not saying people in big cities aren’t friendly, but everyone’s more one-on-one here, everybody knows each other, people are in line with their neighbours, maybe people they haven’t seen since high school.

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“We get to know so many customers who come back year after year. In the big cities it’s all hustle and bustle. Here it’s nice because you can serve everybody on a one-on-one basis.”

There’s also a nostalgia that has developed over the years.

“It wouldn’t work if it was multiple times a year. It’s more a destination buy and that’s the beauty of coming in once a year. We love the support Tillsonburg shows for their Tillsonburg Thunder. It helps keep the team going – and every donation counts. A loonie, toonie, five, and you don’t have to if you don’t want to. And you only pay for what you purchase, taxes included, so no surprises. We pay a fee to be here and at the end of the day that money goes to the local hockey team.”

Offering their first ‘takeout style’ Ribfest in Tillsonburg last year was appreciated by vendors, customers and the Thunder.

“I remember everybody saying ‘shut it down, shut it down, COVID, COVID. Next year, next year. We can wait. But the reality is, there is no next year for us if these events don’t happen. We don’t have the funding like the big industries the government has to bail out.

“It was frustrating, but it was also understandable why we couldn’t operate (normally). So we just have to keep treading water for another summer and hopefully we can get back to what we love – bringing southern barbecue up here to Canada.”

cabbott@postmedia.com

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