Sponsors stick with Tulip Festival as major events experiment with virtual editions

Tulip festival
The Canadian Tulip Festival typically draws more than 600,000 visitors. Photo by Janna Glenn

Moving its entire slate of events online doesn’t appear to have stunted the Canadian Tulip Festival’s growth when it comes to sponsorship revenues – an encouraging sign for the beleaguered industry that’s increasingly looking to virtual events amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Festival organizers said Monday the popular annual spring celebration ​– which was forced to abandon its usual offerings such as music concerts and other public events after mass gatherings were banned to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus – is on track to surpass last year’s total sponsorship revenues of $61,000.

“It is a bit of a surprise,” conceded Canadian Tulip Festival president and chairman Grant Hooker. “On the other hand, it just demonstrates that corporations, businesses know that the tulip festival serves the economy while at the same time serving the community and they know that we are going to need to survive in order to maintain the tulip festival tradition and also to have tourism products when we are recovered.”

Instead of outdoor events, the festival is showing a series of music videos, photo exhibitions and articles on its website and social media channels that commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands during the Second World War. The online programs began May 8 and run until May 18.

As of Monday, the festival had raised about $45,000 from corporate sponsors, including prominent names such as CIBC, Hilton and KLM. Lois Graveline, the festival’s fundraising and sponsorship manager, said she is “optimistic that further cash sponsorship support will be confirmed over the next few weeks” that will push the total past last year’s figures.

Graveline said the festival has good “brand strength” across Canada, often being identified as one of the top events visitors associate with the nation’s capital.

“From that perspective, it’s a pretty attractive product to offer sponsors,” she said. “They have stuck with us, which is nice to see.”

The event has also landed more than $375,000 in federal and provincial grants, up from last year’s total of about $255,000.

Typically, more than 600,000 visitors flock to check out tulip beds and take part in events at Commissioners Park and other locales during the festival’s 10-day run. Graveline said moving online likely meant the festival missed out on other potential sponsorship opportunities that normally come with having that kind of captive audience. 

“The opportunity to engage (companies) as sponsors would have been a lot more viable had the festival gone on the way we had hoped,” she said.

Organizers have launched an extensive online, radio and TV advertising campaign worth about $300,000, most of it paid for through in-kind contributions from media partners and about 20 per cent of it targeted at visitors from the Netherlands. 

In the first three days, the festival drew a total of 29,000 unique visitors to its website, which received 66,000 views. In addition, its Facebook page had drawn about 6,400 views, while videos on the festival’s YouTube channel had been seen more than 3,300 times.

“So far, we’re quite impressed,” Graveline said, adding the festival managed to find a way to continue despite the lockdown in a way many of its counterparts across Canada couldn’t.

“There’s been a number of major events that have been cancelled. At the end of the day, we may not see the numbers that we had hoped for, but we’re keeping it going.”

The Canadian Tulip Festival isn’t the only annual outdoor event that’s chosen to go virtual this year as the tourism industry struggles to deal with COVID-19 restrictions.

Capital Pride organizers said Monday the annual celebration of the city’s 2SLGBTQ+ community scheduled for Aug. 21-30 is also moving online.

In a statement, the festival said events such as the official flag-raising, Capital Pride pageant and the parade will be delivered in “new and innovative ways.” Organizers said more details will be provided in the coming weeks.