Going, going, gone! How Ryan E. Watson became Ottawa’s leading charity auctioneer

HR professional works as emcee and auctioneer on the side, drawing from years of experience in hotel industry, cruise ships

Ryan E. Watson from Raising the Bid served as emcee and auctioneer at Ashbury College's A Blast from the Past held this past November. Photo by Caroline Phillips

By day, Ryan E. Watson holds down a regular job as a chief human resources officer, but by night, when the city comes alive, he’s a fast-talking, gavel-wielding charity auctioneer from Raising the Bid.

Since 2010, the 42-year-old married father of two has been running his side hustle, raising big bucks for non-profit organizations in Ottawa. With his enthusiasm and energy, he has the ability to really rev up an audience. He also knows how to read a room. 

They’re skills that have taken years to hone for the goateed emcee, storyteller and purveyor of experiences, starting back when he worked as a doorman at The Westin Ottawa. He was a 19-year-old student in the Hotel and Restaurant Management program at Algonquin College at the time.

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Such a hit was Watson in his fancy beefeater uniform that he was often the focus of photos with guests and passersby, back before smart phones were around. Occasionally, he’d get pictures sent to him in the mail, along with an accompanying note that sang his praises.

Ryan E. Watson from his days of working some 23 years ago as a hotel doorman at The Westin Ottawa. Photo submitted.

In Vancouver, where he next worked in the hotel industry, those photos and reviews were key to landing him a job on cruise ships. A recruiter for Royal Caribbean offered him the position of activity coordinator, partly because of the fun photos and reviews Watson shared with him from his hotel doorman days. “He knew right away, ‘This guy’s game,'” said Watson.

Out at sea, Watson was in charge of bingo, trivia, karaoke and line dancing. He led aqua fitness and got passengers grooving and contorting to the Village People’s YMCA disco hit.

One of his karaoke regulars was a distinguished-looking silver fox who worked on the ships as an auctioneer of fine art. “He’d come on Wednesdays and sing ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before’ by Julio Iglesias,” Watson recalled. “He was a bit of a player.”

The auctioneer was so impressed by Watson’s lively stage presence that he encouraged him to pursue fine art auctioneering. Watson had recently met his wife-to-be, Jillian, working on a cruise ship together. He was assured they could work as a team while earning more money. 

For six years, the couple travelled the world, selling million-dollar collections, duty free, on ships. They worked for U.S.-based Park West Gallery and became not only connoisseurs of the art scene but experts in fine art.

However, the sea was no place to start a family, Watson said of their decision to return to his hometown of Ottawa (he’s now a dad to daughters Lexie and Chloe). It was around this time that Watson was also successfully treated for testicular cancer. 

Watson returned to hospitality at Novotel Ottawa, Brookstreet and The Westin. He transitioned into human resources at Target Canada and, later, Parliament. Watson recently became chief human resources officer for the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. 

Despite his professional success in HR, his love for a good microphone and receptive audiences drew him back to the stage. 

“I love the engagement with the community,” said Watson “I love being able to get on the mic, to hear people laugh, and to watch them donate their money to the causes that we’re there to support.”

Watson’s return to auctioneering began in 2010 for a fundraiser featuring live polo matches at Wesley Clover Park. He hadn’t lost his touch, which was further proven during his crowd-pleasing performance at an industry event for the Ottawa chapter of MPI (Meeting Professionals International) at the Hilton Lac-Leamy.

In 2020, he was booked for 20 major events “but then COVID happened and everything went ‘kaputzy’,” he said. Business is picking up again, though.

Raising the Bid takes him to cities throughout North America to work as emcee and/or auctioneer. “Have gavel, will travel,” jokes Watson, who doesn’t do private sales. “No estate sales, cows or car auctions.”

Watson partners with numerous local organizations, from hospital foundations to private schools to charities that help the homeless, children from low-income families and people with disabilities. He hosts the Mike McCann Charity Golf Tournament organized by CLV Group/InterRent REIT. It raises more than $1 million for numerous charities.

Watson will, as part of his services, help organizers strategize, procure spectacular auction items through his own connections, and determine in what order items should be sold and at what opening price.

He sets his fees based on the organization’s budget, sometimes donating a portion back to the charity that’s hired him. 

His three big rules to follow are: entertain, educate and engage his audience. People have to know exactly what they’re bidding on. “It’s so important to be clear and concise,” said Watson. Otherwise, he added, winning bidders may renege on deals afterward, claiming they didn’t know exactly what they were buying.

Ryan E. Watson from Raising the Bid served as emcee and auctioneer at Ashbury College’s A Blast from the Past held this past November. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Some of his tricks to boost the net proceeds include having popular items sell to multiple highest bidders (with prior approval of the donor, of course), and launching a cash appeal, also known as a “fund a need.” 

“I’m there to raise as much money as possible, so that organizations want me to come back every year,” Watson explained of his ultimate goal.

Watson has learned a few lessons along the way. One time, he sold a piece of art to a cruise ship passenger for $3,750. She had heard the amount of “thirty seven fifty” and believed she was buying it for $37.50. 

“She felt tricked,” said Watson, who felt so badly about the situation that he cancelled her sale. It was a smart move on his part. “By the end of the cruise, she ended up buying a crazy amount of more art.”

One of his favourite moments was when he led a live “fund a need” at a gala held in 2019 to renovate and expand the mental health unit at Queensway Carleton Hospital. He started off at a ridiculously high dollar amount but, once his cash appeal got down into the six-figure range, a man in the audience suddenly raised his hand to pledge $100,000. It was John Brulé of JD Brulé Equipment. “It was so unexpected,” said Watson, who remembers feeling awestruck by the generosity while the crowd rose to deliver a standing ovation. “After everyone settled down, I said half-joking (and not), ‘Anybody else?’ ” 

There were no further $100,000 pledges but the total nearly doubled with a swell of support and excitement from the room. People gave amounts of up to $25,000, bringing the “fund a need” total to $188,250. “It was magical”, said Watson. “I’m so very lucky to be present for these magnanimous moments and to be part of them.”

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