Despite his long-running success leading Ottawa’s summertime Dragon Boat Festival, CEO John Brooman concedes he was initially skeptical when he first considered adding a winter edition of the popular event.
Brooman had been invited to Budapest in 2016 for a first-hand view of competing teams using ice picks to propel boats outfitted with special skate-like blades, racing across a frozen surface.
While impressed with the sport, he nevertheless left Hungary unsure if the competition would attract a sufficient level of interest in Ottawa.
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But after discussions and pledges of support from the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa and organizations such as Winterlude, Celebrate Ontario, Ottawa Tourism, Canadian Heritage and the National Capital Commission, Brooman decided to take the leap and organize the first-ever ice dragon boat festival in North America.
In just three months, an event mirroring the popular summer festival sprang into place, more successful than Brooman could have imagined.
“The effort that went into it was extraordinary,” Brooman said of the event, which debuted over two days in February 2017 and saw around 25,000 attendees. The 60 team spots were booked in just ten minutes, and international coverage of the festival went viral, with coverage from The Rick Mercer Report, the New York Times, National Geographic and more.
Their success in creating a new major attraction was recently recognized by Ottawa Tourism, which named The Tim Hortons Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival as the industry’s new company of the year at its annual awards late last week.
The awards celebrate the organizations and people who have contributed to the success of Ottawa’s tourism industry.
With the inaugural edition proving so popular, organizers in 2018 increased the number of team spots to 100 – all of which were booked within eight minutes.
More than half of the participants came from outside Ottawa, according to Brooman, and the winter festival has also helped broaden the range of teams interested in the summer dragon boat races.
This summer will see an “unheard-of” number of teams from Europe and the Middle East, including Qatar, Italy and Iran, according to Brooman.
The festival celebrates the relationship between Ottawa and Beijing fostered by the summer dragon boat festival, which Brooman says enabled the organization and success of the winter festival.
“The entire event has been around this relationship,” he said.
The 2018 festival also enjoyed the addition of seven music acts, a lineup which Brooman hopes to expand for the 2019 festival.
“We look forward to developing that over time,” Brooman said, adding that years of developing the summer festival give the team plenty of ideas for the coming years.
For Brooman and his team, winning the New Company of the Year award from Ottawa Tourism was “the cherry on top” of an already overwhelming success with the Ice Dragon Boat Festival.
“It’s extraordinary,” he said. “We’re still pinching ourselves.”
Here’s the full list of Ottawa Tourism’s 2018 award recipients:
Social Media/Marketing Initiative of the Year: Polar Bears by Canadian Museum of Nature
Event of the Year (Annual): Music and Beyond
Event of the Year (One Time): Scotiabank NHL100 Classic Weekend by Ottawa Senators tied with 105th Grey Cup Festival by Ottawa Sports & Entertainment Group
Ottawa Tourism Scholarship: Kelly Johnson
Ottawa Tourism Travel Writing Award: Nathalie Katinakis and Margo Pfeiff
Ottawa Tourism Social Media Influencer Award: Southavy Pathammavong
2017 Star of the City: Sulin Quant Anastas
Don Blakslee Hotelier Award: Ross Meredith of Westin Ottawa
Outstanding Tourism Achievement Award: Ottawa 2017
Tourism Leader of the Year: Steve Ball of Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association