Q & A with Victoria’s festivals leader: bringing vibrant activity to city streets

John Vickers is Executive Director of three international festivals in Victoria, BC, Canada: the Victoria International Chalk Art Festival, The Victoria International Buskers Festival, and the upcoming Victoria International Kite Festival in 2014. 

He is also the founder of two well-known community fundraisers — the Victoria Masquerade Ball and his annual display of Pumpkin Art which has delighted area residents each Halloween for much of the past sixteen years. 

We caught up with him after a busy summer season to talk about the role of festivals in urban placemaking.

Government St. in Victoria during the summer's International Buskers Festival

Government St. in Victoria during the summer’s International Buskers Festival

Q: In a few short years you have introduced and led a number of festivals in Greater Victoria. What got you started? Where drew you to festival management?

It’s kind of a strange story.  I discovered my current career somewhat by accident. After I began displaying lit, intricately carved pumpkins on my front yard as a neighbourhood fundraiser in Fairfield at Halloween back in the late nineties, audiences grew and it felt great to host an effort that brought so much joy to so many people while raising money for charity at the same time. 

The success of my Pumpkin Art as it later became known prompted me to begin a second community fundraiser being the Victoria Masquerade Ball in 2005.  Fortunately that event also grew into a successful fundraising initiative and although due to new festival obligations I am no longer involved with running the Masquerade, I take great pride in seeing it continue to make a real difference in our community, now as a major fundraiser for Our Place.

Eventually the day just came where I was finding so much joy in creating joy I decided I would jump into the festival organizing business full time.  

Q: What was your vision when you opted to enter the fray of presenting international festivals?

My vision was to bring three new international events to the city of Victoria.  I have always felt Victoria was lacking in fun, free-to-attend family oriented events and one just wouldn’t do.  For visitors downtown for example, give it a day or two and the core in my books is a pretty boring place.  There just isn’t much else going on much of the time.  It’s why in summer you’ll often see 80% of the entire Inner Harbour pedestrian population gathered around the busker pitch on the causeway across from the Fairmont Empress – it’s the only fun going on. 

I was walking by that location on the causeway one day on a dog walk and asked myself, “Why not take this local talent, sprinkle it with global talent and spread the fun out across our waterfront and downtown for an extended period?”

As a former chair of a citizens group trying to forward a pedestrian mall initiative onto Government Street I also saw the busker’s festival as an opportunity to bring a special event initiative to that street for an extended period of daily street closings.

Anyhow, in my previous corporate life I spent a lot of time in business development and my first assignment was to find an International Buskers Festival that was a real success which brought me back to Halifax where such a festival has been operating for over twenty years.  The visit to Nova Scotia gave me a better understanding of how to put a ten day international buskers festival together and thanks to some great community partners, the rest, as they say, is history.

Once the busker’s festival was up and running, for festival number two I discovered there was a world of international street painting festivals from a conversation one afternoon with our local Government Street chalk artist Ian Morris.

Following a little research, I flew down to the home of the largest international chalk festival in North America in Sarasota, Florida. It had grown to attract a quarter of a million people annually with an economic impact well beyond ten million dollars according to local business there. Like the visit to Halifax, visiting Sarasota gave me a better understanding of that operation and I was also able to garner international chalk artist contacts thanks to the gracious organizer there.  I flew back to Victoria and like the buskers festival I guess the rest is history as well. 

One thing I’ll add about chalk festivals is unlike the busker’s festival which opened with a full foot print across the city in its first year, the chalk festival structure takes three years to build before you are able to lay it out across town properly.  The 2014 edition of Victoria International Chalk Art Festival will be larger than years one and two combined.       

Lastly, for a third international festival effort I went back to where it all began.  My initial start with Pumpkin Art on my front lawn on Bushby Street near Clover Point grew as the result of the neighbourhood encouraging me to build my pumpkin show.  I use to leave home in the mornings to head to the office to discover people would leave pumpkins on my front door step hinting I should carve even more. 

I always thought it would be great to do something nice in return for the old neighborhood and with Clover Point being such a lovely location, I am looking forward to presenting the inaugural Victoria International Kite Festival on the upcoming May 31st weekend.  Fortunately there are a myriad of kite festivals in the US Pacific North West to draw from and with Victoria also being home to some world class professional flyers with lots of contacts, this one was reasonably easy to put together although I am busy trying to raise some dollars for it. 

Q: Is there a connection between festivals, which are short term transformations of city spaces, and longer-term more permanent changes? Do you have a vision for changing Greater Victoria streetscapes through the festival experience and what about impacts with retailers?

You want to believe it.  I explain to folks I go to work for downtown every day – although the city likes to remind me once and a while I don’t actually work for the municipality.  This past year I was able to close Government Street to through traffic for example almost a dozen times.  This coming year I am hoping to take over a portion of the Enterprise parking lot by [the popular dockside food outlet] Red Fish, Blue Fish for ten days. 

I don’t always get things right and sometimes you have to backup before you can go forward again because after all downtown Victoria is an economic zone.  I do feel these efforts provide a great opportunity for city officials, downtown business and more importantly the greater community to experience a new vision of what exactly space is.  Space can be staring people in the face and they don’t see what’s before them.  Stroll Government Street during the chalk festival and in my books, it is hard to look at the street in the exactly the same way again.

If I may add, it does frustrate me we don’t see enough municipal leadership willing to make things really happen in the core.  It’s almost like government is terrified at times they’ll get someone’s nose out of joint and you just don’t see a lot of initiatives to bring business and the community more closely together. 

Downtown needs to remain a community destination, something that we’re seeing less and less of as evidenced by the number of business failures in just the past couple of years.  If you were to look at downtown as its own mall with a giant roof over the core, there is much, much work to be done.  Increasing urban density is also key however to hang your hat on density alone will be one long slow walk through the park for many private enterprises and the community.  

Q: When people ask about the R-O-I on festivals, what do you say? On a purely financial level, can you quantify what returns a festival delivers to a community?

Where do I begin!  I recently did a follow-up report on just the Buskers Festival for example and present a couple of highlights:

  • Regional Economic Impact –  now estimated above 5 million dollars
  • The attraction of tens of thousands of pedestrians to our downtown core adding considerably more vibrancy
  • Making downtown a destination location for families from right across the region
  • Professional world class entertainment available free of charge to thousands of people regardless of economic background (not to mention a boost to mental health!)
  • The initiation of new uses for public space for community betterment.

Q: Festivals appear to be very volunteer – intensive. As a festival organizer, what are the keys to effective volunteer recruitment?

I may not actually be the best person to ask that question to.  Since the beginning of the Buskers Festival for example, I have participated in Camosun College’s human resources student co-op program where upcoming HR graduates do a summer placement with our non-profit society.  I can’t say enough about the program, three students in three years and the level of knowledge and skills they bring to the table is beyond anything I am capable of delivering myself. 

I do know we present the volunteer experience as an opportunity of having a lot of fun, to meet new people and make new friends, to learn better English (we have many ESL students), it’s an opportunity to meet world class performers via our stage manager positions, receive a letter of reference for a job well done and on it goes.  Enabling you to have fun in a volunteer position that is right for you I would say is our #1 priority when it comes to applicants.  In year three and for the first time, the Buskers Festival had more applications than positions.  We currently utilize around 175 people.

Q: In your experience, how many years does it take for an annual festival to gain traction and build sustainable momentum?

Particularly for free-to-attend events that don’t extend the benefit of gate revenue, at least three years and more like four.  You can’t apply for most grants for example until year two and even then you don’t average a high return in getting exactly what you had requested.  Same goes for sponsorships, you can’t expect to raise a lot of sponsor dollars in the early going if you are still building a minimum level of community traction. 

You have to be committed to the vision.  I have a plaque still kicking around from high school graduation that says “Don’t lose sight of the dream in the seeking of it”.   

I might add on the Buskers front, many folks are unaware that it takes someone working throughout the fall, winter and spring seasons to lay the course for the gathering of up to $200,000 of revenue.  If you were to include the value of in-kind contributions that also have to be rustled up, the Buskers budget is closer to $500,000 dollars.  In my case, people sometimes tend to think I wake up every June 1st and start working on a buskers festival which certainly isn’t the case.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge in launching and leading urban festivals?

For me, I would say getting people to take you seriously.  My Pumpkin Art and Masquerade Ball notoriety I think gave me a little added and much needed credibility when it came to wanting to commandeer lawns, parking lots and streets.  I would also state once again that “helping others get what they want so you get what you want” is a handy perspective to carry.  For example, thanks to the Hotel Association of Greater Victoria, 19 downtown hotels provided over 200 complimentary room nights to house buskers during the 2013 festival however in return they had thousands of room nights booked by festival spectators.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *