By Tim Kalinowski
Alta Newspaper Group – Lethbridge
With the official cancellation of Whoop-Up days this summer due to provincial restrictions on large gatherings while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, it is likely other large gatherings and festivals will soon follow suit and be cancelled as well, predicts Trevor Lewington, CEO of Economic Development Lethbridge and co-chair of the Lethbridge Economic Recovery Task Force. This will aggravate the challenges already afflicting a beleaguered local tourism and hospitality industry, he says.
“At this point, it’s not just the festivals,” Lewington stated. “Most tourism in Lethbridge is actually people visiting family and friends; so people coming from other parts of Western Canada to visit their families in Lethbridge is a big driver of our tourism market. So if there are still gathering restrictions, and travel restrictions, or even the Chief Medical Officer of Health talked about discouraging people from travelling from province to province.”
“I think the tourism sector is going to see some of the biggest pain in this whole thing. And how you support them (as a municipality) is challenging. You can only buy so many hotel gift cards.”
Exhibition Park CEO Rudy Friesen says Whoop-Up Days creates about $5 million in economic spin-off revenue in the community, and usually includes employing a casual staff for the five-day event of about 250 people. And that is just what Exhibition Park employs, said Friesen, and does not take into account the festival staff brought in by partners like the midway operators or the rodeo.
“Given the situation we are in, and given the information that was shared by the provincial health officer Thursday afternoon, we certainly didn’t have too much choice in the decision we made,” he said. “It is very difficult to say we are not going to have our annual summer fair.”
Friesen says since the basis of Exhibition Park’s existence is bringing people together, and if gathering restrictions remain in place, then likely there will not be much activity at the park for the foreseeable future.
“We’re in the midst of serious considerations to layoffs to our full-time employees given the fact we will likely be fairly quiet here for the summer,” Friesen confirmed.
Friesen says they are working on a potential plan to open the farmers’ market with the right physical distancing and sanitizing protocols in place, and are in discussions with the Rocky Mountain Turf Club about the potential for horse racing this summer. The farmers’ market might be the easier of the two things to deliver, he admits.
“We’re talking with race officials on a regular basis,” Friesen confirmed. “Of course they have gathering and distancing issues as well they have to deal with just in preparation for the event here in the backstretch, and they are struggling with that. We are trying to work closely with Horse Racing Alberta to figure out exactly how that would look, and if we can make that happen.”
Both Lewington and Friesen admit we are in uncharted territory with COVID-19 and no one is sure how to deal with it in terms of Lethbridge’s hospitality and tourism landscape.
“Even if we do see some of those restrictions lifted in other areas, and other businesses will be able to open, the impact from the cancellation of large events and gatherings is going to bite,” said Lewington.
Friesen says to his knowledge the only other times the summer rodeo and fair have been cancelled in Exhibition Park’s 123-year history was during the world wars when the facility was commandeered for Canadian military purposes to support the war effort.
“Those are the only times I am aware that Whoop-Up Days has been cancelled,” he said. “So this cancellation does have that historical significance when you think that the only other times it has been cancelled is for those war efforts; that’s where we’re at in terms of historical significance of this COVID outbreak.”