While I was disappointed to hear of the recent decision to cancel this year’s much ballyhooed New Year’s Eve celebration, I can’t say I was surprised. Major New Year’s Eve events have had a checkered history in Vancouver. While the early years of First Night were extremely successful, they eventually ran their course. However, as surprising as the decision to postpone this year’s event may be, what’s equally surprising is perhaps what’s not being said.
In 1999 after a number of years of absence, I brought First Night back to Vancouver in time to celebrate the year 2000. However, that occasion was an entirely different affair than any before. The world was gripped with Y2K fears and the then-Mayor of the City of Vancouver, Phillip Owen, proclaimed on major media that citizens were not to venture downtown unless you were travelling from point A to B. This no-fun rule was reinforced by Vancouver Police.
Fortunately for us, Vancouver is the penultimate time zone (save Hawaii) to mark the midnight hour and if you were anywhere near a TV set on January 31, 1999 you would have seen that the world didn’t implode. Major cities — Sydney, Tokyo, Paris, London, New York — were ringing in the New Year with celebration, revelry and fireworks. The Year 2000 was truly a time to welcome the new Millennium!
The City of Vancouver had planned nothing and we at First Night were the only major public celebration. Soon, Vancouverites arrived by the thousands to welcome the countdown to midnight and our event was not as ruinous as we had expected it to be. In fact, the January 1, 2000 front page of The Vancouver Sun owes its photo to First Night.
Vancouver has not had a major New Year’s Eve celebration in over a decade and we’re told that the public wants one. So what’s the problem?
If the current organizers of Vancouver’s New Year’s Eve celebration had asked me, I would have said that sponsorship would’ve been the biggest impediment. While a sponsorship shortfall of 100k should not be a showstopper, sponsorship of any kind for an event on December 31 is anathema to corporate thinking. Why would any company want to sponsor an event during the Christmas break? Or more specifically, why would any sponsorship manager want to work on New Year’s Eve or subject her employees to such a fate?
If a major New Year’s Eve event is to take root then it requires leaders in the community to make it a Vancouver tradition. Prominent individuals in the Vancouver community need to state publicly that they will be at the event, and then they need to show up. After all, it provides public confidence and a sense that perhaps this is the place to be on New Year’s Eve inspiring a new sense of behaviours.
So why can’t a high-powered group pull off a community event? Because likely the risk is borne by one organization or a few individuals, while consultants and event organizers are paid handsome fees with little or no risk. For an initiative like this to succeed, all parties have to be part of the risk-reward equation. Unlike the City of Toronto which has the wherewithal to produce and backstop their own events, this imbalance of power creates competing interests at a time when the spirit of community and volunteerism should be paramount.
Outdoor New Year’s Eve events in Vancouver are risky due to unpredictable weather. Snow or dry conditions are ideal but rain is a killer. This is Vancouver. ‘Nuff said.
So, if you build it, will they come? I think eventually. What the market wants and what it does are two different things. Vancouver needs a culture of celebration at New Year’s Eve that is able to permeate the population and instill new traditions. Years have passed without a major celebration and it could take a few years to get that spirit back. Starting with a small event would have been the right move which is why the decision of the New Year’s Eve organizers to not proceed with a small event is unfortunate. The other major variable is ‘free’. No event like this should be free as it could signal the event is not worth attending. Worse, it excludes the public from the risk-reward equation. If in fact, the public is crying out for a New Year’s Eve event, then they should pay for it by buying advance tickets. A $10 commitment is still a commitment and it’s a bit of insurance for the organizers if the ticket buyer decides not attend.
The organizers face an uphill battle but deserve kudos if they pull it off. I wish them much luck.
Sonny is creative director of Hamazaki Wong Marketing Group and managing director of Artspoints Rewards. He was executive producer of First Night Vancouver 2000.