What do hot sunny beaches, electro-funk music and pro-mountain bikers have in common? Ordinarily, not much, but somehow when they come together on Kelowna’s sunny shores this weekend, they’ll be part of a winning formula that is not only restoring Kelowna’s reputation as a fun city, but drawing plenty of tourist dollars in the process.
Welcome to Kelowna’s new beach festival: Centre of Gravity, the first festival to give wine tours and triathlons a run for their money in terms of cash-draw in years.
At 22,000 tickets sold, this weekend’s event promises a bevy of economic spinoffs for local business, including hotel bookings, restaurant meals, and shopping in the oft-beleaguered downtown core.
“Our online ticket company can track where tickets are being purchased and it’s right across Western Canada,” said organizer Scott Emslie, whose figures show only 30 to 40 per cent of the crowd will be from the Okanagan.
This is a first in the five-year history of the festival, which began as small, family-friendly and decidedly local event.
Its mastermind, Emslie, was once a pro-volleyball player who successfully turned an athletic build into a round of modelling gigs, posing for the cover of a Harlequin Romance novel and Men’s Health, according his talent agency’s online profile.
Centre of Gravity was another means to an end, created as a way to showcase his sport of choice at home before he went on to earn an MBA degree.
And when the gates opened on Wet Ape Production’s first event, Volleyfest, there was little to indicate the story would unfold any differently—another tale of local kid does good and leaves.
Volleyfest could not have launched in a more dubious climate.
The City Park competition was held the same year the ever-popular Wakefest celebration ground to a halt with city officials fearing a riot.
The Ontario-based company running Wakefest, IMG, had marketed its way to infamy, building up Okanagan Lake as the top summer party in the nation for 16- to 21-year-olds, while stretching local RCMP resources beyond all reasonable limits in the process.
As drunk teens careened around Tugboat Bay and Waterfront Park during Wakefest, Kelowna city council told IMG it simply could not return, even after the promoters offered up drastic changes intended to curb the commotion.
“I have to tell you, I felt sick at some of the things I saw,” then city councillor Carol Gran said at the time, noting she went home praying the young girls she saw stumbling around drunk made it home safely and were not raped or injured in the process.
Yet across the way in City Park, a small team of three or four people managed to achieve success with Volleyfest.
The area’s top beach volleyball star, Conrad Leinemann, even brought his 100-km-an-hour serve to the beach after an injury sidelined him from a Russian tournament.
“This is really great,” Leinemann told reporters. “I’ve always wanted to play a beach tournament here and have never had the opportunity.”
That was music to Emslie’s ears and within a few months he was looking to bring music to other’s ears, fashioning an event that echoed his favourite tour stops.
“I took the best elements of events that I personally really liked—but it was never really my intent to run a production company,” he said.
During the years he was doing a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Alberta, Emslie noticed the popularity of adrenalin sports was growing.
Merging this form of entertainment—motocross, mountain biking and wakeboarding—with the summer beach crowd he had experienced at volleyball tournaments, like Miami’s fashion and volleyball celebration, simply seemed like a good mix.
The idea to build a festival that focused on the entertainment, rather than a beach party, slowly took shape as Emslie’s organizing team added participatory events, like basketball, to keep the crowd engaged.
“The event was built for the Okanagan, and all the sports we feature are ones that Kelowna does well in,” said Emslie, listing a few names.
Steve Romaniuk’s success as a pro-mountain biker, Vernon’s Reagan Sieg in motocross and Kelowna’s Casey Groves, a well-known dirt-jumper and free-rider, became a critical draw, although the music end of the production would ultimately seal Wet Ape’s fate.
The production company is now big enough, and trusted enough, to bring in world-class DJs like Deadmau5 and Teisto when its not engaged in the Centre of Gravity planning, and employ a year-round staff.
And yet, ask Emslie what the secret to Wet Ape’s success is and the answer is a bit surprising.
While he doesn’t want to get into previous festival debacles too heavily—Wakefest, the Kelowna Regatta riots or the new music event currently floundering in Penticton—he’ll hint at the fact others’ failures may very well have sown the seeds for his success.
“We definitely had a lot of hoops to jump. The city always made sure we were taking care of our security plan,” said Emslie. “They were on us.”
He’s keenly aware the potential for problems is always on the horizon, but he said its actually easier to put on the show today for an audience of 22,000, having done the leg-work to develop strong relationships and tweak their security approach, than it was when there was only 4,000 in attendance.
Growing his organizing team to 15 strong, with a volunteer force of 300, Emslie said he was always conscious not to shape Centre of Gravity as a beach party in marketing campaigns and to target a wider demographic.
“If you’re 40 years old at the Centre of Gravity, you don’t feel out of place, whereas at Wakefest you would,” he noted.
The formula works. This year, tickets went so quickly half the advertising was pulled in the lead-up.
On the eve of the festival, Emslie said he is really only worrying about crowd control, keeping the numbers within reason and their reputation clean.
“There’s a community here, a subculture that feel a lot of pride in the festival,” he said. “We want to keep it that way.”
And for her part, Mayor Sharon Shepherd said she believes Wet Ape has the right approach to do so.
“They started quite small and the organizers worked very closely with city and police to ensure things went smoothly,” she said.
“…It’s just the whole approach of being family-oriented, and focused more on participation than something you go watch…It’s been very successful and, hopefully, will continue to be for many years to come.”
Calling it the hottest ticket in town this week, Shepherd said she believes many city hall staff have children heading to the event, and she’s pleased after-parties have already been organized so people will have a place to go when doors close.
She expects the organizers will likely be back to city hall in the weeks to come, asking what needs improvement, as is the company’s practice.
In the world of entertainment events, it’s about as successful as a relationship gets in a city known for its inability to deal with these things.