The restrictions brought on by COVID-19 have had no greater impact than on charities’ special events. With restrictions to gathering, eating, and entertainment, for many organizations holding these momentous events has been a significant challenge. A challenge that has event planners and hosts doing more than just a pivot, add a Highland Fling and a hootenanny.
One of Calgary’s stalwart events is Heritage Park’s Christmas in Alberta. Traditionally hosted at Gasoline Alley, one of the Park’s wonderful facilities, it includes a tasty meal prepared by the chefs of the Selkirk One of Heritage Park’s two major events (the other being the fall Shindig), the team felt that it was important to make this Christmas spectacular come to life.
Christmas in Alberta has a long and distinguished history. Dick and Lois Haskayne have had a lengthy relationship with Heritage Park. The event evolved from Dick Haskayne’s Christmas party. Over time the party grew – as all great parties do! It was time to move the event to a larger venue. As long-time supporters of Heritage Park, it was a natural fit. That move enabled the Haskayne’s to recognize other important values in their lives. Lois Haskayne is originally from Rosebud, Alberta and what a great way to help support another of their favourite charities, the Rosebud Theatre company, joining forces with Heritage Park.
We spoke with Sarah Hughes, CFRE – Director of Fund Development for Heritage Park Historical Village to get her insights from their Christmas in Alberta event that they crafted in three separate, but linked components.
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on Heritage Park. A tribute to Southern Alberta’s history, the Park with its great variety of attractions actually operates in 7 different sectors of industry. Meaning that different areas of the Park fall under different sets of COVID restrictions, adding more complexity to operating in these social distancing times. These changes and closures prompted the leadership team to re-examine the need for fundraising and the achievements accomplished.
Though the September Shindig had to be cancelled, the decision was made in June 2020 that the Christmas in Alberta event needed to go ahead, no matter what modifications were required.
To plan the event it was important that their event partners were on board with the initiative. Early on in the planning, Rosebud Theatre agreed to be part of the redesigned event. And most importantly, Dick and Lois Haskayne, the first people the Park leadership consulted, were agreeable to a new design and the effort to keep this holiday tradition alive.
The wonders of Gasoline Alley and the quaint western atmosphere of the Park pulls all the heart-strings with all of its Christmas decor. Having the Selkirk on site makes the elegant meal a highlight of this holiday celebration. The partnership with Rosebud Theatre provides the unique gift of music and merriment. This is a first-class event and it was important to maintain the integrity the event deserved.
The venue had to be large enough to accommodate the social distancing and other COVID protocols. Sensing the growing frustrations among Calgarians it was essential that guests would be assured that the event would go ahead, regardless of COVID restrictions. Early on, the leadership team had to be 100% committed to producing Christmas in Alberta, no matter what. And so the game was on.
In its original design – and we all know how event plans evolve over time – the plan was to have three options for the gala. The first option was the full on-site experience of dinner for 50 – 100 guests with socially distanced seating, and Rosebud entertainment, all following COVID safety protocols. Option two included dinner with curb-side pick-up from the Selkirk – prepared in such a way that guests were provided with re-heating instructions so that their dinner would be warm and wonderful as they joined the live stream entertainment. And to provide the greatest access – a third option of just live streaming the entertainment rounded out the event menu. From the get-go, it was agreed that the event would be recorded for live streaming. Thanks to good stewardship and their strong relationships, 95% of the previous sponsors and supporters returned in support of the event
Sounds like a well-thought out revival of a Christmas classic!
And then the second wave hit. The fall tsunami meant that the performers could not perform live in front of a dining audience, plus there would be a limited number of performers permitted for the live stream component.
The capacity in Gasoline Alley was reduced to 70 people with only their own family cohorts at each individual table.
Then, one week out from the event, the on-site dinner had to be cancelled. The show did go on! Dinners were converted to prepared meals ready for final home heating.
Dinners were delivered the afternoon of the event to all dinner guests and included a lovely table centrepiece to set the mood. The live stream performance ran from 7:00 to 8:00 pm. A video message from Dick and Lois Haskayne was inserted into the video performance to have the feel of a fireside chat. Heritage Park President & CEO, Lindsey Galloway and Rosebud Artistic Director, Morris Ertman, brought live-shot greetings from various displays throughout the holiday-decorated Gasoline Alley.
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “God bless Us, Every One!”
What were the outcomes of this major undertaking, and what were the lessons learned?
Number one, says Sarah Hughes, respect your donors, and the legacy of the event. Be honest in your communications with donors and sponsors. Heritage Park was successful in securing 95% of their sponsors, returning to their previous commitment level for the event.
Marketing played an important role. There was much more social media. With so many things changing so quickly, due to shifting COVID restrictions, it was important to keep in contact regularly with our supporters. The event was promoted in the weekly e-newsletter and emails were sent to all pass holders.
Know what you can (and cannot) promise. Don’t price gouge people. Be transparent. Be inventive!
One of the great lessons learned, was that a lot of people that had never attended previously were able to attend – and they loved it. Special events can be expensive for patrons. Beyond the cost of the ticket, there are the babysitters, the preplanning of time and travel. The easy access of the live streaming, combined with a well-designed meal made this event accessible to a whole new audience. The result … a success, and the opportunity to look at ways to market to a much wider audience in the future.
The performance was recorded and a week later released to the public as a way of giving back to the community.
And always, always have a Plan B! Know what your bare minimum is; anything you can add on later is a bonus.
Our thanks to Sarah Hughes and the Heritage Park team for their insights.
If you have feedback on your event, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’d like to learn more about the changing world of post-COVID special events, we invite you to join us on February 24th for our next luncheon program or visit our events page for other upcoming events