PRINCE’S RANSOM: Some acts are priced out of the reach of small market venues in Canada, such as CN Centre. (Getty Images)

Dearth of Acts for Small Canadian markets

Time was, people in Prince George, British Columbia, depended on the Huble Homestead, where stern-wheel boats unloaded goods after navigating the Fraser River.

From there, it took a portage of seven or eight miles to Summit Lake.

“You cross over the Arctic divide,” said Glen Mikkelsen, who manages entertainment at the 6,000-seat CN Centre in Prince George. On one side of the divide, where the lake is, the waters flow into Arctic Ocean and on the other they make their way toward the Pacific. “It was an important transportation link until the railway arrived and roads were constructed,” he said.

Mikkelsen would know. He ran the Huble Homestead, about a 30-minute drive north from Prince George, for four years in the mid-1990’s, and took a position at the CN Centre in 2001.

Glen Mikkelsen

These days, Prince George finds itself isolated again, cut off from the touring acts that used to come through small market cities in northern Canada.

“Prince George is not alone,” Mikkelsen said. “We have similar issues of same-size markets in Canada like ours.”

He rattled off the cities: Kamloops, Grand Prairie, Lethbridge, Regina, Moose Jaw, Red Deer.

“It is very challenging right now to find events, acts, to come through markets our size, so we are facing issues,” he said. “Massive shows are hitting the road right now and filling up stadiums, but they’re also taking up production resources and staff resources, so a lot of tours that might think about coming through our cities are not.”

At last month’s Pollstar Live! Conference, one panelist confirmed that the numbers just don’t make sense in this era of rising costs and tight budgets.

“Another thing that’s happening is these huge shows are attracting ticket buyers from our cities to travel to Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, etc.,” Mikkelsen said. “It’s very common for people from Prince George to travel to Vancouver (a nine-hour drive) to see a big show and with the number of shows available now, people are making those choices to go to those events rather than stay local.”

Add one more woe to the list of challenges: the exchange rate on the U.S. dollar.

“When it’s around 1.4, these acts and the higher prices they are asking for right now are cost prohibitive,” Mikkelsen said. “Our ticket buyers have not adjusted to the price inflation in terms of what they are willing to pay for tickets. There was also a comment by a panelist at Pollstar, that the taxes that American acts have to go through in coming up to Canada — they may come, but they might be more apprehensive if there are other options they can pick.”

The COVID-19 shutdown has morphed into a state of isolation that is prompting venues in the region to get creative.

“To activate our venues, we are looking at creating different kinds of events that may be locally or regionally produced,” Mikkelsen said.

Acts on the CN Centre schedule include George Thorogood and the Destroyers in April, Blippi the Wonderful World Tour in May and Jimmy Carr in June.

The arena’s primary sports tenant, the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League, a major junior league, have also seen attendance declines that affected other league markets, Mikkelsen said. The team, which plays 34 regular-season home games, did see attendance increase this season. They also made the league playoffs, which begin Friday, and enjoy home-ice advantage for the first time since 2017.

To help generate additional revenue, for a few games the team runs a sponsored 50-50 jackpot with a guaranteed minimum payout of $30,000. The top prize to split this season was $145,000, Mikkelsen said.

The local arts council is doing a gourmet food festival at the arena in June and another promoter is organizing night markets to take place several times during the summer, when the sky remains light well into the evening at such a northern latitude, Mikkelsen said.

The arena remains an important driver of economic activity in the area.

“It is the regional hub for sports and entertainment in northern B.C.,” Mikkelsen said. “There’s a great venue in Dawson Creek but they don’t draw people from across the north like we can.”

Some people take a six-hour ferry ride from their home islands before driving another nine hours to get an event at the CN Centre, he said. “We are the closest place they can come to without having to fly to see major entertainment. With that, they support the hotels. We have a Costco. All those people coming to see the events we put on, their economic spillover is substantial to our city.”

Thorogood, who comes to town on April 30, is popular with the First Nations/indigenous population and a radio station, CNFR, that is First Nations-centric and has repeater stations throughout the small communities of northern British Columbia, is presenting sponsor for the show.

“In fact, they say that Thorogood is one of the top five artists that they play on their station,” Mikkelsen said. “We’re working with a regional station that covers this huge geographical area to help promote our show.”

Editor’s note: Mikkelsen has written three books on chuckwagon racing, including his most recent, “The Rangeland Derby: 100 Years of Chuckwagon Racing at the Calgary Stampede,” from Folklore Publishing.