In This Moment peforms at Abbotsford Centre in Abbotsford, British Columbia. (Jamie Taylor)
Canada’s economy is booming, and the concert turnstiles are spinning in record fashion for many of the country’s venues regardless of geography or capacity.
“Hot!” “Extremely strong!” “Our overall calendar is booming!” Those are superlatives that venue executives used to describe a record-setting Canadian market that’s peaking like the snow-capped Rockies, and operators note a number of trends working in their favor that may result in even more records falling over the next 12 months.
Venues are booking longer stays or more consecutive shows to fill the dark days when anchor tenants are inactive, ticket prices have firmed up and help offset a sagging Canadian dollar, and artists are stepping up their games with more elaborate shows even in smaller venues.
Plus there are some unique marketing ploys paying dividends, and then there’s a new “green” initiative on the horizon with legal cannabis sales slated to begin nationwide on Oct. 17 (see related story).
Stay, Just a Little Bit Longer
Longer stays at venues large and small have helped boost box office and ease concerns over fewer booked days.
“We’ve seen more acts coming for a couple of nights, bigger acts including The National, P.J. Harvey, and they’ve all sold out,” at MTelus and the smaller Corona Theatre in Montreal, said Dan Glick, senior director of concerts and events for Evenko, which books for both venues.
Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, which changed its name from Air Canada Centre earlier this year, opened in 1999 but just notched its first seven-night run in late 2017, featuring Guns N’ Roses, Katy Perry and Janet Jackson, and capped off by Canadian alternative rockers Arcade Fire. The star power filled seats; Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment execs say it represented 10 percent of annual attendance in calendar ’17, raking in $9.4 million (Canadian).
And the venue continues adding more multinight runs. Tricia Silliphant, senior director of music and live events for MLSE, which owns and operates the venue, said, “It’s helpful to be in a strong market such as Toronto, which can support multiple show days. We do try and encourage multiple days versus going to secondary markets to avoid loading in and out.”
Justin Bieber was among the acts playing Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, Manitoba. (Courtesy Bell MTS Place)
That is not music to the ears of venue operators in the heartland such as Kevin Donnelly, senior vice president of venues and entertainment with True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns and operates Bell MTS Place and Burton Cummings Theatre in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
“We’re trying to buck against that trend and remind tours that the Great White North can be a great place to come and spend some quality time, not just Toronto and Vancouver, but across the country,” Donnelly said. Other cities “have strong economies, employment levels and great arenas and are really capable of hosting shows.”
Some 1,400 miles due west in British Columbia, the Abbotsford Centre is riding the suburban expansion outside of neighboring Vancouver, 45 miles to the northwest, to some strong runs of its own. The venue broke a record with an eight-show run by Cirque du Soleil that sold 25,000 tickets. The venue bookended that with Shinedown and a sold-out Steve Miller/Peter Frampton twin bill to pack in 35,000 people in 10 days.
Andrew Nash, general manager with Spectra Venue Management, which operates the Abbotsford Centre, says these block bookings are crucial as the 9-year-old venue works to establish itself with tours as a viable addition, or alternative, to Vancouver.
It’s also key since there hasn’t been a major tenant since the Calgary Flames’ minor league ice hockey team, the Heat, left in 2014 after five seasons.
“The ability to convince some acts to choose Abbotsford over staying downtown in Vancouver” helps book more dates, Nash said, adding that an influx of young professionals and their families fleeing Vancouver’s housing costs into the Fraser Valley helps support higher ticket prices for high-profile shows.
“Jerry Seinfeld made a stop here in December and broke our single attendance record for paid tickets and gross ticket sales — the average ticket price was CA$99 and it sold out in less than a day,” Nash said. He adds that Seinfeld beat the record set earlier in 2017 by the I Love the 90s Tour with Salt-N-Pepa and Vanilla Ice — “the suburban type of show.”
Fans at the 2,350 seat MTelus in Montreal paid top dollar and broke a gross box office record to see Sting in an intimate setting in March 2017. “It was one night and sold out instantly,” recalled Evenko’s Glick. “It was amazing, that caliber act playing so closely to everyone in the room.” Fans paid CA$127 for general admission and CA$162 for reserve balcony.
Weaker Canadian Currency = Higher Ticket Prices
Higher ticket prices have become a reality across Canada, and it’s not just because of inflation from an economic boom. The Canadian dollar has been sliding against the U.S. dollar (down nearly 10 percent over the past year) because of tensions over trade deals with the U.S. and as the greenback has firmed against most major world currencies.
Jacques Aubé, chief operating officer for Evenko and executive manager of MTelus and the Corona, called out the currency exchange as the biggest challenge for the industry. “It is more expensive for us to buy (American) shows when the Canadian dollar is lower,” he said.
That said, venue operators note that artists are stepping up their on-set games by offering more elaborate and interesting sets. Plus venues are offering more VIP offerings, all in a bid to enhance the live experience and help mitigate the higher entry fees.
“Tours coming through our doors are now more complex. Adaptability to meet those needs is important — 20 trucks coming to the backstage is the norm now” at Scotiabank Arena, said Melissa Bubb-Clark, head of music partnerships and live entertainment with the venue’s owner, MLSE.
This is true of smaller venues such as MTelus and the Corona Theatre as well, just on a smaller scale. “Touring bands are traveling with more sound and lights to enhance the production of the show,” said Evenko’s Glick. “The acts are investing in their shows. … Some of these acts will be touring with two trucks, which is a lot for these clubs.”
The VIP Treatment
Scotiabank Arena touts the Toronto market's strength as it seeks to book acts for multinight runs. (Courtesy Scotiabank Arena)
Venues are offering more exclusive and expensive experiences for fans, which also lifts revenue. Silliphant said Scotiabank Arena actively promotes the VIP treatment: “People are willing to pay (more) for a unique experience, and most artists are now monetizing to satisfy demand — early entry, exclusive merch, food and beverage, presales and access to better seats — but all of that is artist driven.”
Nash says Abbotsford uses its premium lounge for add-on experiences. “We’ll either do a dinner package with a chef, they come in an exclusive entrance, and typically get whatever the artist is eating that night,” he said, adding, “We can also make it a craft beer or whiskey lounge and bring in a partner, offering flights of beer or whiskey.”
A number of venue executives mentioned VIP ticketing as a perk that’s playing well in their markets. True North’s Donnelly said, “Variable pricing and platinum sales are changing the buying pattern of when people buy, not just how much they’ll pay. There’s always a ticket available for that show. … (Fans) may pay more money, but that’s the price of convenience.”
That refrain may become more familiar for venue operators who see evolving dynamic pricing extending record runs for Canadian venues.