Fasten your seat belts, this is going to be a summer unlike any you’ve seen before.
Organizers of Osoyoos’ and Oliver’s much-loved summer events, along with new additions, are busy planning and organizing, keenly aware of the thinly veiled excitement that promises a very busy tourist season this year.
With British Columbians reaping the rewards for their conscientiousness in reaching high vaccination rates with the rollback of virtually all COVID restrictions, pent-up demand is likely to set record attendance levels at many of the events that have been on pandemic hiatus, say event organizers, business and tourist-related executives.
Two major events – the Osoyoos Easter Extravaganza and the Half Corked Marathon 2021 weekend – are now under organizers’ belts and foretell of a busy summer given their larger than expected attendance numbers at these shoulder-season events.
“I think people really have an appetite to get out and do things and get together and connect,” says Jennifer Busmann, executive director at the Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association (OOWA).
Busmann made the comment fresh from the successful conclusion of the 2021 Half Corked Marathon weekend, an organizing experience that typifies the on-again, off-again trials and tribulations that many organizations experienced trying to get events off the ground over the last two pandemic years.
Perhaps still a bit ‘gun-shy’ about potential changes Busmann notes that there are many external factors that communities in this region are challenged with, whether it’s weather events or wildfires, etc.
She is unequivocal on one point, however: “I think this year is the year that will set new benchmarks and we’ll just have to roll through it and see what happens.”
And when it comes to benchmarks one need look no further than Osoyoos’ July 1 Cherry Fiesta near and dear to hearts far and wide. This will surely be a record-setting event this year. Take pent-up demand, an event with significant pedigree and a start date that falls on the Friday of a long weekend fronted by Canada Day and backed on Monday by the US July 4 celebration and you have a recipe for one massive celebration.
Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff is anticipating larger than normal crowds, fueled even further by the fact that it’s the 25th anniversary of Frank Zandvliet’s famous fireworks show. Already widely acknowledged as the largest Canada Day fireworks outside of Ottawa two years of waiting in the wings has seen even more money going into the display than normal.
“I just hope that people will be considerate of our town, our facilities and our residents,” McKortoff says on a practical note, adding that she hopes people will be “safe and sensible”.
Ken Baker, president of the Osoyoos Festival Society is clear about it saying this year’s Cherry Fiesta will be “the biggest one ever!” Ken’s partner, Shirley Baker agrees saying they are expecting a “huge crowd,” adding that organizing is well underway with all the musical acts confirmed.
“Everything is going to be back like 2019 and we’re going to have a full suite of bands at the Gyro Park Bandshell with entertainment all day. We’re going to have the cherry pie eating and the cherry pit spitting competitions, the whole bit,” she says.
The parade is also set to return, starting at 11 a.m. on Main Street and Shirley is hoping for of entries, noting that there were 70 entries in 2019. Gyro Park will also see food and handicraft vendors as well as the beer garden put on by the Elks Club.
She also notes that the past president of the Festival Society, Lynn Motkoski is the chairperson this year.
Janis St Louis, who doubles up as a key driver on both the Osoyoos Farmers’ Market (formerly known as the Market on Main) and Music in the Park is also anticipating larger than normal crowds this summer and in fact, the market event is expanding with Tuesday evenings at Gyro Park in addition to the usual Saturday’s next to Town Hall.
Music in the park will kick off on June 24 and because July 1 will feature Cherry Fiesta programming, the concert will shift to Saturday July 2, meaning even more entertainment on the long weekend.
And this year the piano in the park at Gyro will be located next to the concession stand, which anyone can play. A volunteer carpenter has built a case that can conveniently be rolled over it, to protect it from misuse and abuse. The piano, decorated by a local artist, will be in place by mid-June according to St Louis.
Oliver ramps up
Meanwhile, over at the District Wine Village, general sales manager Darcel Giesbrecht is understandably upbeat about the coming summer given that the unique wine hub is not even a year old.
“It’s looking pretty exciting. We anticipate it being a very busy summer this year and it’s already starting to look like that. We are a pretty new facility anyway and last year we were still under construction so this year being a full year and the construction will be done by end-June and everything open we’ll see probably a lot of people coming out because. . . it’s done!”
The Village is not pulling any punches with a full slate of major music acts throughout the summer including 54-40, Aaron Pritchett, Kim Mitchel and Emerson Drive. The farmers’ market will continue with 15-20 vendors from Penticton down to Keremeos and a regular art show will kick off on May 15 featuring artists curated by the Penticton Art Gallery.
The highlights she says will be the big concerts, “we’re pretty excited we can have them now but even just the free live music because that adds such a really cool vibe to the Village. When you’re sitting there in the plaza and having a glass of wine, it kind of creates a really fun place to be.”
Another key organizer of events is Carol Sheridan, manager at Oliver Parks and Recreation. She’s in full agreement with the expectations of crowds this summer with so many events returning.
“People are just so happy to be out and be able to participate,” Sheridan said. “Every region has its own priority and here in the Okanagan, it’s special events. Oliver especially prides itself on its events and I would say the community feels a sense of normalcy because we’re returning to what we do best and that’s bringing our community together in these really fun ways.”
This includes the long-running Oliver Roots and Fruits Expo is returning after a two-year hiatus and Sheridan also points to the return of the Big League Experience Baseball Camp which has been a summer staple for over 40 years. The annual multi-day Dynamic Race Events triathlon will also return on June 4 and of course the 2022 Half Corked Marathon in September and the Festival of the Grape, amongst others.
Indigenous showcase returns
At Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, general manager Jenna Bower says there is much excitement not only about the sense of a busier summer but just simply opening up the centre after two years.
“We’ve been getting a lot of calls and inquiries for the summer so it seems like there’s gonna be lots of travellers coming which is nice,” she says. While the regular programming will continue the Centre is doing one special event to commemorate National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21.
Although still in the planning stages Bower says it will include a market for local indigenous artists to sell their artwork, singing and dancing as well as guided walks. Taking a cautious approach, Bower says they will see how that event goes and then work from there. Much depends on how many young people they can hire this summer.
Hotels and businesses on the up
A key bellwether of how busy it’s going to be is hotel occupancy. “It’s going to be a very busy summer here in the South Okanogan. Right now we’re almost completely sold out for July and the first three weeks of August are filling up fast,” said Daniel Bibby, general manager of Spirit Ridge Resort.
Bibby also notes that the conference business is also rapidly rebounding, “so that’s helping in June and September of this year and even into mid-October. “They are maybe not as large of groups as previous years but there’s more of them so a lot of midsize 50 to 100 people groups.”
He’s not particularly surprised at the recovery, but that is in a large part due to the fact the resort has stayed in constant touch with its customers. “We’ve definitely been working on talking to our customers to make sure we were ready for when things returned so that’s been really great, we’ve had really good relationships and been able to talk things through over the past two years.”
As for staffing, Bibby says the resort never stopped recruiting since last year. “We were anticipating some pent-up demand and a return to a busy summer so we’ve been recruiting all the way through. So I think we’re a bit further ahead than most but of course staffing is always there but there’s a shortage of housing in the South Okanogan and to be able to have enough employees you need the housing too, so we’re constantly working on strategies to make that work together.”
Staffing is an issue for many businesses however, as Denise Blashko executive director of the South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce noted, “we’ve definitely been hearing from our members that businesses have been preparing and hoping to find staff and everyone is excited for a busy, busy summer and I’m certainly hoping they’ve got all the staff in place so that they can provide great customer service and give a good experience to visitors.”
She also said many businesses are waiting for high school students to finish classes and for university students to return and hopefully take up employment locally.
The main pressure in terms of labour shortages is on the larger hotels and restaurants notes Kelley Glazer, executive director of Destination Osoyoos.
“Luckily most of our retailers are fairly small operations where they are owner-operated with one or two staff so hopefully, they won’t be as impacted but you will definitely see a change in the hotels and restaurants. That’s always been the biggest area of need in terms of employment anywhere finding experience food and beverage people,” she said.
The labour shortage will “impact our ability to deliver a premier experience certainly there’s no question,” she said. “Our hotels and our restaurants will not be able to operate the hours that the public will expect because they will not have the staff so they’ll be shortened hours I suspect in some places and less services and amenities available in others.”
Glazer adds that organic growth has been continuing with “a lot more people travelling from up and down the valley midweek and they can’t get in June, July or August then they’re going to come in May or they’re going to come in October because September is usually quite busy as well.
It’s just busier all around she says pointing to the fact “it’s really a supply and demand issue which is causing the expansion of our season”.