West End businesses ready for Honda Celebration of Light's return

Annual fireworks festival generates an estimated $170m in economic activity

paul runnals
Honda Celebration of Light director Paul Runnals is busy lining up sponsors for this year’s fireworks festival | Rob Kruyt

When the Honda Celebration of Light returns to Vancouver after a two-year absence, and fireworks explode above English Bay for three nights in late July, it will signify for many that life is returning to pre-pandemic norms.

Before the arrival of COVID-19, festival director Paul Runnals told BIV, his event generated about $170 million in annual economic activity. 

“This event is a massive driver that helps support hospitality and tourism,” he said.

Three competing countries are set to be unveiled in late April, with each providing choreographed pyrotechnics in individual shows on July 23, 27 and 30.

Runnals’ non-profit Vancouver Fireworks Festival Society finances the three countries’ fireworks budget at a limit of $70,000 each. 

In past years, crowds at the festival, which is centred around English Bay, have been estimated at 1.4 million. 

West End Business Improvement Association executive director Teri Smith told BIV that the festival generates welcome revenue for restaurants and other area businesses.

“At Cactus Club, or Craft Beer Market or Hook – those are some of the businesses where you’ve got a prime spot for viewing.”

Sylvia Hotel general manager Gaetan Bottier told BIV that his hotel has to spend extra money on security on fireworks nights. But he said those costs are more than offset by the hotel’s restaurant and bar being filled to capacity all night.

Runnals said his organization plans to have several ticketed events. 

The area above the English Bay Bathhouse, where the public washrooms are, will be cordoned off for up to 500 people paying around $149 each, or $199 for a reserved spot. Prices have yet to be determined, Runnals said. 

Pre-pandemic, that event – then known as the Keg Lounge – included some free drink tickets as well as food. The Keg Steakhouse & Bar is no longer a sponsor, and Runnals said he does not yet know if a new sponsor will step in at the event.

Concord Pacific is returning as a sponsor for a dinner event on the grassy area near the Inukshuk monument.

Runnals estimated that the area can accommodate up to 350 people. Pre-pandemic prices were $149 for early birds, $179 for regular tickets and $209 for a reserved prime seat. This year’s ticket prices are likely to be similar, he said. The most popular ticketed viewing option being organized by the festival society is the 1,800-seat bleacher area on the grassy hill south of the English Bay Bathhouse. 

At $50 per ticket, it was the most affordable ticketed option pre-pandemic, and that cost is likely to be similar this year. 

Runnals estimated that his budget this year is more than $2.1 million. That is after the City of Vancouver picks up that tab for hundreds of thousands of dollars in policing and sanitation costs, which are the festival’s biggest expenses.

The fireworks society pays for barge-related expenses, the fireworks and security and hospitality costs for its own events. 

Revenue to pay for those comes largely from the corporate sponsors.

Runnals would not say how much automaker Honda (TYO:7267) is contributing as title sponsor for the event, but he said that it is more than the $250,000 that the provincial government is giving the festival from its Fairs, Festivals and Events Recovery Fund. 

Runnals said that fund has been a saviour in helping the festival stay active. 

“When everything shut down as abruptly as it did, we were three-quarters of the way through planning the 2020 event,” he said. “We incurred significant costs related to that, and suddenly we had no revenue. So that grant has been instrumental for us.”

To become a major festival sponsor, such as Concord Pacific, Stingray Z95.3 and Scotiabank (TSX:BNS) the cost is at least $100,000, Runnals said. 

Each sponsorship deal has distinct elements, but sponsors gain community respect and brand recognition for supporting the summer spectacle. Some may also pitch tents around English Bay with kiosks to publicize their products or to sell items. 

Other sponsors provide in-kind donations. 

Seaspan helps subsidize the cost of the barge. Vancouver Pile Driving and Tymac Launch Service help drive piles to keep the barge in place and manage marine operations to ensure a safe water perimeter. 

A&B Partytime Rentals offers discounts on furniture and kitchen equipment while Modu-Loc provides discounts on fencing needs. Other in-kind sponsors include Pit Stop Portables, ATCO Structures and BigSteelBox.

“It’s not always about cash that we get from sponsors,” Runnals said. “It’s also about offsetting costs, providing discounts and value from in-kind services that we get.”

In past years, Air Canada (TSX:AC) has provided discounted fares for the pyrotechnic teams, but Runnals said no airline sponsorship has yet been signed.

“That sponsorship has not been determined,” he said. “They’ve had a very difficult couple of years.” •

gkorstrom@biv.com

@GlenKorstrom