Center of Gravity Festival Brings Big Dough to Kelowna

Center of Gravity, Kelowna | BCBusiness
Thousands of attendees at the 2012 Center of Gravity festival in Kelowna, B.C.

Kelowna’s sixth-annual sports and music festival is expected to bring $6 million to the city this weekend

On Friday, August 2, 30,000 people head to Kelowna for the sixth-annual Center of Gravity festival, a celebration of sports and music that brought $5 million to the city’s economy last year, selling out 5,000 hotel rooms and breaking the sales records of many local bars and restaurants.

Kelowna local Scott Emslie and his company Wet Ape Productions have grown the festival from its roots as a beach volleyball tournament into an event that this year has attracted one of the biggest names in music—Dutch trance DJ Tiësto—and is expected to bring $6 million to the city. The event began with a few thousand people and one stage on the beach in 2007, and has expanded to add other sports such as basketball, skateboarding, wakeboarding, BMX and freestyle mountain biking, while also developing the entertainment side of the festival.

“From our perspective it’s a great example of how to grow an event effectively,” says Don Backmeyer, the sports and events development manager at the City of Kelowna. He helped to secure the original festival during his time on the Outdoor Committee. “They did it in steps,” he says of Emslie and his production team. “They would add a new element but they’d do a good job of adding it, so they didn’t expand too fast. When they added different sports and got into the entertainment and concert end of it in a big way Scott did a good job in engaging the local community and finding the right sponsors.”

Festival founder Scott Emslie grew up in Kelowna and has a strong network in the city of 117,000. “I have good friends here, and in the early years they were excited about doing a cool event in Kelowna and it stuck with me. The festival was started by locals, so we’ve always had the city’s best interests at heart,” he says.

“There’s been a big impact on the local economy, as all the suppliers are local,” says Backmeyer. “They’re pleased with this kind of event and how it’s grown.” The festival is held in a city park, so Wet Ape Productions has to bring in and out all of its infrastructure such as staging, bleachers and food vendors, giving local businesses an opportunity to take advantage of the event’s many needs.

Local hotels benefit from the 30,000 revellers and the block bookings that Wet Ape makes for the athletes and artists taking part in the event. “Over the last couple of years the festival has become so popular that nearly every hotel room in the Okanagan is booked up,” says Emslie. “It’s not just Kelowna, but Penticton and farther afield.”

Each year the festival has been doubling and tripling attendance, but Emslie feels like they have reached an ideal number in 2013. “Every year our capacity has grown and we’re at a point where we’re not looking to increase the capacity,” he says. “We’re always looking to improve the talent and level of sports competition—we’re on the cutting edge in terms of booking the hottest talent and coolest new sports.”

The City of Kelowna is actively trying to attract more big-name events to raise its profile after a failed Ironman bid. On July 29 city council announced two new funds—the City Services Offset grant and the Event Development fund—each with resources of $25,000, to help bring events to the city. Annual outdoor events can offset the costs of policing, cleanup and bylaw enforcement as part of the City Services Offset grant, and the Event Development Fund is specifically designed for attracting new events to the city.

“Center of Gravity does two things,” says Backmeyer, “it attracts people for the weekend, so it helps to put people in hotels, restaurants and supports the retail centre. Kelowna is a tourist destination well known for our beaches and wineries, but this creates an extra dynamic element and creates a profile for Kelowna. It puts us on the map.”