TORONTO Each year, thousands of tourists and Toronto residents descend on Nathan Phillips Square to mark the start of the holiday season and watch the official tree lighting. This year, the 42nd annual Cavalcade of Lights, presented by Scotiabank, returns to the Square from November 29 to December 31. (The official tree, a 68-year-old white spruce that stands 62 feet high, is already in position outside City Hall.) Spearheading the citywide festival—which includes fireworks displays, neighborhood tours, skating parties, and weekly concerts by the likes of Serena Ryder, the Canadian Tenors, and the Dragonettes—is Carole Boughannam, the programming manager for the City of Toronto's special events. Boughannam talked to us about the objective of the event, how the festival has evolved over the years, and what residents and visitors can expect this season.
What is the objective of the Cavalcade of Lights?
Our main goal is to create civic pride in the city and engage residents to come out and celebrate together. The holiday season is a really good time to do that. We also like to enhance the visitor experience. There are a lot of people who are in the city, whether they come from border states or just outside of the GTA. It’s really nice when they come to shop and dine during the holiday time to actually have something that really feels alive in the center of the city. I think it also helps to profile the city, so when people go back out to where they’re from they can really talk about Toronto as being a dynamic place.
The other thing we talk about is motivating travel—we really do want people to be motivated to come to Toronto and come here to shop instead of maybe going to some of the other cities around us. That, in turn, generates an economic impact.
How does the city promote the event?
Most of the promotion that the city does is local, so we definitely work with radio partners. City TV has been a sponsor and so has CHUM FM … it’s really a local campaign that our team focuses on … we’re really fortunate because we’ve had some really great media partners. Traditionally on the opening night we’ll have a lot of the major television networks coming and doing live broadcasts, and that really builds a lot of buzz.
The event was featured in a segment about holiday travel on the Today show a few weeks back. How did that come about?
That was part of our partnership with Tourism Toronto. Tourism Toronto really takes a lot of our product outside of the GTA and outside of our local marketing and PR campaigns. By us producing events like this, it gives someone like Tourism Toronto the opportunity to include it as a pillar when they’re actually promoting Toronto.
How do you measure the success of the event?
Attendance is one of the basic things we look at. The Square from opening night is at capacity … there’s no room to move. We also do visitor's surveys, and a lot of the email responses that we get are a part of measuring the success. And we look at the [media play the event receives.] We get a lot of profile both locally and outside of Toronto.
How has the event changed over the years?
Well, originally it started as a one-night event where it was just officially turning on the lights. And part of that included this figure-skating show around the skating rink. We still do that. But it’s grown because we found that the audiences kept growing. We started off by adding little bleachers on the side of the rink, and the audience just grew too much to do that any more. So we then transformed the event into a Saturday night event and it became more of a concert and fireworks. We then decided, you know what, this could really grow and it could become four Saturdays in the month.
So it became four weekends [in 2003]. After that we actually grew it and began including the neighborhood lighting. This year I think we have 20 neighborhoods participating and part of that program includes a bus tour and really getting introduced to some of the other neighborhoods in the city. It’s just a bit of a hook to get people out to experience the rest of the city.
How do you select performers for the weekly concerts?
We really try to ensure that our programming has variety. We definitely go after artists that are charting. It’s always nice to have somebody who is a little bit of a headliner … not a big headliner by any means—we don’t have the budget for it here—but definitely someone who’s got a bit of a buzz. If they are getting radio play, that always helps because the radio partner can really get behind it and pitch it. So all those things go into consideration.
But it’s also nice to allow for somebody who is on the cusp of their career to be part of it. So if you get one or two names, then you can add really great talent that people don’t know. It’s an opportunity for them to get exposure, and new people get to be introduced to them. Personally, for me as the programmer, it’s really important to be able to help the artist as well. So those are some of the things we consider when we are hiring.
Scotiabank is the presenting sponsor. Does that sponsorship pay for the entire event?
There are city dollars as well as the sponsorship dollars. In all of our events we get a base fund from the city and then it's completed with corporate sponsorships.
Was the budget affected at all this year?
No. We were lucky because we have a three-year deal with Scotiabank right now for Cavalcade, so it’s still part of that agreement.
Are there other sponsors involved with the event?
We also work with Toronto Hydro. They do an exchange in the neighborhoods on the nights that they actually turn on the lights. They invite residents to bring their incandescent lights in exchange for LED lights. We also have a partnership with the Hudson Bay Company. That’s been a really nice relationship because not only have they sponsored the tree and the decorations on it—the tree only used to have lights—but because of our partnership with them, they brought on Brian Gluckstein [in 2007] to help with the redesign of the Christmas lights on the Square. This year the tree will be completely different and there will be some new additions to the design.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the evaluation of Nuit Blanche, and I’ve started working with our 2009 curator to begin developing the programming for next September. (See our coverage of the 2008 event here, here, and here.)
What about Cavalcade? Is there still a lot of planning to be done?
Now we’re really starting to develop the rundowns for the shows, deciding how many minutes for each segment, what order should the segments be following. We create the rundown for directing the show live. I will be directing the show and calling up the lighting cues, the audio cues, and working with the stage manager to get the performers on stage. So we really take the event from the concept to the execution.