Celtic Colours Festival Society

“Live-streaming concerts can never replace or recreate the full festival experience, but we have learned that they can keep people engaged and connected with Celtic Colours, and can build excitement among our patrons and fans to return when they can.”

-- Mike MacSween, Executive Director, Celtic Colours International Festival

Celtic Colours is one of Canada's premier musical events. This nine-day festival normally takes place in more than 50 communities across Cape Breton Island. It extends the tourism season and contributes $18.7 million to the local economy. But in 2020, organizers faced an existential crisis. How do you bring together hundreds of musicians and thousands of visitors when a deadly pandemic is forcing them apart?

Timing and experience on their side

Fortunately, organizers had been growing online activity and live streaming for nearly a decade. In 2020, they had no choice but to go “all in” on a series of live-streamed performances out of concern for the safety of everyone due to COVID-19.

“We are very concerned about the health and safety of everyone involved with this festival,” said Mike MacSween, Executive Director of Celtic Colours International Festival. “It became abundantly clear we were not going to have a normal year, or anything close to it. So we selected one venue for the week, and the team of video and audio technicians we’ve been working with for many years helped us deliver an online festival for people around the world, many of whom were in lockdown at the time.”

Eleven concerts were live-streamed and viewed on 276,128 screens – an increase of 60.5% over 2019. Organizers expected an increase, but not of this magnitude.

Artists who could travel within the “Atlantic Bubble” played live and pre-recorded segments with performers from Ontario, Quebec, Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. More than 100 performers participated, with 70% from Cape Breton Island.

Keeping the brand strong

The online festival did not sell tickets, but viewer donations totalled $128,105 – an amount that exceeded expectations. The real benefit was keeping awareness of the festival strong, and to promote tourism, once it is safe for visitors to come again. Before each concert, viewers were shown video footage of scenery and iconic spots on Cape Breton Island. Pent-up demand for travel will likely result in extra attention for the festival in coming years.

“Interest in Celtic Colours continues to grow,” said MacSween. “We look forward to the day we can once again pack hundreds of people into small halls. But until that time comes, we will continue to showcase the beauty of Cape Breton Island and encourage people to visit once it is safe to do so.”

Festival and tourism operators have shown tremendous resilience and determination to welcome visitors and keep jobs in the region.

The Government on Canada continues to invest in projects and initiatives to boost local tourism and help the industry prepare for a strong and swift recovery when travel restrictions are lifted. Funding through ACOA is helping Celtic Colours expand its reach nationally and internationally. MacSween is looking forward to the return of a live, in-person event, but in the meantime, live streaming will continue to be an effective way to reach people who aren’t able to experience Celtic Colours in person, and to continue sharing the music and culture of Cape Breton Island.

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