In our in-depth interview with Guy Laflamme, Joe Mebrahtu and Kevin Bourne talk to the Ottawa 2017 executive director, about his legacy and efforts to rebrand Canada’s capital.
Joe Mebrahtu: So when you started this, you know Ottawa 2017, what was your vision? What was a win for you at the time?
Guy: To achieve everything I’ve been dreaming of and never managed to implement because I’ve spent most of my years as a producer in the federal government we had all kinds of justified restrictions. But like when I was producing Canada Day I had all kinds of crazy ideas but it was, “No, we have to stick to political correctness and we can’t take too much risk.” And I had been teaching business for the last 25 years with the Telfer School of Management. So here I have a chance to just go wild, from an artistic standpoint and to apply all my knowledge as a Business Strategist. So the goal was to end the year with people going, “Wow, this has been an incredible, memorable year in Ottawa”, and so far it’s working. I have people stopping me on sidewalks saying, “Thank you for bringing all those cool events. We’ve never experienced Ottawa this way before”. So we’re definitely on the right track.
Joe: Incredible. So what do you hope the outcome will be from this 2017 initiative?
Guy: Changing once and for all the perception people have about Ottawa. That we’re not the city that fun forgot, we’re not a conservative city and to present a more modern, innovative, contemporary image. And I would say even edgy image for Ottawa because when I designed the program, knowing that Montreal would be celebrating their 375th this year. I knew that they are the model when it comes to audacious, artistic approach. So I really cranked up the volume in terms of audacious, artistic initiatives to make sure that we wouldn’t be perceived as the poor cousin or the beige version of Montreal.
So going with this crazy goal the first idea proposed was this underground multimedia production in one of the future subway stations despite the fact that the LRT will only be operational in 2018. I managed to convince a consortium to give us the keys to the Lyon station from mid-June to mid-September, then secured the $4.5 million dollars. I also had to convince Moment Factory to come on board and went with a completely wild concept. So it’s not a figurative type of show like the other sound and light show I did on Parliament Hill and on the canal. It’s a non figurative type of show. And to hear the guys, the wild crazy creative people at Moment Factory saying that I was one of the most demanding clients ever and that I pushed them from an artistic standpoint to go further and to go wilder, because often I was saying, “No, this is too linear. This is too easy to predict”. And the show will be like doing time travel. It will be like being in a science fiction movie.
So it’s very wild. It’s definitely not what you would expect out of Ottawa. For Crashed Ice, convincing Parks Canada, the National Capital Commission, Public Works, the parliamentary precinct, Chateau Laurier, and the city of Ottawa to allow us to use the world UNESCO heritage site, the Rideau Canal locks. And to bring in this crazy structure and convince Red Bull to spend more than they ever spent on a Crashed Ice. So it was probably a $3 or $4 million dollar production for 48 hours. But it was magical. I like to have the Crashed Ice in that location.
For Inspiration Village, to convince the city to allow us to remove the parking spots on York Street to bring in those 41 shipping containers. But right now it’s not as wild as I was hoping for so I’m adding new elements.
Joe: So what are some of those new elements that you’re adding to it right now?
Guy: A DJ on the rooftop of the containers.
Joe: Okay, I experienced that. That was incredible.
Guy: So, that was me going, “Okay, this is too traditional”. Let’s put the DJ up there. And now we’re working on a signature dance performance with gumboot dancers and it will be a bit of a flashmob. So imagine a guy reading a book on the bench, the dancers are lying down on the top of the container and at one point the music starts pumping. And then you realize that the guy sitting next to the dancers he removes his coat and starts dancing. And then you discover the dancers on the top of the container. So we have four locations that we can use for the dancers. So that’s more in line with the vision I had for Ottawa 2017. So my goal was to bring activation across the city in different locations across the city and to surprise and delight people.
So one of the program elements is called Ignite 150 that’s a series of 17 epic stunts to generate viral campaigns. One example in February we did a performance with 1300 musicians from school bands who performed in the Aberdeen Pavilion with Alexander Shelley. They performed Alleluia by Leonard Cohen and it was magical. Everybody was crying in the building. I was so profound and then those kids all shared the video of the production with friends and relatives. So it went viral.
Another one will be a dance performance in seven fountains across the city. So we’ll go from a modern dance in the Strathcona Park fountain to a flamenco dance in the Confederation Park fountain. This is an adaptation of something I did in ’92 for the 125th. But this year I want to do it over a seven hour period. You’ll have seven dance performances in fountains across the city. And the enlightment kit is part of that. So we have this kit made up of hundreds of lighting devices. We installed those lights in a park commando operation in mid-afternoon. We don’t necessarily pre-promote it. Then people come in the park at night and discover it under this really cool magical environment with the LED lights and then people can interact and they become kids again.
Another example will be Canada’s Table, something I tried to do for five years when I was with the federal government. We’re going to shut down Wellington Street on August 27th. We’re going to install one table, one stretch of a table and you’re going to be served by the top 20 chefs from across Canada in front of the Parliament buildings and you’ll have the sound and light show as the finale to accompany your dessert. When we put those tickets on sale I predicted less than two hours they would be all gone.
Joe: I think I’m gonna buy one right now from my wife.
Guy: It is unfortunately too late. Because the tickets sold out in two seconds. We blew up the platform the Ticketmaster platform.
Guy: There were 6,000 people trying to buy at the same time. So hopefully that’s going to be the start of a tradition. Another example is the picnic on the bridge on July 2nd, to commemorate the fact that Canada was born as a result of the unification of Upper and Lower Canada which were separated by the Ottawa River. So we covered the pedestrian zone on the Alexandra Bridge with sod, with real grass, and people were able to reserve a three meter by three meter spot and to come and have a picnic. We did four seatings over the course of the day. Again when we put those tickets on sale it was selling at I think $40. All you were getting was the piece of turf for an hour and a half. Two minutes, all tickets were gone. It was a capacity of six hundred and fifty people per seating. So yeah I think that’s going to be the start of a tradition.
And all our Agri150 products. This winter we had fire and ice. So you were going in a greenhouse and you were greeted outside by fire breathers, fire jugglers, fire pits. Then you went inside where they grow tomato plants. It’s minus 25 outside. You were in this balmy environment of the greenery and you were served a molecular cuisine dinner by Chef Marc Lepine. When we put those tickets on sale and it was like expensive, $200 per ticket. Two minutes, all gone. We added a second day, two minutes, all gone. And it was a magical, magical evening. And that’s a way of showcasing rural Ottawa in a different way. And again we used LED lights as part of the production.
When we did Sky Lounge, this dine in the sky experience, at first we had one week, 11 lifts per day. And the first week the dinners were sold out in less than five hours and that’s $250 per person for dinner. So we added a second week and we’re now at 93 percent sold. And I know that by the end we’ll probably be at 95, 98 percent. So so far, the business plan seem to have been well done, well-prepared.
Kevin: What do you think it says about Ottawa as a market and as a city, the fact that the events are selling out so quickly?
Guy: The fact that here was a market…there was a potential for more edgy non-traditional, in some cases higher end, type of product.
Kontinuum, like it’s a world’s first underground multimedia show, and again we blew up the Ticketmaster platform and our website blew up when we put the tickets. We made the tickets available free of charge but you have to reserve for the time period when you go in. And when we reactivated the platform, tickets were disappearing at 1,000 per 30 minutes. It’s like a rock show and we’re now at 62 to 63,000 tickets have been reserved so I guess there was an appetite for these kinds of cool, edgy, innovative products.
And basically from my perspective, it’s a personal thrill because all those ideas that I dreamed of they’re all becoming reality in less than three years and they all seem to be super well-received by the public. But as much as it looks quite flashy and fancy and cool as a job, it’s been a nightmare. The number of issues every day it’s like a thousand problems, a thousand issues, a thousand crises to manage and I have a very small team of 18 dedicated people that I drive crazy, poor them. They have to be super super productive. And I must admit I’m very demanding because whenever someone does something it’s always, “Okay, how can we do better? How can we prove it?” Because I’ve been in the industry for 25 years and I was chair of the International Festival and Events Association so I’ve seen events around the world so I’ve seen state of the art events done by the Kentucky Derby, by Disney, by Dubai events. So that’s the standards that I want to apply to what we’re doing here. So the learning curve is always from ground zero. Every time we launch it’s a new thing for the city. So I think we will be, to a certain extent, the R&D department of the events industry in Ottawa. And then all of those products a local festival could next year negotiate and take over the management.
Picnic on the Bridge, the Ottawa Riverkeepers have expressed an interest to use it as a fundraiser. For Agri 150, we have Just Food, who work with farm operators in our countryside, who want to take over and maintain it.
Ottawa Welcomes the World, the program we’re doing with the embassies to get them to celebrate their national day out of Landsdowne Park. We were hoping for 25 embassies; we landed 78 and 100,000 people have been through Ottawa welcomes the world so far and embassies want to maintain it to continue in the future. So hopefully we will leave a legacy of new events. We will leave a legacy of an improved image and branding for the city of Ottawa. We will leave a legacy of a new baseline for tourism because the goal this year was to attract 1.75 million additional visitors on top of the 7 to 8 million we host on a year to year basis. and hopefully with the halo effect of all the coverage, the broadcasts, the advertising, the image changing that we have done this year, Ottawa will benefit for the next at least three or four years of people who didn’t make it here this time around and who’ve said, “Okay, this is the real Ottawa. So let’s go next year”. Also an enhanced sense of pride of local citizens and an elevated index, happiness index of residence. I think that’s what we will have achieved.
Joe: You know how the Olympics will come to a certain location and there’s a celebration, but generally the venues are not used again? Obviously this is a little different, but what would you say to the local business sector and how to sustain this? You’ve generated some momentum but how do you keep it?
Guy: Basically what we’ve done was to take the instruction booklet of how to use the City of Ottawa and turn it upside down, flip it and that’s how we should use Ottawa. So I would say continue using Ottawa with a flipped instruction booklet. Stop trying to copy or do the same kind of things that are done in other cities. Build on what is unique. What are our unique assets? For example, this is where you find embassies; let’s leverage embassies. This is where we have a new subway LRT system. How can we use that? This is where we have beautiful urban parks. Let’s do an enlightment kit. So build on the events and build on the proof. The demonstration we’ve made that by innovating, by being gutsy and edgy, it can pay off and build on that, and build on the new brand, build on the new image we’ve helped establish for Ottawa.
Joe: So I mean based on this little conversation we’ve had, you’re an Incredibly convincing individual.
Guy: Well, that was one of my skills to be able to succeed because I imagine convincing the mayor to give me carte blanche to develop a program. To create this independent arm’s length entity. To convince all the financial partners to invest $40 million dollars. To convince the mayor and the city to allow me to bring a giant dragon and spider to basically take control of the downtown core for three days. To give me the keys of Lyon station for three months to do an underground multimedia show. Yes, I needed to have some good communication skills and to be able to convince people, but based on sound, solid, rigorous business principles.
So it’s not that I went to those meetings and those presentation sessions with just pie in the sky crazy artistic ideas. They were all grounded in rigorous business principles and I think I did as well in presenting number crunching to say those are the numbers. This is how it will translate into $320 million dollars of new consumer spending for the city. We will generate 3,000 new jobs and this is the financial structure of the budget. And I had everything in that plan, like the org chart for my team, the governance model for the new board that we would create, the pageantry, the marketing, the breakdown of the budget. And so far everything has been implemented the way I predicted three years ago and it’s working. So I would say for business people it’s extreme business rigor, extreme financial rigor and extreme ethical standards.
Our office is in a small space in the Glebe, provided to us at no cost by Minto Corporation. It’s not a fancy luxury office space and I wanted it that way to send a clear message. This is not about keeping the money for lofty luxurious administrative standards. The money goes into the program. And we’ve been driving our team members crazy by being crazy frugal in everything we do. When I travel, when I did the national tour as a PR blitz, I was booking hotels through Hotwire and not spending more than $90 a night on hotels. And those are minor things in a budget of $40 million but it sets the tone and that’s how you send a message to each of your team members. Spend the money as if it was your own personal budget and try to stretch every dollar. And that’s why we can do so much while it’s still a pretty small budget. Forty million for the scope of what we’re doing. Quebec City spent $95 million on events in 2008 for their 400th here $40 million and we will have secured pretty much the same scope and magnitude. And because of the nucleus and the momentum we’ve created, that’s how we convince the NHL to do the centennial classic here. That’s how we convince the CFL to bring the Grey Cup, to convince the Juno Awards to come back.
So would I include the money the CFL, the NHL, Caras with the Juno Awards, what Heritage has spent in Ottawa for an enhanced Canada Day. Overall, it’s a year of about $75 to $80 million dollars of new offerings which was my goal originally. That was the critical mass to be able to position Ottawa as the hub of the Sesquicentennial.
Guy Laflamme spoke at the 2017 RGA Awards while taking part in a Rimikon lighting stunt
Kevin: So obviously you have a schedule of different events for the rest of the year. Are there still ongoing things that you’re planning? I know the first half of the year the Global Rallycross was kind of a big surprise. Can we expect some some similar surprises in the second half of the year?
Guy: It’s more in terms of how the events will translate in terms of delivery. So we’ve announced that we are doing a light and sound production on the Chaudière Falls. We announced that four or five months ago as a tribute to Indigenous people. It didn’t get much media coverage but as we start testing and releasing some artistic renderings, that’s when people will realize how cool that production will be on the edge of the Chaudière Falls.
We also have to announce some components of Ignite 150. So when we announce in a few days from now a 4D movie showing the fact that you will be invited to watch a movie on the rooftop of a building somewhere downtown still to be revealed. And 4D, in the sense that in the movie if they’re serving martinis you will have someone appearing from behind the screen and start serving martinis to people in the audience. If there’s fog in the movie we’ll have a smoke machine to create fog in the audience. So we have these kinds of cool products still to announce. Like the dinner in the middle of the corn fields in early fall we’ll have a gourmet dinner, 150 people sitting at one table but in the middle of a corn field; that’s going to be magical. So we have smaller scale surprises to announce. But the core of the program has been made public.
Joe: So what drives Guy Laflamme. What drives you to do what you do? Working 16 hour days?
Guy: I would say making sure that my life will have been valuable. As a kid, I always dreamed of achieving something like inventing something, leaving some kind of legacy. So this is Mickey Mouse compared to inventing something. At least I will have created happiness with a large number of people with all the crazy events I will have produced. But aside from that techno music. When I wrote this plan I isolated myself for two, two week periods in the Magdalen Islands. I have a house in the Magdalen Islands in the Maritimes and I went there alone and I had techno music blasting the house, like the windows were about to explode. So I was sitting outside with the techno music by John Digweed and good wine and that was my source of inspiration. And ever since I always have my iPod with me only listening to Digweed’s music. Between meetings, whenever I need to come up with ideas, I’ll put Digweed’s music. I don’t know, like his style, the rhythm is perfectly in tune with my neurons and then the ideas just pop up. So at the end of the year on December 31st I’ll go online and I’ll check where John’s performing next.
Joe: And you’re going to go see him?
Guy: And I’ll buy tickets to head out there and thank him for being my source of inspiration all through the year. Like whenever I come out of a meeting, if I have a few minutes, I’ll connect to Digweed’s music in my car. The speakers are blasting Digweed’s music all the time. But yeah that’s been my inspiration.
But what drives me was to do something valuable, as significant as possible, out of my life. I’m doing this and I’m done. This is my grande finale. And I’ll be living half of the year in the Magdalen Islands and raising chickens and I want to have a super peaceful, simple relaxed laid back lifestyle moving forward. So after three years of electricity and a crazy pace, I’ll be totally unplugged and I will be isolating myself. I’ll travel the world. I’ll be busy planning my trips. But I’ve already been invited by Brazil to be involved in the Brazil 2020 bicentennial celebration and I said, “Nope, not interested”. I was approached for other cool jobs in Ottawa and I said, “No interest”. So I resigned from the university after 25 years; I was teaching part-time. I ended in April 2016 and this is my last gig and that’s it. I’m done. Hopefully I’ll leave with a bang. I have no interest at all being associated to anything else. Moving forward.
But it’s quite a jungle (laughing). And honestly the toughest has been the battle against those windmills. Now I understand why Ottawa is so traditional conservative. The tsunamis I had to swim against to say, “No this is what we should do”. The number of people who were saying, “Why would you spend money on a tunnel multimedia show? Nobody’s going to be interested in that.” So being stubborn and moving forward and fighting against all the bureaucratic barriers.
In a sense I’m happy to go to the Magdalen Islands and to live a peaceful life because through this journey I have been exposed to the dark side of humanity. I have been dealing with so many vicious, dishonest, negative people. It’s been a real disillusion in a sense of some people I’ve encountered. I’ve done humanitarian projects in Asia with my students so I’ve seen extreme poverty but I’ve seen extreme rich souls in Asia people who live off $1,000 a year and who live in the human condition but who are so generous, so kind, so respectful. But at the other end of the spectrum through this journey I’ve seen people whose only goal in life is to take advantage, to be opportunistic, to be selfish, to be negative, to be nasty so I’m happy for what I’ve done.
I know there will be people criticizing for years to come, but I’ve done it with a very high degree of integrity, honesty and as much professionalism as I could. And it’s like I’ve done my very best. I’ve really killed myself to deliver the best I could. So I leave with a sense of achievement and those naysayers, I don’t care. I’ve decided to stop listening or reading media until the end of the year because there is a lot of grumpy old men who write for some local media and I did this with a very high degree of integrity and professionalism. And now I have to focus on delivering the vision, implementing it and I can’t afford to have the bit of energy I have left to be burned by all this negativity. So I’ve decided to just isolate myself, focus on delivering and hopefully magic will happen and they will be more people favourable than people criticizing. Because whenever you try to break the mold, do things differently, you can’t please everyone.
Guy: You will have lots of opponents and people who just try to shoot you down, or just jealousy. People who will be destabilized and who will try to criticize you; just demolish what you are trying to accomplish. I have nothing to gain. And that’s the chance I had. Being at the end of my career, I didn’t do this to achieve higher levels or to get a promotion. I didn’t do this because I have political ambition. I didn’t do this to earn money because I’m probably the one who’s going to be the least paid by the hour of all the consultants and the people who were involved. I did this because I wanted to leave a legacy and do something different; something I felt could succeed. And I have the chance at this time in my career of being in a place where I don’t give a shnitz. I have nothing to lose. And very often in the beginning when I proposed the structure some people at the city were saying, “No, no, no. That’s not how it’s going to be done. You need to remain part of the city”. And I said, “Okay, if that’s how you want to do it. Good luck. Ciao. I’m out of it”. And I was able to say no, which you rarely have the chance to do in a career because the price to pay is too high. In my case, financially, I could have retired two years ago and I would have been quite happy and comfortable. So having nothing to lose, having full independence and having a good background of experience, and not doing this to achieve a professional objective, or financial objective, or political objective, was quite unique. And that’s why I was able to have the guts that I had to push back, put my head down and move forward.
Joe: That’s a great recipe for success right there.
Guy: And looking back this is how I should have behaved for my entire career. The number of opportunities, the number of things that I accepted, compromises, because I said, “No I can’t afford to be marginalized, or to be criticized, or to risk to be ejected out of this corporation”. I should have had the guts I had in the last three years. That’s how I should have managed for all of my career.
Joe: You did it now, so that’s when it matters.
Guy: Better late than never.
Joe: Thank you so much. It’s been an honour meeting you.
Guy: This was fun. Best interview I’ve ever had.
Joe: Thank you so much. Appreciate that.