Faced with a post-Oilers Northlands, this year’s K-Days is a testament to the festival’s longevity and ability to change with the times.
When K-Days closed its doors on July 31st last year, there was a possibility that it wasn’t just for the final time that year, but the final time – period. With Rogers Place set to open in a month, Northlands was facing mounting pressure to transform. The way forward seemed desperate. Edmonton Sun columnist Graham Hicks called for Northlands to reduce its “operations down to its EXPO Convention Centre and K-Days, then shut down/sell off everything else,” a self-proclaimed “cruel” option. Northlands CEO Tim Reid saw an even more drastic future, one where, without the help of the City to ease the non-profit’s mounting debts and dwindling income opportunities, the 2016 K-Days festival “may very well be our last.”
Today, it’s hard to remember that K-Days was one step away from ending its nearly 140-year legacy, especially as the gates are set to open once again later this month, but the threat was very real; and not simply because of Rogers Place. While K-Days’ own attendance numbers are rising steadily, from 785,290 in 2015 to 803,087 last year, summer festivals around the province are seeing fewer people through the gates. The Calgary Stampede, for example, hit a 22-year low last year, a 7 per cent drop from 2015. Edmonton’s own Servus Heritage Festival has also seen a steady decrease in numbers, dropping from an estimated 410,000 in 2013 to around 300,000 last year. With a very different, Oilers-free Northlands this year, K-Days 2017 is a litmus test for a new way forward.
A New Kind of K-Days
With Rogers Place and Ice District moving Northlands’ major income downtown, Tim Reid and his team at Northlands are striking a balance between what’s worked in the past and what can entice newcomers to try out K-Days. “What we have done is listen to what our guests tell us. We evaluate what works, what doesn’t and try to bring new elements all the while showing value for dollar,” Caiti Farquharson, Northlands public relations specialist, says. “We strive to bring in some unique new pieces every year while retaining the traditional fair qualities that our guests know and love.”
This year, that means giving attendees more bang for their buck and bringing in new events that celebrate the many facets of Edmonton and its surrounding area. “A large portion of our programming is included in gate admission,” Farquharson says. “Once you are in the gates you have access to the full lineup of concerts, as well as entertainment on the midway and in venues such as the Edmonton EXPO Centre and Northlands Coliseum. K-Days is the ultimate staycation destination.”
While attendees can expect all the Klondike Day classics (green onion cakes, anyone?), people can expect brand new experiences this year, including the new K-Days rodeo, hosted in conjunction with the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association (CPRA). “The K-Days Rodeo is the richest CPRA sanctioned one-header rodeo in North America, with a total purse of more than $400,000,” Farquharson says. “The action is included in your gate admission [but] K-Days Rodeo seat availability will fill up quickly, so it’s important to opt-in for rodeo early – the best way to do this is by purchasing an advance K-Days gate admission to guarantee yourself a seat.”
The rodeo is part of an effort to expand and cross-promote. As the CRPA’s operations manager Kyle Rock explains, “Faced with some uncertainty as to the future of Northlands Coliseum and the possibility of the Canadian Finals Rodeo moving to another venue, the CPRA and Northlands wanted to add another facet to their partnership. [We] decided that producing the richest one-head rodeo in North America would be a perfect way to do just that.”
The event is also a chance to introduce new people to rodeos. “Rodeo celebrates our western heritage and lifestyle. A good portion of K-Days patrons are probably not what we would call ‘typical’ rodeo fans,” Rock says. “This gives us an opportunity to bring our great sport to a whole new demographic and hopefully make some lifelong rodeo fans. We hope that the rodeo will entertain as well as educate some of the newer fans, many of whom may be first-time rodeo spectators.”
A Celebration of Edmonton’s Diversity and History
The chance to reach new people is a similar sentiment in the other activities coming to this year’s K-Days, in particular the competitive Pow Wow and activities celebrating Edmonton’s LGBTQ+ community.
Working directly with Edmonton’s Pride Festival Society, K-Days will be hosting Pride-friendly events this year, including additional musical acts and “additional programming that reflects the spirit and diversity of our LGBTQ+ community,” according to Farquharson. In addition to specialty programming and spaces dedicated to Edmonton’s LGBTQ+ community, K-Days will also help raise money for community members in Alberta, through the power of socks.
“We will have a special program where people can purchase special socks and, when you wear those socks to K-Days, you get access to the grounds,” Angela Bennett, executive director of the Edmonton Pride Festival Society, explains. “All the proceeds from the socks will go to supporting LGBTQ+ youth in rural Alberta.”
The partnership between Pride and Northlands began two years ago, when Pride and Tim Reid began discussing Vision 2020, Northlands’s vision for the future. “Northlands is doing a lot to reach out to the community and collaborate, with us and the local Indigenous community,” she says. “We’ve been working with Tim Reid for the past couple of years and our involvement came from there. We’ll continue to forge these new partnerships and see how we can collaborate.”
Another partnership that attendees will be able to experience is the Pow Wow. Now in its second year, the Pow Wow is hosted in partnership with Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. This year’s Pow Wow will be competitive, a shift Farquharson hopes will “elevate the stakes and will bring exceptional talent to our grounds.”
“We are honoured to be working with our partners from Treaty Six Nations and Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation,” says Farquharson. “This is a cultural experience, and we are committed to establishing an experience that is authentic and approved by our indigenous partners.”
This year’s K-Days could be one of the biggest summer events of the year and has the potential to be the largest K-Days in history, but it will also be a test for Northlands’ new, Oilers-free, status quo. The new Northlands has truly struck out on its own and, if this year’s plans are any indication, the new way forward is paved with plenty of potential and a lot of success.