MBA students study the blues
The TD Kitchener Blues Festival, now in its 19th year, is a major success story. The Festival has grown by leaps and bounds, managing to continue its unlikely tradition of presenting almost every show free of charge, and still paying the bills.
It’s a model that other festivals could choose to study. Instead, the Blues Festival has invited an intense, academic examination of its own operations, with the intention of finding ways to get better. As Blues Festival treasurer Bob Westhaver explains, “If you aren’t open to change, the world will change around you.”
“Our goal is to get their perspective, an outsider’s perspective on what we are doing and how we are doing it, and whether we could be doing it better.”
So the Festival board has welcomed a team of six MBA students from Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, who have launched a wide-ranging analysis of the Festival operation.
The team of six students – Maegan East, Michelle Qu, Erin Walker, Hannah Ellingham, Christine Dale and Ola Adewuyi – represents a diverse mix of professions: two accountants, an actuary, a fashion designer, an HR director and a dentist. What they have in common is an interest in not for profits.
This project is the “capstone” of their MBA program. Typically, it sees a team go to a business, where their project is quite narrow-focused on one aspect of a for-profit enterprise. But Michelle Qu has been a volunteer with the Blues Festival for four years, and she recognized that studying a not for profit would allow her and her colleagues to broaden the study’s focus, and look at many more aspects of the organization.
She approached Westhaver and Festival President Rob Barkshire, and they were enthusiastic. Barkshire quickly realized the value of the service there were being offered – “I was astounded by the talent in the group,” and Westhaver believes the Festival has nothing to lose and everything to gain. “I want to hear feedback. Maybe something will come out of left field that would be a way to improve our event. I’m open to having other studies.”
He adds, “This is a great opportunity for us, and also a great opportunity for Laurier.”
The team of MBA students began the study in January of this year, and continues at time of writing. There is a significant amount of research involved, including interviewing all 11 members of the Festival Board, other stakeholders and interested people (including the Director of Planning for the City of Kitchener).
The team was given carte blanche to study the Festival. The six colleagues began by looking at the general operations of the Festival, and creating “a statement of worth.” They decided that they could provide the best value for their “client” – the Festival – by examining things that funnel into the long-term sustainability of the event, ranging from beverage operations to grants and sponsorship.
In the course of a year, these musicians/mentors will appear in 20 elementary and secondary schools in the region.
They have not completed nor presented their report – Barkshire says, “We’re anxious to see it. Our goal is to get their perspective, an outsider’s perspective on what we are doing and how we are doing it, and whether we could be doing it better. We need to be open-minded. If we like it – which I am sure we’re going to – we’ll look at how to move from A to B.”
The Laurier team could not comment on actual findings at the time of this interview, but made it clear that they believe the Blues Festival is “an amazing event. We’re very lucky to be working with the Kitchener Blues Festival. The more research we do, the more amazed we are at how strong and how impactful it is… It just keeps growing and the experience just keeps getting better.”
Growing off stage
Speaking of growth, Barkshire and Westhaver admit to a bit of frustration that some of the key growth – important programs of the Kitchener Blues Festival – continues to be under the public radar, even though the Festival is working hard to serve its community, beyond the limits of the four-day event.
For example, they point to the “Blues in Schools” program. The Blues Festival hires musicians for a week in the spring and a week in the fall, and arranges for them to play in local schools, one school each morning and another in the afternoon. In the course of a year, these musicians/mentors will appear in 20 elementary and secondary schools in the region.
The goal, says Westhaver, is “basically to inspire young people to get involved with music.” This is not just a few kids – hundreds may attend the sessions, and since the program started, “We’re up to 60,000 students”.
The Kitchener Festival adapted the idea from American “Blues in Schools” programs, and have brought musicians from the US to Waterloo Region, but are also employing local musicians like John McKinley. Says Barkshire, “John really does make that connection between what the kids are listening to, music-wise, and how it came from the blues.”
“Quite a lot of the musicians who have competed in the Youth Legacy Showcase have gone on to music careers and are doing quite well, locally and beyond.”
Everyone involved in organizing and running the event is a volunteer, leaving maximum funds available to pay the musicians at a rate well above what they might get for a regular, local gig. The volunteers behind the Festival are determined that, as a not for profit community organization, they will make a positive impact on their community.
So they were delighted when the Kitchener BIA – a long-time partner with the Blues Festival – asked them to organize a celebration at Kitchener City hall on the Saturday of the Ion LRT Train launch. Says Barkshire, “We have proven we’re pretty good at what we do, so we were asked… we have hired five acts.”
The community impact of the Festival is quite significant. It ranges from the free pancake breakfast offered to anyone who shows up, as part of the Sunday Gospel Breakfast at the Festival, to the Youth Legacy Showcase, which highlights local young talent – and gives the winner of the competition a paid gig on a Festival stage, and a track on that year’s compilation CD.
Says Barkshire, “Quite a lot of the musicians who have competed in the Youth Legacy Showcase have gone on to music careers and are doing quite well, locally and beyond.” The organizers see this as a valuable educational tool for the young participants.
And of course, the Festival team is proud of their impact on downtown Kitchener, and the region as a whole. The Festival brings a huge number of people to the region; they stay in the hotels, they eat in the restaurants, they go to the clubs and pubs (where the Festival organizes the famous 12-Bar Blues after-hours performances).
Barkshire loves that element of the Festival. “It’s pretty exciting for a fan like me to see a blues artist, the level of whom you’re not going to see in a club, and you’re certainly not going to see them in a club in Kitchener, but because they’re playing in the Festival you can go into a club and see them in that intimate atmosphere. Those are special events – something cool and something different.”
Bottom line: the Kitchener Blues Festival is thriving, making a difference in its community far beyond the four days of the headline event… and its organizers are eager to learn, from a team of six MBA students, how they can make it even better.
The four-day Festival runs August 8-11, 2019; for all the details, kitchenerbluesfest.com.
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