It was the fall of 1989 and “Music Box Dancer” Frank Mills was jetting around the east coast of Canada riding shotgun in a van with a few side musicians, while not far behind, the bellowing baritone of manager/promoter – the late Bruce Davidson – could be heard. Bruce was either an artist’s dream – that buffer between business and performance – or a big barking loyal dog you need keep on a short leash. Frank at this point was near shell-shocked.
We’d just ferried to Prince Edward Island from the mainland when Bruce says to me, “Billy, you’ve got to see this island. The most beautiful place in the world.” I say to Bruce, “I’m with you if you promise to stop yelling at the sound and light folks. You scare the hell out of them.” A deal was cut and we’re off on a magical drive through one of the most splendid landscapes my eyes have ever feasted on.
Before us, a quilt of many colours; a patchwork of various shades of greens, yellows, oranges and a rainbow mix of flowers and foliage. I begged Bruce to stop every mile or two.
I return again – September 2004 – and walk the beaches, dipping my feet into the Atlantic, drive the interior, stop at Anne of Green Gables - pause in the haunted forest and listen to trees bend and bow each other like violas – then on to the cliffs of Cavendish. I never debated Bruce about this – he was spot on!
Who could imagine a hockey coach/high school principal visualising how to bring all of this beauty, an untapped destination, into focus, creating a music festival catering to the heart of country music and a series of year-long events. I caught up with the man behind so many of the tourism related enterprises; Jeff Squires, for a chat. Enjoy!
How important is a festival such as Cavendish Beach Music Festival to the region?
Significant. The Cavendish Beach Music Festival annually creates over 16 Million dollars in economic impact to PEI for the four days of the event. It also kicks off summer in the region and gets everyone excited for the warmer weather ahead!
That marriage of tourism and events can be a rocky relationship depending on which political party is in power. How do you protect your interests and weather the changing governmental landscape?
PEI is all about tourism and understands that it’s a valuable resource. It is no coincidence that tourism has grown over 23% ($350 Million to a $430 Million Industry) since the festival has started in 2009.
When was Whitecap Entertainment formed and how many other and types of events do you produce during the year?
In 2014, we formed Whitecap Entertainment as we were starting to produce more events. We currently operate 6-8 other events per year.
What is your background in event planning?
I have been a hockey coach for twenty-five years, and formerly a high school principal. Event planning has been something I’ve done at different levels --- enjoy it and love it!
How far back does Cavendish Beach Festival go? And, why did you pick the centre part of the island, instead of near the ocean as your staging arena?
Cavendish has a strong brand and it is a wonderful connection to the past as well as to what visitors can relate to when coming to PEI (great scenery – the ocean –camping /cottages). We just added great music in a breathtaking setting.
Is early July the most predictable for favourable weather conditions?
Hey – we went through and survived Hurricane Arthur in 2014 (one day of the three-day event was cancelled). It’s Atlantic Canada and no different than any other region where the weather is a variable to work with. We now have a weather monitoring service leading up and during the music festival, simply for our venue and we feel fairly prepared.
Dollars are always the top consideration. How do you configure a reasonable ticket price and can one purchase a three-day pass?
If you look at our pricing, the best value is always the three-day pass – strongly recommend it ---and if you go to our website you can purchase single day passes for $85. We want people there for three days, not just one, so we make the three-day pass irresistible.
Is there camping near the site?
Yes, there are five major campgrounds within walking distance or fifteen minutes to the venue. We also have a partnership with the Mill River Experience in Western PEI to create a festival camping and hotel experience with a shuttle, breakfast and golfing nearby - everything you need for a perfect PEI vacation!
You’ve managed to score top country acts and this year up front – the Zac Brown Band and Little Big Town. Is this a wish list that’s come true?
They are great world-class bands for sure and we are ecstatic about having them. What we have also learned over the years is that the customer will tell us what they want and it changes from year to year. We honestly look at our social media channels and go fishing from the list of requested artists.
The roster leans heavy on youth – is this your demographic?
We feel we hit every demographic 10 -75, year-olds. But the majority of festival goers are ages 18-24 because country music is huge with that demographic, but it’s also the perfect venue for all ages because of the laid back environment of PEI.
Newcomer Jessica Mitchell and veterans The Good Brothers have scored mainstage slots. Is it about balance – finding the right newcomer and of course The Good Brothers are part of Canadian country music history…
Festivals are about something for everyone –so yes balance and yes, being creative to address the different attendees and what they desire to see. We always like surprising people too with amazing acts that they haven’t heard of or seen in a while but will blow our attendees out of the water.
What keeps you up at night – the big worry?
I sleep well. We have developed a great brand (CBMF) and I think our customers have respected the ways in which we have tried to maintain value – we try to create a magical setting and I feel like we’ve done that.
Do you carry a big staff? How many volunteers?
CBMF has three full-time staff – approximately 250-300 Volunteers and we are connected to numerous companies that supply and get paid for services pre, and during and post festival.
Looking back – is there a particular act, or festival year, that puts a smile in the heart?
I still think of year one and the Reba McEntire show. Playing on a beautiful Sunday night with an amazing sunset over the stage with the beautiful north shore of PEI in the background – it was perfect.
Artist managers can be a greater problem than staging the event itself – how do you keep peace and navigate the unknown?
I wouldn’t say that we’ve ever had a problem. We’ve built relationships on understanding that everyone is looking out for their people, their road families and that understanding leads to good business and great shows.
What’s been the scariest moment?
Hurricane Arthur 2014 and ensuring that no one got hurt.
How long in advance do you book acts, take submissions and plan ahead?
1-2 years ahead. We’re always working to attract the major stars and keep an eye on the up and coming acts. We had Sam Hunt before he was the international superstar he is today.
Once completed, where does Jeff go to vacation?
Our family spends some time in Florida each winter. Truthfully, PEI In the summer is unbelievable and we don’t like to leave.
I’ll be honest, living and work on PEI is fantastic. When I think of great vacation time – PEI is top of my list, regardless of living there!