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Budget ’24: Festival of Words continues to build on successes in post-pandemic world

The literary event was one of 15 third-party groups to present during city council’s first 2024 budget meeting on Nov. 29. The Festival of Words is seeking $8,265, similar to this year.

The Festival of Words has grown from being “the little fest with the best” to a nationally acclaimed event that brings in over 500 visitors annually who spend roughly $100,000 during the three-day event.

The literary event was one of 15 third-party groups to present during city council’s first 2024 budget meeting on Nov. 29. The Festival of Words is seeking $8,265, similar to this year.

This year’s 27th annual Festival of Words (FOW) saw great improvement with increased attendance and pre-pandemic book sales, said Sarah Simison, managing artistic director.

The festival was held in person and included pre-COVID-19 room capacities and shared meals. Moreover, running the festival online during the pandemic allowed organizers to build a large virtual following, so they continued to livestream all authors and special events. 

The streaming also ensures that organizers continue to make the festival more accessible to those with disabilities and patrons outside the community.

Simison noted that seniors are usually the largest attendees, but this year, there was a split between seniors and young people. 

“Festival staff have been invited to speak at several national and provincial conferences due to the groundbreaking work we’re doing in our industry in terms of diversity and inclusion,” she said. “We believe this is why we have seen a surge in new attendees (especially youths) over the last couple of years … .”

Simison also announced that FOW has become a member of the newly formed Canadian Association of Literary Festivals (CALF), with Moose Jaw as its home base. It plans to host an inaugural conference at the Culture Centre next June.

The festival’s off-season Cineview film series shows independent and foreign films at the Mae Wilson Theatre. While nearly 1,000 people attended those films pre-pandemic, Simison noted attendees are still slowly trickling back.

She was particularly excited about the Writers-in-School program, which reaches schools in cities and rural and northern communities. These workshops focus on creative writing, performance skills, and editing while encouraging healthy, creative outlets for youths to express themselves. 

She also highlighted LitCon, which focuses on authors and writers whom smaller, independent presses publish or those who are self-published. She hoped to see the initiative grow next year, considering attendance and grant funding continued to increase. 

“Everything we do as an organization has been built to benefit our community through enhancing literacy and encouraging lifelong learning,” Simison said.

The city’s financial contribution ensures LitCon, the Performers’ Café and Writers-in-Schools programs can run annually, she continued. While the organization has never asked for a funding increase in 13 years, it will dip into savings next year because Ottawa’s supplemental COVID-19 recovery fund has finished. 

Simison added that the FOW’s main challenges include continued pandemic recovery and boosting ticket sales and grant funding, creating sustainability for outreach programs, ensuring accessibility and integrating digital and in-person programming and events. 

Coun. Crystal Froese said founder festival Gary Hyland would likely be impressed with how much the event has grown since 1996. She also commended Simison’s team for nurturing artists and creating a well-known literary event. 

Mayor Clive Tolley wondered whether residents who didn’t attend the festival could purchase tickets to see the musical performances and what steps the organization could take to market those acts better. 

The concert is a standalone event, so while the festival pass enables people to attend, non-festival goers can also purchase tickets separately, said Simison. 

Meanwhile, the community’s arts and culture groups are aware of the difficulty attracting people to events, she added. While the FOW is lucky that the Cultural Centre markets the concert separately from the main festival, organizers still don’t know why there’s low attendance.

The next budget meeting is Wednesday, Dec. 6.  

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