On the evening of Aug. 14, thousands of people filtered into Summerside’s Credit Union Place to see legendary rockers ZZ Top perform.
Chances are the experience was a first for many of the attendees; ZZ Top does not exactly frequent Canada’s East Coast.
For the Barta family of Richmond, P.E.I., it was their first time seeing the band live and they were happy to be able to do it close to home.
“It’s pretty cool to experience, especially because P.E.I. and Summerside is so small. So it’s cool to come here and see them,” said Emily Barta.
In fact, JP Desrosiers, the City of Summerside’s director of community services, estimates that ZZ Top was the 65th big non-sports-related entertainment event to come to Credit Union Place since the facility opened 11 years ago.
Over those years, Summerside has cultivated a reputation as a small community that routinely punches above its weight class in terms of hosting entertainment options.
City officials estimate a show like ZZ Top brings in about $1.2 million in direct cash and indirect spin-offs to the community.
It all started with some persistent marketing by Desrosiers and his team, the willingness of a promoter to take a chance on an untested venue, and a phone call from pop superstar Elton John.
In 2009 a team from Summerside, including Desrosiers, traveled to meet Ken Craig, of international concert promoter Live Nation, to pitch Summerside as a venue.
Craig remembers being impressed at the tenacity of the upstart team from the small P.E.I. city of 15,000 residents and, after more than a little coaxing, agreed to visit Credit Union Place to check it out.
It was right around that time, shortly after Craig visited and was impressed by Summerside, that Elton John came looking to try something different.
“JP was very aggressive and really selling his arena and his community – and believe it or not, all of a sudden Elton John came along and said ‘go out and find me three or four 5,000 seat arenas.’ So I said, let’s try this Summerside place,” said Craig.
The 2011 show sold out in less than 10 minutes. A second show was added and also sold out.
Up until that point, Credit Union Place had hosted some small to medium sized shows, like George Thorogood, John Fogerty and Steve Miller Band, but even one Elton John show was a massive undertaking.
Craig said the team at Credit Union Place went above and beyond in terms of their hospitality for Elton John and the superstar’s crew.
“It was over the top,” said Craig.
The two shows went off well and all involved left with an impression having been made.
Promoters have two main concerns when deciding which shows to send where, logistics and ticket sales.
The Elton John shows proved Summerside can do both, said Desrosiers.
“Really what Elton John does is prove to the promoters and to the marketplace that you’re in the business. And if you can pull off logistically an Elton John show, promoters have more confidence in bringing in the next show,” he said.
“It allowed us to start working with national and industry leading promoters, like Live Nation, Evenko and AEG.”
Some of those next shows included the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Sting, Bryan Adams, Flo Rida, Hedley and more.
In addition to the reputation it’s earned, Summerside has also had another advantage over other similar sized communities, which is Credit Union Place itself. Few communities could compete with the facility in terms of its flexibility as a venue.
But that’s starting to change.
Charlottetown is making more noise lately in its effort to build a new sporting arena and Moncton’s new $100-million civic centre will open in September, and already has a long-list of acts booked.
That increased competition creates both challenges and opportunities for Summerside.
“The challenge is that the region has a carrying capacity in terms of ticket sales, so if Moncton does 10,000 seats on a Monday night, does that mean Summerside can still do 5,000 seats the next night?” asked Desrosiers.
About 40 per cent of event ticket sales in Summerside are from off-Island visitors, he added.
“What we have got confirmation of, is that our promoting partners are committed to continuing to bring us shows. What we’re seeing right now is that some of the bigger touring acts, that we couldn’t fit in our venue anyway, will likely go to Moncton, and we’ll get some names that we’ve been getting and continue to sell well.”
Craig added he continues to have confidence in Summerside’s ability to host great shows and he sees more seats opening up in the Maritimes as a good thing for Summerside.
“With Moncton’s new arena, and with Quebec City having a new arena, it does nothing but help and assist us in getting more shows, not only to Summerside, but to the Maritimes. For so long we really had nothing between Montreal and Halifax,” said Craig.