The fall of 2019 was the busiest ever for the Abbotsford Centre.
A 50-day stretch from Sept. 14 to Nov. 3 saw the facility host 31 events and attract more than 48,000 patrons.
The arena hosted everything from a Vancouver Canucks exhibition game to the Fraser Valley Taco Festival and also brought in music acts such as Rascal Flatts and Dallas Smith. Even The Wiggles came to town during that period, and 2020 was set to be another year of growth for the Abbotsford Centre.
But then 2020 happened.
Events were postponed, sometimes several times over, others were cancelled and the arena was unused for a great deal of 2020 – not from a lack of demand but from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Going back a year ago, I think we were really excited for what 2020 was going to bring,” said Rick Comeau, the general manager of the AC. “We kicked off the year with a really good start in the first quarter after a great fall and this year was set to be one of our best ever as far as events go.”
The first rescheduling that had to occur was the Gnarly Barley Brew Festival, which was originally set for March 14. The festival was set to feature more than 20 breweries from all across the province and allow attendees the chance to sample a variety of different drinks. It was pushed back to Aug. 29 but then eventually had to be outright cancelled.
Brad Paisley on March 7 was the final big event hosted by the AC for 2020, but by the next week postponements and cancellations started coming in. Each event organizer had a different mindset about moving forward, which made for a lot of uncertainty for everyone involved moving forward.
“Some were cancelling right away like Cirque du Soleil,” Comeau said. “Other shows wanted to postpone but they had no idea when to postpone to. It was really challenging trying to work with everybody to kind of move our calendar without knowing when that end date was, and even now it’s challenging for us.”
Comeau said it’s disappointing for the fans who anticipate the shows, but the pandemic has also been devastating to his staff. The AC has 16 full-time staff in normal times, but in early-July they had to lay off over half the staff due to all the uncertainty moving forward. There are now just seven full-time staff at the AC, and there have also been a number of part-time positions cut related to when events occur such as security, concession and host jobs.
Despite the lack of potential events to host, Comeau said the AC has been finding unique ways to have some money coming in. The arena hosted several movie shoots in the fall, and also partnered with one of their tenants, the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds hockey team, to host the Cohort Cup, which started in October.
The Cohort Cup featured some of the top U18, U16 and U15 talents from across the province, and the Thunderbirds invited five other organizations to compete in the tournament. Teams and age groups played on different weekends, and all COVID-19 protocols were adhered to.
Comeau said only two people involved with the tournament tested positive for COVID-19 and the virus was not transmitted or spread anywhere else after the positive case was discovered. He said the tournament was a success, but has been put on pause following the new restrictions involving sports in B.C.
The AC has also been offering several virtual experiences for locals to enjoy the fun of a big event in the comfort of their own home. On Nov. 28, they offered an opportunity to watch the popular 1989 holiday movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo.
The AC is also offering a virtual improv show from two of the stars of Whose Line Is It Anyway. Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood host four unique shows via Zoom that will allow the audience to participate in the show. The first show was on Nov. 27, with other shows planned for Dec. 5, 13 and 19.
“These types of events aren’t about making money for us,” Comeau said. “It’s us getting out in the community and trying to keep them engaged in what we have going on. I think it’s important for us to be looking at these types of virtual experiences right now.”
Comeau said he’s anticipating inviting the public back soon, and added that those in attendance will see more safety procedures implemented permanently. The building bought several electrostatic sprayers to help workers clean and disinfect more efficiently. The AC is also looking into contactless ticket scanning for entry and the mobile ordering and payment for concession items.
“When we do reopen, it will look different than it did a year ago,” he said. “We want our guests to come back and feel that it’s a safe venue to come into. But that first performance – I just can’t wait for that to happen. I’m really excited for that day to come.”
The next scheduled event at the AC is the Iron Assassin’s Demolition Derby. That event is tentatively set for April 10, 2021.
Other upcoming events scheduled include: Jeff Dunham (April 21), and ZZ Top and Cheap Trick (April 23). The Fraser Valley Bandits pro basketball team is expected to host home dates beginning in May.