Bluesfest Spotlight: Leading the Volunteers

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We’ll go beyond the music with artist interviews, volunteer profiles, concert reviews and spotlights on
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Photos by Andre Gagne

With so many amazing acts spread out across multiple stages, it’s easy to lose sight of just how many people are involved in the massive undertaking that is RBC Bluesfest, most who never see compensation for their work outside of free shows and some tasty grub. To the 3,500 plus volunteers who mingle each summer with an average festival attendance of more than a quarter-million fans, that’s just fine. They know that without them Bluesfest just wouldn’t be possible.

“The only way this festival succeeds is with our incredible force of dedicated volunteers, and we cannot emphasize enough the amount of gratitude we have for your personal contribution,” reads an excerpt from the Volunteer Handbook.

Volunteers are the first people to welcome you when you walk onto the festival grounds and the last to see you when you walk off. They are the people who pick up the garbage, guard your bikes, direct you to the nearest beer tent, sell you some merch and look out for your safety.

With an army that size scattered all over LeBreton Flats and so many tasks to ensure are completed each day, somebody has to lead them all! In the first of Ottawa Life Magazine’s spotlight on Bluesfest volunteers, we talk with Anna Wood, HR Manager for Volunteer Services.

In the off season, Wood likes to keep things pretty low key which is understandable considering how many people she becomes responsible for each July. Still, caring about others is a huge facet of her personality not to mention career choice. She just recently completed her Doula training.

Unlike some who get hooked by the perks and feel-good aspect of volunteering right away, Wood admits it took a few times for her to swim into the deep end of the Bluesfest pool first working the Beer Tents back in 2011. She wouldn’t become a full time staffer until 2013 falling back on past experience when it came to the position.

“My former career was stage management and a dance teacher at an arts immersion school in Calgary,” Wood tells Ottawa Life. “I believe that those positions and volunteer management are all under the same umbrella of being able to work collaboratively with people, problem solve, learn and grow.”

Her work begins long before the first stage goes up at the Flats. In October Wood and her team reflect on what was successful during the last festival and what could be improved as they are always looking to make the experience better for the volunteers. It’s one of the reasons the festival has such a high return rate. As the festival nears the start, their specialized recruitment of those who will be working backstage or with the photography crew are brought on and then, by April, they are working on shift times and placements to make sure things go off without a hitch when hundreds of eager volunteers log in online to register in May. Her team is also trying to look ahead to see what operational needs will be needed onsite.

“If you think about it, whatever a volunteer stands under or touches, goes through our department to ensure the tent is the right size, the correct number of tables are ordered, and the volunteer leaders have all of the information they need to effectively lead their team of event volunteers.”

Thankfully, she doesn’t have to do it alone and cites colleague Emily Mason as year-round support, especially when it comes down to crunch time and Wood can’t take three steps without her phone or radio going off. The help this year is extra appreciated as she’s taking those steps with a newly broken foot!

Here’s only a sample of what her often 15-hour days look like:

  • Up early to get to the War Museum for 9 AM where her two way radio awaits.
  • Set up the Volunteer Check-In area.
  • The morning is spent catching up on whatever needs to be solved from the previous day.
  • Emails are answered, calls are made, calls are taken.
  • Her tam arrives three hours before gates open and they are briefed.
  • The team is sent to various location to help out area leaders.
  • Questions come through. Answers are looked into.
  • Everything peaks between 7 – 9 PM when Wood and crew act as a resource team.
  • When gates close they talk with other area leaders and ready the next day.
  • Wood is home by 12:30, sometimes 1:30 AM, where she quickly crashes and begins again the next morning!

Unlike others who help out at the festivals, she hardly ever gets to see a full concert. Wood’s not complaining about that, the long days or the workload, though. In fact she enjoys it.

“I love moving onsite and seeing the site come together, and then seeing our staff team and our volunteer team in their element. Everyone I work with is so good at what they do, and it is 100% why I'm still in this job. It's incredible to be part of a team that builds a temporary city, and produces a world class event with grace, charisma, and care.”

Of course, volunteering for the festival in any capacity doesn’t come without some challenges. Wood points out that their contributions can be overlooked by the very people they are working for.

“So many of our volunteers approach their positions with patience and kindness, and sometimes they don't get that same respect back. It's always important to take a step back and see the bigger picture. The person who sold you your ticket is a volunteer, that person serving you a beer is a volunteer, the person you speak with on the phone when you call to complain is a volunteer, that beer can you just tossed on the ground, is going to get picked up by a volunteer. I want our volunteers to feel appreciated and valued, and that comes in the form of day to day recognition and respect.”

Wood knows perhaps more than anyone how important these volunteers are and she’s always humbled by the care they have for each other even if these friendships only come once a year. She says everyone is connected and her volunteers are the heart of the festival.

“I've witnessed our team support people through cancer treatment, through losing family members, to celebrating marriages and babies. We truly are a family, and it's remarkable how much we all look out for each other.”