2021 London Ribfest a success despite pandemic concerns, restrictions, organizers say

The 2021 London Ribfest took place in Victoria Park from July 29 to Aug. 2. Global News

Just over one week removed, the organizers of London’s annual Ribfest have been reflecting on the experiences and lessons learned in trying to stage a large outdoor event during a global pandemic.

The festival, which ran from July 29 to Aug. 2, was the first held in person in London’s Victoria Park since the summer of 2019, and came two weeks after the province loosened COVID-19 restrictions, which allowed for such outdoor gatherings.

“I’m really happy that we were able to make this happen. It was touch and go,” said Doug Hillier, president of Family Shows Canada, in an interview with 980 CFPL.

“But then we saw all of the amazing people that came, the lineups that came, and socially distanced lineups. Everyone behaved so well and enjoyed, very much, the festival that we presented.”

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This year’s Ribfest was a scaled-down affair, contained to a fenced-off area at the southeast quadrant of the park in order to monitor capacity numbers and ensure social distancing and mask-wearing.

Ribber’s Row was in its usual spot along Wellington Street, however, pandemic restrictions meant no midway rides and fewer vendors set up in the park to sell their wares. Two music stages kept people entertained.

“Normally we are totally controlled by the City of London and it’s been a wonderful experience… But now I finally got a new boss, and that was the Board of Health,” Hillier said of organizing this year’s festival.

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“I have gone through all kinds of challenges over the years with the festivals. Rain and bad weather … even too hot has been a problem. But this year, my big boss was the Board of Health telling me how we have to have social distancing, how we have to have hand sanitizers, masks, so on,” he continued.

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“That has been a strange thing for me, but I’ve adapted and I could do it again if I had to, but let’s hope we don’t.”

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Despite concerns about the ongoing pandemic and capacity limits, Londoners still came out in big numbers, ready to chow down.

More than 100,000 people attended the festival over its five-day run, Hillier says. In comparison, previous Ribfests have seen an average of between 150,000 and 225,000 attendees.

Among the main lessons learned for hosting future outdoor events in the downtown, Hillier says, is listening and working closely with the community and Board of Health.

“The ability to listen and adapt to exactly what they’re telling us while still keeping the traditions alive,” he said.

“There’s only a few traditions that we missed, and that was the rib judging and some of the games. If that’s all we’ve lost, then it’s best to play ball and make sure everyone’s happy. And that’s what we all did.

— Matthew Trevithick contributed reporting. With files from Mike Stubbs

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