BY ALEX KINSELLA | MAY 2022
Waterloo Region welcomed the Ontario Volleyball Association Championships back to the RIM Park Manulife Sportsplex for their 2022 championship tournament in April. The tournament hosted 572 teams from across the province, with over 20,000 players, coaches, staff, and spectators staying and playing during the 21-day tournament.
Planning a tournament of this scope and size is never an easy endeavor. Trying to make it happen while dealing with pandemic delays and the uncertainty of changing provincial guidelines makes it more difficult.
Thankfully, the City of Waterloo, Explore Waterloo Region’s Sport Hosting Office (SHO), and the Ontario Volleyball Association have a long history of creating successful tournaments at the 320,000 sq. ft. RIM Park Manulife Sportsplex facility in the north end of Waterloo. Alishia Lidums, director of volleyball operations at the Ontario Volleyball Association (OVA), said the tournament was an amazing success.
“During the planning in the months leading up to it, I kept thinking ‘is it happening, is it not happening?’ In January, we were still in a lockdown and we didn’t know what would happen. But we had plans in place to make sure it could go off without a hitch — and it did,” Lidums said.
The energy of thousands of volleyball players and their families celebrating their sport was a sign that things are returning to normal — especially for Jillian Fleming, marketing and business development manager for the City of Waterloo. She said that their staff constantly commented on the positive moods of everyone at the tournament.
“Everyone was so appreciative and so thankful that they could be playing their sport. Things that might have caused hiccups in the past — whether it’s lining up for food services or parking — people were not complaining about. It was just a really great energy,” Fleming said.
Working in an accelerated timeline
One of the most significant challenges for the City of Waterloo and the OVA was the timeline. Ontario was in lockdown in January while the team was still working to finalize schedules, staff, volunteers, and hospitality venues around the city.
“We made some best guesses on what we thought could happen,” said Fleming. “You’re trying to plan in unknown circumstances and it was definitely a challenge not knowing where those provincial regulations would be.”
Fleming added that they had prepared for limited capacities and screenings if the measures were still in place. Thankfully, public health measures worked, and restrictions were lifted in time to finalize the tournament plans.
Reopening a 220,000 square facility
Shutting down the facility during lockdowns meant shuttering food service areas and reducing staff. With measures lifted, city staff started their recovery process to bring the facility’s food and guest services into operation.
“We were recovering from being locked down. For example, we were not fully up and operational with our food services for the tournament. We just didn’t have the staff as many had gone on to other work,” Fleming said.
Training new staff
In addition to food service staff, Fleming said there were challenges with facilities staff. Many of their part-time employees had moved to other jobs, which meant bringing on and training new employees in time for the tournament.
“We had a lot of first time part-time staff supporting the event. There was a slight loss of knowledge from previous events, but we still had all our full time resources, which was incredible. We really leaned on them to make it happen,” Fleming said.
Volunteers make the dream work
The tournament typically relies on volunteers to help run the event during the 21 days of play. This year, Lidums said that many of the local teams who would normally volunteer didn’t want to risk not being able to play if they were forced to isolate.
“We had a big challenge of trying to find 135 people to work over those competition days. But we managed to pull it off. Jillian was amazing. She went into the community and found volunteers. We even had pickleball players volunteering too. Everyone in the community came together to make the event happen,” Lidums said.
Why OVA chooses Waterloo Region
The tournament moves in two year cycles, and next spring the Championships will be held at Enercare Centre in Toronto. Lidums said she is excited to continue working with the City of Waterloo and Explore Waterloo Region to bring the tournament back to the RIM Park Manulife Sportsplex again for a future tournament.
“It’s honestly like a little family unit for us. Working with this staff is just amazing, it’s like second nature to everyone,” Lidums said. “The facility is wonderful too. We have 24 courts that we set up across the Sportsplex and get a lot of teams in there to play and experience a festival type environment.”
Fleming added that the great partnership between the City of Waterloo and OVA helped make the tournament a success. The two teams were able to rely on their years of shared experience to deal with the changes and challenges of the pandemic.
“We really do feel that we are partners in the delivery of this event. We can anticipate each other’s needs. I don’t have a longer standing relationship with any other client than with the Ontario volleyball Association,” Fleming said.
Lidums agreed and added that working with Fleming and the City of Waterloo feels like second nature.
“Our volleyball community has grown to really love Waterloo and having the Ontario Championships here,” Lidums said.
Explore Waterloo Region’s Director of Sport Hosting, Allister Scorgie, says these types of partner relationships highlight why Waterloo Region is able to attract premier events – like the OVAs – to our region.
“The OVA Championships showcase the key ingredients needed to host a great event – the partnership between the sport, venue and tourism is essential,” he says. “If you don’t have one of those key players at the table, it hinders the experience of the athletes, spectators, coaches, officials and the community. OVA and the City of Waterloo have done an excellent job over the years of refining the event to ensure it has a positive impact on everyone involved, and we are happy to be part of that relationship.”
Bringing more sporting events to Waterloo Region
Staff at the City of Waterloo are working with more sports organizations across the province and the country to bring world-class events to city facilities. Fleming said the city is continuing to see an increase in interest.
“It’s a little difficult to keep up right now. We’re seeing events that would have normally been booked a year in advance looking to book for fall. We’re trying to deliver these events within two to three months that normally would have been in a 12 to 18 month window,” Fleming said.
The city is looking forward to hosting the Canadian Wrestling Trials and the 2023 Toyota National U-15 Championships. Fleming is also working with Allister Scorgie at the Sport Hosting office to bid for the Ontario Volleyball Championships in 2024.
Hosting events like the OVA Championships generates significant economic benefits for Waterloo Region hospitality businesses. Fleming said the OVA tournament alone generates over $18 million in economic impact through hotel bookings and local restaurants, bars, and breweries.
Fleming said that their restaurant, retail, and hotel partners appreciate events like the OVA tournament. For the first time in 14 years, Fleming reached out to local establishments to give them the heads up that 20,000 people would be descending on the city for three weeks.
“I was concerned that many of these restaurants had likely reduced staff or were new to the area since the last tournament. I got so many thanks from the owners who said how excited they were and appreciative of events like this coming back,” Fleming said.