Monday, November 2, 1998

St. Paddy's Parade to get major facelift

Larry Smith is a sucker for blue eyes and banana bread


That's how he landed the biggest non-paid, marketing job in Canada - chairman of the committee for Montreal's 175th St. Patrick's Parade celebrations.

That's how he landed the biggest non-paid, marketing job in Canada - chairman of the committee for Montreal's 175th St. Patrick's Parade celebrations.

In normal times, Smith, 44, is co-owner of a Montreal-based agency which promotes singers, actors and musicians. These days, he works gratis 60 hours a week planning the 175th anniversary celebrations of the oldest, uninterrupted, annual St. Patrick's Parade in North America.

For the first time in its history, the St. Patrick's Parade is being organized like a business venture, albeit a business with deep community roots and one which is totally dependent on volunteers, such as Smith and other members of the United Irish Societies (UIS).

Why does a pragmatic businessman volunteer for such a challenge? Well, it starts with his sweet, blue-eyed mama, Margaret Curley Smith, who offers Larry a piece of her famous banana bread after stuffing him with a home-cooked stew.

"Larry," asks mom with just the slightest of Irish lilts, "you're always promoting your artists, but can't you volunteer your talents to help with the community activities of the United Irish Societies?"

Larry isn't convinced, but mother is persistent. Fixing her baby blues on Larry, she slices him a second wallop of banana bread, doused with warm butter.

Larry is melting faster than the butter. "Okay, mom, I'm ready to do my share," he drawls, eyeing the remainder of the loaf. Before the butter has congealed in his entrepreneurial arteries, a UIS membership application is slapped in front of him.

Larry dutifully signs, believing it might clear the way for a doggie bag. It does, but not before he forks over $15 to go with the application form. After all, mom knows the primary tenet of business - insist on a deposit. It makes for a stronger commitment.

175th Montreal St Patrick Day offical logo

It doesn't take long for the UIS executive committee to take note of Smith's marketing and networking skills. But UIS President Margaret Healy is keeping close tabs on his plans to upgrade the parade celebrations through corporate sponsorships.

Healy and other members of the UIS executive are aware of the revenue-generating potential of the celebrations which could be used to help fund the many charitable UIS causes. At the same time, they want to ensure that the parade retains its local flavor - no huge influx of big corporate sponsors to push out grass-root participants who have traditionally marched in rain, shine or snow.

Potential corporate sponsors who are aware of Irish involvement and influence in Canada recognize the marketing potential for the 175th version of the parade scheduled for 1999.

Statistics support the prevalant role the Irish have played throughout Canada. Six of Montreal's mayors have been Irish. Countless federal and provincial politicians have been of Irish heritage, including five of the early premiers of British Columbia.

Up to four million Canadians are believed to be of Irish descent and as many as 40 percent of French-speaking Quebecers can trace some Irish ancestry. That's a lot of folks who buy cars, travel by air and rail, shop for food, use computers, read books and newspapers, buy clothes, listen to radio and, of course, watch television.

The scope of this project has not been lost on Patrick O'Hara, operations manager for Global Television Network's independent productions. O'Hara has visions of broadcasting the parade coast to coast, fully aware that up to 500,000 people - many of them tourists - line Montreal's streets each year to watch the parade in person with a potential television audience of several million more.

Stonehaven, a Montreal-based multimedia company, is producing the parade, as well as a documentary which is to be aired on Global.

Smith, who is negotiating to secure a major print partner to match Global's broadcast reach, has been contacted by several national corporate sponsors anxious to ensure their presence among the limited number of new floats being opened to outsiders in this grand-daddy of parades.

  • By next week, Smith and his UIS team will begin sending out full-color prospectuses to potential sponsors, outlining the various celebration events and their attendant exposure:
  • The parade - to be held Sunday, March 14, 1999 - is still the pièce de résistance, with space for up to 12 new, Walt Disney-type floats to be designed and built under UIS supervision with financial backing from sponsors.
  • The traditional crowning of the Queen in early February
  • The annual awards dinner dance held the Saturday after the parade
  • The Mass of Anticipation held on Sunday, March 7 - one week before the parade

In addition to those events, which are held every year, there are new activities being discussed including a major concert ; a tournament pitting Irish and Canadian boxers; an ice sculpting contest and a commemorative booklet on the history of the parade. The Canadian Space Agency is looking into the possibility of joining the parade.

Aside from the extensive broadcast and print coverage of these events, Smith plans to set up a VIP tent for sponsors behind the parade's reviewing stand.

Don Pidgeon, a UIS historian and member of the executive, puts it this way: "It's like a business. We have to generate sufficient funds from sponsorships to upgrade the parade and continue our charitable activities.

"A beautiful parade is worth promoting. We want to put something together which has a beneficial impact on Montreal."

The theme of the parade is "175 Years - An Irish Journey." After all, the locals have been marching in this parade every year since 1824. Only New York's St. Paddy's Day Parade is older, dating to March 17, 1762, but - unlike Montreal's which is the oldest, uninterrupted, annual parade - it was cancelled during the American Civil War.

Put in historical context, Montreal's St. Patrick's Parade is older than: · The Lachine Canal (1825) · Rail service in Canada (1836) · Telegraph service in Canada (1847) · The burning of the Parliament buildings in Montreal (1849) · The Stanley Cup (1893).

Well-known, local business and media figures have been recruited to the standard. Jim Barriere, president of BGL Brokerage Ltd., has been nominated to be the Grand Marshal of the parade. Local CBC news anchor Dennis Trudeau will be the Chief Reviewing Officer.

All the hoopla is a new sensation for UIS president Healy. "In the past, we usually just scraped through," she says. "I can't ever remember getting a surplus. Larry's terrific enthusiasm and vision have opened a lot of possibilities."

Smith, whose best friend is his cell phone, is left speechless by this outpouring of enthusiasm. "I have a few new ideas, but without the dedication and hard work of the Irish community, this parade would not be possible."


Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.