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Counting Pride attendees

Why are attendance numbers so hard to pin down?

Crowds line both sides of the 2012 Pride parade route as Bert and Ernie, and many others, celebrate their love. But exactly how many people watched the parade? Credit: Sergei Bachlakov

If organizing a parade seems like a massive undertaking, try counting the throngs of onlookers.

The Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) boasts on its website that the annual parade draws more than 600,000 people, and 750,000 for the 13 Pride events combined. But the number seems to be more of a guestimate than a hard fact.

“It’s far from science,” VPS president Tim Richards acknowledges.

Richards says police say this year’s number of parade attendees was on par with last year, when Pride officials provided an estimate of 640,000 attendees. He says he doesn’t know if police provided the estimate last year.

Parade attendance figures are important to event sponsors, Richards notes.

A presenting partner pays at least $50,000 for the expected crowd exposure, according to the Pride partnership package material. The package says event banners that recognize partners make more than 750,000 impressions.

Partners support Pride because “it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business,” Richards says.

The figures also are important to plan for security and marshalling along the parade route, Richards says.

Current and former VPS officials have cited the police, fire and ambulance services as sources for the crowd estimates. But the agencies tell Xtra they don’t provide crowd estimates for Pride events.

Constable Brian Montague, of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), says, “Anecdotally I can tell you that some of the officers who attended numerous parades said it’s the biggest crowd that they can recall.” But, he adds, the police don’t normally do crowd estimates.

Police have provided attendance figures for previous parades. In 2001, Pride hired consulting firm westQuest to conduct an economic impact study.

The report says, “With an official police attendance estimate of 100,000 in 2001, the Vancouver Pride Parade is part of one of the largest pride festivals held in Canada, and one of the largest on the west coast of the continent.”

VPD spokesperson Lindsey Houghton tells Xtra via email that this year the police provided attendance figures for the Celebration of Light but not Pride. He says the VPD provided attendance figures for Pride and other events in previous years but stopped doing so after some event organizers said they would rather report the figures themselves.

Asked if Pride officials made such a request, he writes, “I don’t know if Pride organizers specifically requested to provide their own stats this year.”

Richards says he would have appreciated a police estimate. “To my knowledge, we would never have turned down an offer for them to do a crowd count,” he says.

Lieutenant Carol Messenger, spokesperson for Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, says the fire department doesn’t track attendance or keep statistics, either. She suggests contacting the parade organizers.

Kelsie Carwiphen, spokeswoman for BC Ambulance Service, says, “The number of people that attend the Pride parade is not something we’d track.”

A spokesman for the mayor’s office also says city agencies do not estimate attendance.

Tim Kraumanis, who sits on the VPS board of directors, told Xtra before the parade that the police or fire departments provide attendance figures. Told by Xtra that those organizations say they don’t provide such statistics, he says he doesn’t know which city agency provides figures.

Ken Coolen, who was president of Vancouver Pride for three years until last year, says organizers obtain figures from several sources, including BC Ambulance Service, the fire and police departments, and even the media.

Told the government agencies say they don’t provide figures, he says, “It was always very hard getting anybody to go on record with the number.”

Coolen says the city charges for services based on the estimated attendance, so the city has some idea of the attendance.

Those estimates, though, would be determined in advance of the parade. Asked why the parade organizers usually wait several days to provide attendance figures, he says, “We use different approximations from different groups. And so they’ll give us unofficial numbers, but they’ll never go on record with a number.”

Counting attendees is a difficulty faced by many Pride organizations.

Pride Calgary depends on the police, says president Dallas Barnes. “We have no actual way of doing it ourselves,” she says. “It would take way too much time.”

At least two other Canadian Pride events turn to professionals to determine crowd estimates.

Montreal Pride hires an external firm to do a survey at Pride every three years, says vice-president Jean-Sébastien Boudreault.

Boudreault says the statistics are important to determine how many security guards are needed.

“But also it’s important when it comes to negotiate partnerships with sponsors,” he adds. “The more people who attend Pride — the more visibility a sponsor gets — the more money we can get when we negotiate the partnership.”

In between surveys, the organization determines crowds at certain events based on the number of people who enter the doors and, for the parade, the organization gets crowd estimates from the police and fire departments, Boudreault says.

But in Montreal, as in Vancouver, the police say they don’t provide crowd estimates. “It is very hard to calculate a crowd, and since we are not specialists we let the organizers of the event provide their own estimate,” says Montreal police spokesperson Anna-Claude Poulin.

The Montreal fire department did not respond to Xtra’s calls.

Toronto also hires an outside research company to conduct an economic impact study. In 2009, Enigma Research Corp estimated that 411,000 people attended Pride.

Richards says Vancouver Pride might consider conducting another economic impact study. “There’s different processes to actually do counting, and at the end of the day one of our goals is to look at having an economic impact study that would have to include a more scientific approach than what we’ve received in the past,” he says.

But such a study could cost $20,000 to $30,000, a substantial sum for a non-profit, he says. “It’s a lot of cash, so we have to take a look at that to see what we could afford to do,” he says.