5 Questions to… Rebecca Cotter, Water-on-Wheels

5 questions to...

Water on Wheels (WOW) provides mobile water refill stations to outdoor events in Ontario and further. It was created by Rebecca Cotter, Toronto-based event planner and instructor of special event management, and as we were chatting about industry trends and the joys and sorrows of teaching, I got to ask her 5 questions about this genius invention.


1. How did you start WOW?

I got the concept from my experience working at Downsview Park (in Toronto), putting on concerts and festivals every weekend, and standing in the field after everyone’s gone and contemplating the garbage that each event generated – more garbage than anyone has ever seen in their life. That’s what you’re left with when people go home after having a good time. And a lot of it was plastic bottles.

As I was responsible for managing the full logistics of site cleaning and recycling, I was wondering how to make it more efficient. The bottles often still had beverage in them, and you pay by weight for site cleaning, so the bill was heavy!

I did some research and came up with the concept: the Water on Wheels stations connected to a tap water source. I got the first station built in 2010 and started with a sketchy website.

At the moment, the legislation is becoming stricter about waste, and there’s a very active push to ban commercially packaged water, for example in schools and on municipal properties. People are more and more aware that tap water is high quality water, and that bottled water is environmentally costly. There’s a trend to carry your own reusable bottle. So I’ve been fortunate, because my idea came up at the right time.

WOW at Luminato Festival,  Distillery District, Toronto

WOW at Luminato Festival, Distillery District, Toronto

2. What’s up for you now?

This year will be big – it took me 4 years to get there. When I launched, I knew I was a bit ahead of the social trend. I always have a booth at trade events, and we generate a lot of interest, but people still often think that they can’t afford it.

We’re present at over 100 events a year, mainly in Ontario, where we rent out one or several water stations. This year, we have also started manufacturing and selling our stations across North America.

I started with the rationale to eliminate waste, but event planners are also concerned about how much it costs. Our stations are available to rent, and we’re priced competitively, but when you add other factors, especially transport to places in the US, it can end up being not so cheap. It is certainly cheaper to get a food vendor to sell bottles – but not if you factor in the environmental and human cost.

Selling stations is a new development and it works out better for some clients, but we’ll continue to rent out, to downtown festivals, one-off events etc.

WOW Water Table

WOW Water Table

3. How much time do you spend on WOW?

I always ran my business in addition to my other occupations (previously a full-time event manager and a part-time event planning instructor, now a full-time teacher and part-time event contractor). In the high season, May to September, it’s pretty much full-time, but mainly on alternative hours – evenings and weekends.

I’m the owner, and I hire between 8 and 10 part-time people for the summer season, to drive,  unload, hook up the station to a source, and stay with the unit on site.

4. Concretely, how does it work?

We usually connect to a fire hydrant or outdoor hose tap. Sometimes we need a permit to access water, ranging around $100-$150, which includes use of water. It all depends on the municipality, but I’ve never had a situation where clients had to pay for metered water.

We provide a meter reading to all our clients to show them how much water was used during their event, which generates very positive PR. We can estimate how many bottles were saved or diverted.

A regular bottle fills up in 10 seconds. If every tap is continuously used on one station, we can fill up 1,200 to 1,500 bottles an hour.

We’ve done events from 100 to 100,000 audience members, and for the bigger events, we provide 3 to 4 stations. A typical outdoor concert means 25 to 30K bottles refilled a day – smaller community events range from 3-5K bottles.

Refill station

Refill station

5. Apart from saving on waste, what are the benefits for audiences and event organisers?

The research we conducted shows that without the stations, ⅓ of people who refill would be motivated to buy a $5 bottle. Clearly not everyone who refills for free would buy a bottle of water. Actually, if you had $5 to spend at an outdoor event, would you buy beer or water? Most people would choose beer – so without free water, the cost of not having WOW is what you would pay in First Aid & Emergency services, to take care of people who are dehydrated, throw up, pass out… We worked closely with people in first aid services and were able to correlate the evidence: more water = less First Aid.

We did the VELD electronic music festival in Downsview Park in 2012, at the hottest time of the year. The grass was so burnt that it looked like a beach.  We had a line-up from morning to night, 300 people deep, and we refilled 55-60K bottles in 2 days. Under such conditions, people can get severely dehydrated, and it’s the event planner’s responsibility to ensure their safety.

It’s really all about the audience experience. The concept has now been around long enough that people expect it. If it’s not there, it would be a disappointment. We get a lot of interaction on Twitter, people check if we’ll be where they’re going. That’s actually our best marketing device – after having a station at an event: if ticket holders want us at their event, then they’ll request us on Twitter.

Some clients work with their sponsors to brand our stations. They might give out refillable bottles, provide extra staff wearing a branded T-shirt… that’s a very good way to offset the rental fee and a very good example of sponsor activation. It shows real value for the sponsor, because  we can actually measure how many people interacted with us, and it’s a meaningful interaction: when people have been in the sun all day, they’re really grateful for the chance to drink some fresh, cold, free water. We’re everybody’s best friend!

Water on a summer festival day

Water on a summer festival day

– – –

For more about Water on Wheels, visit the brand new website and follow them on Twitter.