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

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

Sustaining Great Art

Tools of the Trade

I have no idea how Julie’s Bicycle got their name but I know what they do: they help arts and creative organisations to become sustainable. Or in their own words:

Julie’s Bicycle is a not for profit organisation making sustainability intrinsic to the business, art and ethics of the creative industries.

Founded by the music industry, with expertise from the arts and sustainability, Julie’s Bicycle bridges the gap between the creative industries and sustainability. Based on a foundation of peer-reviewed research, we sustain creativity, enabling the arts to create change.

We work with over 1000 arts organisations across the UK and internationally, large and small, to help them measure, manage and reduce their environmental impacts.

They’re unique in their deep knowledge of both the arts & culture sector – their founder and CEO Alison Tickell comes from the music scene – and environmental standards and best practices.

They’ve recently been working with Arts Council England as a strategic partner to create indicators and tools to help arts organisations – for now, National Portfolio Organisations and Major Museum Partnerships – report on their environmental impact  – and they just co-published a nice report to draw the lessons from the first year of this project.

In 2012, Arts Council England became the first arts funding body in the world to embed environmental sustainability into the funding agreements of its major programmes. Arts organisations are an integral part of the fabric of their host cities and regions, and environmental sustainability is now, as Alan Davey, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, puts it, “both (an) ethical concern and economic imperative”.

Or to quote Anthony Sargent, General Director, Sage Gateshead:

There is no more essential task for us all – as citizens and as companies – than to start to live within the sustainable means of our planet.

Julie’s Bicyle has designed free tools and resources to support arts organisations in evaluating and reducing their environmental impact. It also provides useful case studies spanning a range of settings and scales:

Some interesting insights from the report:

Engagement and Impact

  • In the first year an outstanding 90% of all 704 organisations engaged in some capacity with the environmental reporting programme. These results represent the single biggest dataset from arts organisations globally.

  • In a survey, nearly 90% of funded organisations agreed or strongly agreed that “Arts Council Environmental Reporting has made or can make a positive difference to the arts sector as a whole”.

Size, shape, readiness and artform really do matter

Significant differences in reporting levels and reliability were observed across settings and artforms. Unsurprisingly, it is easier for cultural buildings and office-based organisations than for touring and outdoor events to assess their environmental impact; but the ability to report is also affected by the support and cooperation (or lack of) of landlords (for small organisations) and local authorities (for all).

In terms of artforms, “levels of engagement and reporting have generally been higher for theatre, Major partner museums  and visual arts, compared with literature, dance and music. Museums and theatres in particular have already been targeted by specific environmental initiatives, something which has not been the case for the other art forms”.

There is an appetite for learning through exchange and collaboration

A number of groups are already demonstrating the benefits of collaboration, including:

London Theatre Consortium, 13 theatres working to develop strategic, creative initiatives and share expertise and resources, including a sustainability strand.

Manchester Arts Sustainability Team, 13 arts organisations, venues and events, collaborating to support their own sustainability goals and Manchester’s climate change strategy.

Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues, 10 venues working to share learning and maximise their positive environmental, social, cultural and economic impact, with different workstreams, including a Green Campaign and Capital Investment Strategy which explores longer-termsustainable capital projects for the group

Royal Opera House, Royal National Theatre and Royal Albert Hall, who entered into a three-year contract for collective energy procurement known as ‘The Arts Basket’ provided by the energy broker Power Efficiency in 2012. Other organisations have since joined and benefits include reduced costs, better risk management and longer-term price certainty on a green tariff supply.

There is a clear need for a more differentiated strategy for year two and beyond

This is a significant outcome: defining categories of organisations based on their access to data – with relevant environmental indicators.

“Smaller organisations, offices and events (are) unable to provide meaningful energy and water data, and for organisations whose primary activity is touring and events, (…) reporting on other sources of environmental impact, e.g. transport and waste, may be more meaningful.”

Findings and recommendations from the Year 1 report will inform future funding agreements (2016-2018), including “continu(ing) to ask organisations to collect data and to develop policies and action plans that improve environmental performance and carbon emissions” as well as “ensur(ing) that what we ask is proportionate, as part of a differentiated strategy.”