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Uncorked: Ottawa convention centre in messy legal spat with wine and food show

In a counter-suit, the owner of the Ottawa Wine and Food Festival is seeking nearly $10 million in damages from the Convention Centre.

Court documents show the Ottawa Convention Centre Corporation is suing the owner of the Ottawa Wine and Food Festival for allegedly failing to pay the $156,476 fee to rent the space at the Shaw Centre for the 2015 show.

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Court documents show the Ottawa Convention Centre Corporation is suing the owner of the Ottawa Wine and Food Festival for allegedly failing to pay the $156,476 fee to rent the space at the Shaw Centre for the 2015 show.

An ugly legal spat is threatening to put a cork in Ottawa’s popular wine and food show.

Recently filed court documents allege Shaw Centre management has for years been trying to force the popular festival from its downtown venue over what it claims are a “litany” of operational problems – including drunk servers, fights and even people urinating on the floor.

It appears things came to a head after last year' show, and now the company that runs the convention centre and the owner of the festival are embroiled in a messy legal dispute.

The Ottawa Convention Centre Corporation has filed a lawsuit in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in which it is seeking $156,476 plus interest in damages from Treefort Hip Productions, which is the company that owns the Ottawa Wine and Food Festival.

In its statement of claim, filed Dec. 10, 2015, the convention centre alleges Treefort failed to pay the licensing fee for the 2015 event, which was held at the Shaw Centre from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1. 

The most recent festival – which marked the event’s 30th year – was “especially problematic,” says an affidavit filed Jan. 6 by Dan Young, the convention centre’s vice-president and chief operating officer.

The event was marred by “over-pouring of alcohol by exhibitors, intoxication, crowd control issues, instances of theft, intoxicated exhibitors, urination on the show floor and vomiting,” Young alleges in the affidavit.

“The show degenerated to the point where we received an email from the Ottawa Police Service.”

2015 Ottawa Wine and Food Festival Incident Report

But, in an unusual twist, Treefort fired back with a lawsuit of its own, in which the company is seeking close to $10 million in damages from the convention centre, which is a provincial Crown agency.

Treefort alleges the convention centre has caused “irreparable harm” and its “high handed and oppressive” conduct hurt the company’s business.

None of the allegations on either side has been tested in court.

Treefort has also asked the court for an injunction to stop the convention centre from booking any dates in the first two weekends of November for the next five years to anyone beside the wine and food show.

Treefort claims the convention centre is not entitled to the 2015 licensing fee because it allegedly breached an apparent long-standing and formal agreement between the two sides – which the company says caused its business to suffer. 

According to Treefort, that agreement stipulated the convention centre would not host competing food and beverage shows 60 days before and 60 days after the wine and food show.

The convention centre violated this agreement, Treefort alleges, by booking what it calls a competing food-related event – Privé’s “613 Night Market” – in the weeks leading up to the 2014 edition of the wine and food show.

Treefort also claims the convention centre agreed to set aside the first two weekends in November for the wine and food show.

But in its court filings, the convention centre claims no such agreement exists.

“This is nonsense,” Young says in his affidavit. 

Since the festival was only a “second priority” event, the convention centre agreed to contracts with the festival’s producer, Joan Culliton, no more than a year in advance, Young says, adding that he made it clear to her that “fixed dates cannot be guaranteed.”

The convention centre alleges there have been problems with the wine and food show going back to 2011 – but says it agreed to work with Culliton to keep the show afloat.

All this legal wrangling has cast doubt over this year’s event.

The convention centre says it has already booked other events for the first two weekends of November and it would be breaking its commitments if the court grants Treefort’s request to set aside early November dates until 2020 for the wine and food show.

Superior Court Justice Julianne Parfett is scheduled to hear Treefort's motion later this month. 

The convention centre isn’t saying much about the legal quarrel.

“Commercial disputes are always unfortunate circumstances,” Nina Kressler, the convention centre’s president and CEO, said in an email.

“This matter is before the courts and we have no comments to add on the specifics of the proceedings.”

But the festival’s organizers are adamant there will still be a food and wine show at the convention centre in November, despite Young’s assertion that “we have no interest currently in renting space to Treefort for the OWFF” and the festival should consider other venues. 

Treefort says in court filings that the festival is “not compatible outside of the downtown core” and the company risks an “existential business crisis” if the Shaw Centre is not available this year. 

“The festival will go ahead in either the first or the second weekend of November as it always has,” Culliton told Metro.

“We’ve enjoyed a long and successful relationship with the convention centre. We’re reviewing and trying to come to a common understanding on various aspects of that relationship.”

She also downplayed the alleged problems at the most recent festival, and says this year’s event will have an “extensive” security reporting system in place.

“There was over 20,000 welcomed to the festival,” Culliton said. 

“There were five security incidents. We don’t look at that as a major measure or issue.”

Allegations swirling around the food and wine show

Each side has made a number of allegations – none of which has been tested in court. 

What is the convention centre alleging? 

Dan Young, who is an executive with the Ottawa Convention Centre Corporation, alleges there have been problems with the wine and food festival going back to 2011 – the year the convention centre re-opened after a three-year renovation.

The convention centre alleges:

• There was “rowdiness, security issues, fighting, drunkenness, and other problems that we do not want to have at the Shaw Centre” at the festival’s 2011 edition.

• The 2012 edition of the festival was “problematic” for reasons not spelled out in the court document, and as a result the convention centre and Treefort entered into a memorandum of understanding to “set the parameters of the relationship.”

• The 2013 and 2014 festivals were also “problematic.” 

• The 2015 event was “especially problematic.” The convention centre alleges there were thefts, intoxicated exhibitors, and people who urinated on the show floor and vomited.

• Ottawa police emailed the convention centre to raise safety concerns about the 2015 event, including fighting and crowd control problems.

• There were 24 documented instances of over-pouring, according to the 2015 Ottawa Wine and Food Festival Incident Report during the first two days of the event. 

• Festival producer Joan Culliton failed to pay in advance for the space. 

• Treefort still owes another company, Freeman, $50,000 in “material handling and IT services” for the 2015 event. 

What is Treefort alleging?  

Treefort Hip Productions alleges the Ottawa Convention Centre Corporation has been trying to force the Ottawa Wine and Food Festival out of the Shaw Centre since 2011: 

• In 2011, the convention centre hiked the rental and operational charges by 400 per cent for the following year’s event. “Treefort had no choice but to agree to the new onerous terms of business as dictated by the Convention Centre.”

• In 2012, the convention centre “abruptly” refused entrance to attendees who had already purchased tickets even though the occupancy limit had not been met. “This caused substantial financial losses for Treefort and damaged the festival’s reputation.”

• In 2013, the convention centre imposed “arbitrary and demanding conditions” on Treefort, including hiking ticket prices by 25 per cent.

• In 2014, the documents say the convention centre hosted three “competing” events in the month leading up to the 2014 festival, including one called the “International Food & Drink Soiree.”

• Prior to the 2015 festival, the convention centre informed Treefort that the preferred dates were not available and the wine and food festival would have to take place during the Halloween weekend. “The hosting of the festival over the Halloween weekend caused a drastic decline in ticket sales, the cancellation of several exhibitors and the festival losing out on full payment under its sponsorship agreements. A number of exhibitors have sought compensation from Treefort due to lower attendance and the festival had to abandon a planned price increase for exhibitor space for 2016.”

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