One of Orange County’s biggest business events of the year isn’t the most obvious, despite the mega-wattage on display.
It’s not a networking event or an awards program, though those two things play a role—it’s the annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, which starts this Wednesday.
Now in its 111th year, the event brings in north of a million people over a five-day period, pulling in businesses from all corners of the county and generating millions for the city.
Still, the event isn’t trying to be a business one, or even be profitable. It just wants to pay for itself, and keep the feeling of a grassroots holiday event, officials say—despite growing by all metrics and generating international attention.
Today, the event is organized by the Commodores Club, a volunteer arm of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, with help from independent nonprofit Newport Beach & Co., the city’s destination marketing organization.
That organizational structure is one of several things that have changed since the event’s humble beginnings in 1908.
John Scarpa, an Italian gondolier, created what was then called the Tournament of Lights. The first parade took place on the Fourth of July, with Scarpa’s gondola leading eight canoes lit by Japanese lanterns.
It was held again in 1913, still in the summer, with a judging component, which remains. The parade grew to about 40 vessels in the ensuing two years.
1915 was the last parade for several years due to World War I and the Depression that hit the city—but the event had a savior in Joseph Beek.
Beek, known locally for many things, including founding the Balboa Island Ferry and playing a role in the development of the island itself, came aboard in 1919, bringing on participants who decorated floats for the parade, drawing inspiration from the neighboring Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade (see story, page 47).
It grew so popular that it was prohibited; in 1949, the city shut down the parade due to the swaths of crowds that came to watch, causing traffic and congestion issues.
Instead of stopping the event, the city now partners with others to help put it on, contributing $50,000 to the total $175,000 budget.
It’s evolved from eight canoes to north of 90 yachts and other vessels, and a crowd of a few dozen to an average of 200,000 viewers a night.
One piece of remaining history is the Beek family; Joseph’s grandson, David, co-chairs the event along with Larry Smith, an agent with Surterre Properties.
“I’ve participated in the parade since my early 20s, and when I became a member of the Commodores Club, it was a natural fit for me to join the boat parade committee,” said Beek, who began chairing the event 13 years ago.
Beek, who also follows in his grandfathers’ footsteps in running the Island Marine Fuel dock on Balboa Island, has helped the parade grow through strategic partnerships, like that with the Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Parker said the parade’s “always been great, but sometimes lacked excitement.”
“We wanted to introduce better light, sound, displays, to take it up a notch while still keeping the same hometown feel,” Parker said. “It became more and more popular,” but the parade ultimately started to plateau.
Enter Newport Beach & Co.
“We saw potential for the parade to garner international attention,” said Gary Sherwin, CEO of the organization that’s not just a destination management organization. The private nonprofit—with a roughly $10 million annual budget—oversees all economic development for the city.
The organization has helped get the event featured on several lists ranking national holiday events and piquing the interest of international outlets. It’s also showcased just how valuable the event is for the city.
A 2017 report conducted with Destination Analysts suggests the parade brings in nearly 1 million attendees over its five-night run, generating $9.4 million in economic impact, including $7.3 million in direct visitor spending.
Disneyland, Wells Fargo
The budget for the event, which includes contributions from the city, the Chamber of Commerce and the Newport Beach & Co., leaves out the most expensive part of the event: the personal investments made by boat owners and homeowners.
“These contributions can’t be calculated, but without a doubt make up the biggest portion,” said Sherwin.
The cost to decorate a yacht, Duffy boat or other vessel can range from negligible to astronomical—with some investing close to $100,000 to install things that might not seem plausible: A roller coaster on a boat? A fire-breathing dragon? It’s been done.
Disneyland Resort was lauded for its participation in the 108th annual parade, when it installed a Main Street Electrical Parade theme to represent the attraction’s return to the amusement park.
“Companies want to be a part of a true community event, and show their support for their home, just as residents do,” said Don Yahn, a Newport Beach native who’s participated in the event since the 1980s, and is an executive director at the Irvine office of commercial brokerage Cushman & Wakefield.
After decades of decorating his own boat, Yahn now donates his boat to organizations looking to participate. For the past several years, and once again this year, he will give his boat to Wells Fargo, a longtime sponsor of the event.
The parade has proven to be priceless for businesses in the city.
Restaurants and hotels tout their spaces as prime viewing spots for the event, with reservations coming in close to a year in advance.
“Many of the city’s businesses will start their fiscal year on December 1, because they know it will be the most profitable,” said Parker, adding that event is profitable for the chamber, as well.
“The awards dinner following the parade is the biggest fundraiser of the year for us,” said Parker.
Newport Beach resident and hotel developer Bob Olson has several vested interests in the event.
His hotel, Lido House, and the home it was modeled after—his personal residence on Balboa Island—are both part of the festivities.
Olson said he pulls inspiration all year for how to decorate his house, which is part of the Ring of Lights, the home-decorating competition component to the boat parade.
“We always host at least one boat parade party every year. It’s something that brings everyone together,” said Olson, the Business Journal’s reigning Business Person of the Year.
His 2-year-old hotel—built at the site of Newport Beach’s old city hall—plays host, as well, with the event having a direct effect on occupancy: “it’s a huge benefit for the business.”
Calling the boat parade a business event raises eyebrows, especially since its lack of commercialization is what many find to be unique and endearing.
“It’s truly a grassroots event,” said Yahn.
That’s also why it appears to have no problem drawing participation from residents, visitors and companies alike.
There aren’t grand plans to grow the event significantly; Beek said he’s comfortable with sustaining the parade at where it is.
“The first priority isn’t to make money. We just want to continue to put on the event for years to come,” said Beek.
“It’s our Christmas card to the world,” said Sherwin.