“What Ifs and If Onlys, Part 4 of 7”

“What Ifs and If Onlys, Part 4 of 7”
By: Ricky Russo – Atlanta, Georgia (USA)

In 1984, propelled by the audacity of youth, Cirque du Soleil dreamed that it could infuse the traditional circus with an innovative spirit through the theatrical blending of circus arts and street entertainment, wrapped up in original costumes, fantastical sets, original music, and magical lighting. Once you’ve defied the odds and proven you can take a bunch of street artists and place them under a big top and put on a show, brought that big top to every continent – playing for sold out audiences worldwide, conquered Las Vegas with not one but two highly successful resident shows (with the announcement of at least two more on the way), and opened a resident show at the Walt Disney World Resort… what’s the next adventure? How about tackling the real estate market? Yes! And “Complexes Cirque” was born.


On December 11, 2000, Cirque du Soleil announced via a press release that, after staging seven original shows in four touring big tops and three permanent theaters on four continents around the world, it had a new dream. The company announced it would develop entertainment complexes in major entertainment capitals of the world, an idea envisioned by Cirque du Soleil’s Founding President, Guy Laliberté.

“Over the years, we have collaborated with creative people from around the world to conceive, devise and realize our shows. With the Cirque du Soleil Complexes, we intend to expand our platform by bringing together an ensemble of innovative ideas and talent under one roof and applying them to a physical location. We envision our Complexes as international meeting places where patrons will be inspired and entertained in the spirit of celebration and festivity. We want to surround our public with artful living,” announced Laliberté.

The complexes would be a unique fusion of drama and design, of architecture and the arts. They would be a place where technology, tourism, arts and leisure converge, and would provide a year-round base for Cirque du Soleil in the form of a permanent theater in the host city. Laliberté added, “We want to situate our patrons in the moment by creating an environment, a microcosm, where no detail is expendable in the profound belief that every detail is part of the big here and now. We believe this to be a natural extension of our mission statement: invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of people around the world.”

Planning was underway to develop four to six of these complexes within the next ten years in places like New York, Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong, the release said, with the first being planned for The Battersea Power Station site in London (which we’ve previously discussed). “For the past 16 years, we’ve used the live stage and the circus format as our canvas,” Mr. Mario D’Amico said during a February 2001 interview with the National Post. “We’ll never abandon our roots in live entertainment, but it’s time to find a way to reinvent ourselves and see where else we can stamp our brand of creativity, whether it’s a hotel, a museum, a restaurant or an art gallery.” To head this new ventures business unit, Cirque du Soleil hired Daniel Lamarre, formerly chief executive of TVA Group Inc. He would be responsible for seeking out financing partnerships for six entertainment complexes over the next decade.

Mr. D’Amico also said prime candidates for locating Cirque’s complexes would include cities where there’s not only a large population and high tourist traffic but an “entertainment culture” that lends itself to Cirque. Becoming more involved in the development of multi-purpose entertainment complexes is a natural extension of the path Cirque du Soleil has taken in growing into a troupe recognized around the world. “We’ve identified some partners who we think we can work with on these ventures. If they are willing to contribute to the financing of these complexes, we can fill it with the Cirque du Soleil experience in all its forms.”

But why do this you might ask? While Cirque du Soleil has had control over the creative content of Mystère, “O” and La Nouba – resident shows in Las Vegas and Orlando respectively, beyond the theaters’ doors it was someone else’s stage. “So we figured, if we’re part of someone else’s entertainment concept, the next logical step is to be more involved in the entire process,” said Mr. D’Amico. He added Cirque du Soleil is blessed with a “brand identity” that hits people at a “very emotional, visceral level. “People come to our shows and seem to be very profoundly affected by what they see,” he said. “It brings people back to their childhood, when all seemed possible.”

The prototype of said complexes was planned for Montreal. Preliminary estimates suggested it would cost about $100 million CDN ($63.5 million USD) and would include a 1,200 seat theater, a 300-room hotel, a spa, and restaurants, said Daniel Lamarre, president and chief operating officer of the New Ventures and Shows Divisions. “We hope to reveal the investors within three months,” Lamarre said. “Realistically, we hope to break ground next fall and open in a year and a half from then.” What will make the Cirque complex different? “First of all, we are a content provider,” Lamarre said. “We see those venues from that content perspective. The key element to us is a Cirque du Soleil show. That’s the basic element of the complex.”

“Why after having successful shows do we want to go further and create a complex?” Lamarre asked himself rhetorically in an interview with Amusement Business. “We want to create an environment in which we will expand the experience of the Cirque du Soleil brand. Right now you go a Cirque du Soleil show you are inspired about the experience, then you walk away from the big top and you are back to reality. “Our dream is to have someone walk from the show and go to a Cirque du Soleil hotel, or a Cirque nightclub or a Cirque restaurant or to an art gallery designed by Cirque du Soleil. If you think of ‘O,’ for instance, we have developed a very specific trademark of a water show. The brand of ‘O’ and all the equipment we have there is owned by us. We have the intellectual property. Can we take this water show and tailor that to a spa? That’s the creative thinking behind this project.”

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Guy Laliberte, Cirque’s founder and president, said he envisioned interactive museums, nightclubs where customers danced in water and hotels that added a touch of surreality to five-star service. Lamarre was not as specific, but did say Cirque saw the hotel as “a new stage. This hotel is a theater; our employees will not let us build a normal hotel. When one of our employees walks into the lobby of the building, they will say ‘Hey, this is us.’ If we cannot achieve that, the hotel will be called something else.” Lamarre said investors, developers and hoteliers were interested in this concept. But rather than embark on a full-scale complex, which would cost more like $500 million to $2 billion by some estimates, though Lamarre shies away from such numbers, Cirque decided on the laboratory approach.

“For our live shows, we have developed our own incubator in Montreal. We have our own studio here; we train our artists here; and we have this international training facility for our shows,” Lamarre explained the thinking. Complex Cirque in Montreal would be done in conjunction with Montreal University. “We have an option with Montreal University to make it happen,” Lamarre said. Cirque is also in negotiation with local investors. “We want to keep all our intellectual rights. We want to keep all our options open.”

It is conceived as an international training center for future complexes. Besides the elements mentioned, it would also include a multimedia production and broadcast center. The theater would house a Cirque show for three months of the year. “We’re working with other Montreal entertainment companies to have this place used 12 months a year,” Lamarre said. For Montreal, the hotel and spa would be the main money makers. “Ticket sales will be our bonus,” Lamarre said. “But it’s certainly a statement for our brand. The reason so many people in Montreal are interested in having our prototype here is we think we can create in Montreal what is lacking – a destination. Because of Cirque’s brand recognition abroad, having this Cirque prototype here in Montreal will be very intriguing to people and it will become our window our showroom, for people who want to have a full-fledged complex in other cities.” A business model was being written and a city to house the first complex, after Montreal opens, is being sought. “London is on the radar screen, and Vegas and we’re also talking to people in Hong Kong, and Tokyo and New York,” Lamarre said.

By April 2002, Guy Laliberté unveiled the company had “designs on a vacant lot at the corner of St. Urbain and Sherbrooke Sts., where it hoped to build the $100-million hotel and spa – and incubator for new Cirque concepts, projects and talent,” The Montreal Gazette reported. “It’s all part of Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberte’s dream of turning Montreal into an international cultural centre.”

Laliberte might have a dream, but he was sketchy on the details. He said the Cirque has already developed a partnership with the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, which owns the land, and with the Societe Generale de Financement du Quebec, which has underwritten preliminary studies. “We’re looking for other partners, but what we want is more than just money,” Laliberte told reporters after the speech. “It’s about a shared vision and a desire to create something new.” Montreal is not big enough to sustain the kind of four-season tourist destination he has in mind. “That bothers me, because all our creative content is developed here in Montreal. We’ve spent a lot of research and development money here over the last two years. So why not establish a laboratory?” he asked rhetorically. “Why not become a think-tank for developing our new creative platforms?”

The Cirque and the SGF had teamed up to do market analysis, feasibility studies and other research. “We have not agreed to financial backing of the project. We’re open to the idea, but we’ll look at it when all the studies are completed in a month to six weeks,” said Jean-Yves Duthel, the SGF’s vice-president (public relations). Laliberté pushed all the right buttons in his speech to the influential business crowd. He warmed them up by coaxing his pin-striped audience to don the red rubber noses that were tucked into the elaborate floral centerpieces on each table. Then he recalled the particular interest former premier Rene Levesque took in a nascent group of street performers back in 1984. Laliberté expressed little patience for those who would tie up the creative process in five-year plans and such, saying: “Montreal has an opportunity to become a cultural centre. The elements are in place. Let’s go for it without compromise, with audacity and courage.” His speech drew a standing ovation, but would it be enough?

Ultimately no. On December 3, 2002, the Canadian News Wire reported that Cirque’s executive board had decided not to follow through with the “Complexes Cirque” projects. And thus the prototype under development in Montreal would not be constructed.

Over the last two years, Cirque du Soleil has explored the possibility of creating Complexes Cirque around the world through research and development work. The “Laboratoire Montréal” project was born of this effort: its purpose was to develop the concepts that would subsequently be exported internationally. After completing its financial analysis of the Laboratoire Montréal project, Cirque du Soleil concluded that it would not be prudent to follow through with Complexes Cirque. Considering the uncertainty of the present global situation, Cirque considers that the risks of investing in a new field of activity are too great at this time. Entertainment, the heart of Cirque du Soleil’s activities, remains much less risky and more profitable.

Last December, Cirque du Soleil had announced that it was conducting a feasability study and looking for the necessary financing with a view to developing a first “Complexe Cirque” in Montreal. The year that followed allowed the company to assess the risks and the potential compromises that realizing such a project would involve. As a specialist in the development of creative content, Cirque du Soleil will instead focus its energy on the creation and production of new works in the fields of live entertainment and multimedia. As always, these projects will be targeted for the international market.

Cirque du Soleil continued to pursue the development of other projects, such as the Cité des arts du Cirque, which brought together Cirque du Soleil, the École Nationale de Cirque (National Circus School), and En Piste (National Circus Arts Network) to create “The City of Circus Arts” where all three are now based, with TOHU – a place for dissemination, creation, experimentation and convergence of culture, environment and community involvement – sits at its center. So, in a way, Cirque du Soleil did achieve its complex ambitions, just in a totally different way. Additionally, the discontinuation of the Complexes Cirque project did not in any way discourage Cirque du Soleil from continuing to pursue residences around the globe. In fact, by 2005, we would see a plethora of attempts to set up in New York City, Miami, and back in Montreal.


On June 22, 2005, Cirque du Soleil and Loto-Quebec unveiled a proposal for the establishment of a world-class entertainment complex to be located on the site of the Peel Basin in the du Havre sector of Montréal. The announcement re-ignited the years-old plans of Cirque involving itself in venues that would offer a wide range of entertainment options branded with Cirque du Soleil’s flair. And they hoped the new project would provide Montréal and Québec with a powerful lever to spur development of the local economy, tourism and the cultural sector.
The project would also have translated into the creation of 6,450 direct and indirect jobs. Loto-Québec would be serving as project manager (investing an estimated at $997 million), contribution from private partners was estimated to be in the order of $178 million), while the Cirque du Soleil would look after design, creative and artistic direction of the project.

“This project is what we are recommending to the Québec Government as being the best solution for the future of the Casino de Montréal,” explained Mr. Alain Cousineau, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Loto-Québec. “The recommendation is based on the rigorous studies we have conducted, as well as on the creative genius of the Cirque du Soleil. In addition to being a modern reflection of Québec’s cultural dynamism and Montréal’s exceptional vitality, the complex will offer visitors an unparalleled entertainment experience while showcasing the historical character of the site.”

According to the President and founder of the Cirque du Soleil, “the Cirque du Soleil is investing all of its creativity and global expertise in this project in order to ensure that Montréal can fully benefit from the international spin-offs to be generated. Indeed, we are envisioning a concept whose outstanding components will make for a truly world-class entertainment complex. We sincerely hope to be able to invite the millions of people we meet in the four corners of the planet to come and enjoy the new complex, which we are convinced will more than meet their expectations.”

The complex would encompass a 300-room hotel and 2,500-seat performance hall able to accommodate international touring productions. The Casino de Montréal would also be relocated to the site, offering more spacious facilities than the existing establishment on Île Notre-Dame. As outlined in Loto-Québec’s Development Plan, however, game offerings will not be increased. In addition, the complex would include a boldly designed spa, an Artists’ Wharf, where artistic creators of all kinds will benefit from an extraordinary window on the world, as well as a park that could play host to the Cirque du Soleil’s Big Top. The entire complex would bear the signature of the Cirque du Soleil.

Furthermore, Loto-Québec negotiated an agreement, pending the government’s approval, to acquire a parcel of land to the west of the entertainment complex on which a commercial exhibition center could be established for business and tradeshows. The Corporation has received a show of interest from world leaders in the sector in associating with the project as investors and operators. Assuming that all of the conditions were met, Loto-Québec was inviting the economic community, particularly the tourism sector, to mobilize and assume an active role in realizing the exhibition center project.

The project made public would also see the construction of a monorail to interconnect the entertainment complex, exhibition center, and the future soccer stadium whose planned construction in the Technoparc had been recently announced. As such, the entire sector would enjoy the benefits of a light transportation system allowing for efficient circulation between the principal activities/centers of attraction in the du Havre area. The Peel Basin was proposed as the site for the complex because it is an enclaved area surrounded by physical barriers separating it from residential zones, and because it is located near downtown hotels and Old Montréal, both major tourist attractions.

And according to a study of economic spin-offs conducted by Université du Québec à Montréal professor Yves Rabeau, the project would create 14,200 jobs per year during the planning and construction period. The operation of the complex and exhibition center would create another 3,150 direct and indirect jobs, and an additional 3,300 direct and indirect jobs would be generated by the tourist drawing power of the complex and exhibition center, for a grand total of 6,450 new jobs over and above the Casino de Montréal’s existing workforce.

It would be completed and operating by 2010 or 2011, bankrolled by $997 million of Loto cash and $178 million of investments from private sources, said Alain Cousineau, Loto’s chairperson, president and chief executive. “We are firm in our commitment today to approach each phase of this process with total transparency and openness. We sincerely hope that this project inspires a spirit of enthusiasm and unity on a par with our creative capacity and sense of innovation,” underlined Mr. Cousineau. “This partnership between Loto-Québec and the Cirque du Soleil is made possible by the fact that the two parties share the same values of integrity, social responsibility, innovation, uncompromising customer service and respect for employees,” concluded Mr. Cousineau. “If the Government gives its approval to this proposal, we are convinced that Montréal and Québec as a whole will gain a powerful engine for the development of the economy, and the tourism and cultural sectors, while opening an exceptional window on the artistic talents of Québecers and the outstanding quality of life in Montréal.”

The project faced multiple hurdles and wouldn’t even get the green light before 2007. However, City of Montreal officials hedged their bets. Tourism Montreal pledged its “unconditional support,” while the Conseil regional de l’environnement de Montreal said it “rejoiced” at the prospect of the casino leaving Ile Notre Dame.

So, let’s take a deeper look at the project as proposed. Loto-Québec and the Cirque du Soleil proposed the creation of a major entertainment complex encompassing a hotel, performance hall, garden space, casino, and other areas for artistic creation and expression. Showcasing Québec’s cultural dynamism and Montréal’s flair for living, the complex would be designed by Cirque du Soleil creative personnel, who would who’d endow it with astyle and character unique in the world. The project would also reflect and promote the rich heritage of the Peel Basin area, which played a key role in the history of Montréal. And thanks to the numerous green spaces and promenades along the Peel and Wellington Basins, it would allow Montréalers to reclaim a large part of the city’s du Havre sector for their enjoyment.

1. OUTDOOR STAGE & PERFORMANCE HALL — An open-air stage, to be equipped with the most advanced technical installations, would be able to play host to shows for up to 8,000-10,000 spectators. The performance hall would accommodate audiences of up to 2,500, allowing it to stage major productions like the great musicals that tour the world.

2. HOTEL — The project called for the construction of a 300-room hotel to be financed and operated by a private partner. This would be a superior-class establishment which could attract the high-limits players interested in integrated offers. The building would feature some 20 floors and seduce guests with its exceptional views of the Saint Lawrence River and the downtown skyline.

3. CASINO — The casino would occupy a surface area of 53,000 square-meters, or 16% more space than the existing building, bringing it in line with today’s industry norms in terms of the density of machines and tables per square meter. For their part, the casino’s restaurants and bars will be able to accommodate close to 1,500 patrons at a time, or about double the number the current building can. The new gaming house would be particularly noteworthy for its green roof and its natural lighting thanks to its many skylights.

4. SHOPPING AREA AND SPA — Boutiques and a 2,000 square-meter spa would be submerged under a cascading waterfall, thus creating a spectacular effect. The commercial area will occupy a total space of 4,500 square-meters.

5. GARDEN SPACE — A park for all seasons, the “Espace Jardins” becomes a nexus for culture and creativity where Cirque will premiere its traveling shows in its Grand Chapiteau.

6. THE PEEL BASIN — The Peel Basin will be restored to its former status as a Montreal landmark, becoming a unique and animated site dedicated to the arts and festivity; a joyful venue that will enhance Montreal’s renown and reputation as a tourist destination; a historic international crossroads reclaimed from neglect and rededicated to exchanges between Montreal and the world; a clean, green site in harmony with the environment; a dynamic meeting place for the public and the creative community.

7. MARINA & WHARF — The project also proposed the development of a marina in the Wellington Basin, which could accommodate boats in transit. This facility would serve as a permanent testament to the island character of Montréal, while linking the complex to the Saint Lawrence via the Lachine Canal. Located on the edge of the Wellington Basin, the Artists’ Wharf would allow artists to create and share their works with the public. These spaces would serve as a vibrant window on Québec culture and enable local artists to show off their talents to millions of people each year.

As previously mentioned, a monorail system to span five separate stations would be operated across the complex. The first would be intermodal and provide a link to Montréal’s public transportation system; the second station would be located at the entrance to the entertainment complex; the third at the parking facility across from the complex; the fourth would serve the future exhibition center; and the last station would be at the soccer stadium to be built in the Technoparc.

With every large project comes controversy and such did not escape this new project. To us it looked like a great match; the Montréal Casino had suffered as “high roller” customers took their business to other more exciting cities and Loto-Québec obviously felt they had to modernize or risk falling further behind. But there were other concerns than just gaming. Placing this new project in the Peel Basin/Point St-Charles area (which, on our map is marked as an industrial area) had activists concerned that any move would mean more crime and traffic in what some considered a residential area. But Loto-Québec officials insisted the area was selected because it was out of the way of most residential areas of the city, yet close to the big hotels and Old Montréal.

It would take time for this proposal to move its way through the planning and approval process, but neither party expected the push-back they had received. Ultimately, Cirque du Soleil announced it was withdrawing from the Peel Basin project as of March 10, 2006. The reason: given the context of uncertainty associated with this project, it had become impossible for Cirque du Soleil to pursue its involvement. Daniel Lamarre explained: “We cannot live with uncertainty for almost two years, not knowing if there will be a project at all down the road. We must protect the interests of our company and employees, as well as carry on with our development strategy”.

In view of the Cirque du Soleil’s decision to withdrawal from the Peel Basin recreational and tourist complex project Loto-Québec also announced that it would not be pursuing its plans for the relocation of the Casino de Montréal. The announcement came after the Corporation’s Board of Directors confirmed the decision. “The very essence of our project was bound to the dynamic presence of the Cirque du Soleil, to its distinctive signature, its unique style and character which was to permeate all the components of the complex, to its remarkable creativity, and to the Cirque’s capacity to attract private partners,” underlined Loto-Québec President, Mr. Alain Cousineau. “In the absence of these characteristics, the project is no longer able to distinguish itself definitively within the casino industry of today’s new competitive landscape and to maximize its ability to draw visitors from outside Québec.”

“I would like to thank Guy Laliberté, Daniel Lamarre and the entire Cirque du Soleil team, whose decision I understand,” concluded Mr. Cousineau. “We greatly appreciate their collaboration and the fruitful exchange of ideas and expertise in planning this project, which had the potential of enriching Montréal, particularly the South-West Borough, with a formidable development tool.”

The fallout from the project’s collapse was as spectacular as it was discouraging. Tongues were wagging. Guy Laliberté was so disappointed and so dissatisfied with his own hometown, in an interview with Radio-Canada about the project, out came fire: “It [systematic protest] is becoming a trend, the ‘brand’ of our society. . . . It’s unfortunate because Montreal is recognized internationally — for its joie de vivre, as a destination — and instead of building on those assets, we continue to fight within the family. Meanwhile, while other cities in the world continue to grow, we continue to lose ground [culturally], sort of like we have to Toronto from an economic and business point of view.”

Ouch. The redevelopment project certainly looked interesting, but would it have been a success? We’ll never know.

To be Continued…