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Victoria's Souper Bowls charity event faces $10,000 hotel bill

Nov 27 2011

Organizers of the annual Souper Bowls charity, which recently raised thousands of dollars for youth, have been saddled with a hotel bill for $10,000.

Souper Bowls held its 14th annual fundraiser for the Victoria Youth Empowerment Society at the Fairmont Empress hotel on Nov. 8. Guests paid $25 for soup and a handmade bowl. Some bowls, signed by celebrities including singer Elton John, were auctioned.

However, a day before the event - founded and run by former councillor Helen Hughes, 79 - organizers say they received a bill for use of the hotel's ballroom, staff and soup.

The bill is for $10,000 - a quarter of what the charity pulled in last year. This year's official total has yet to be determined.

The charity's organizing committee and the society's board of directors will meet Wednesday to "clarify" the situation, Hughes said Saturday.

For the past 13 years, the historic hotel on the Inner Harbour, as the event's key sponsor, has donated space and services. "We've never signed an agreement. It's a gentleman's agreement we have," Hughes said.

A date for this year's event at the hotel was booked months in advance based on the hotel's availability, Hughes said.

At some point, the hotel said it could not sponsor the event, which it has backed for more than a decade. According to Marie Zirk, a member of the event's organizing committee, discussions took place and the hotel then sent a letter saying it would sponsor the event. "That's where there's a little bit of confusion," said Zirk.

The general manager of the Empress, Martin Leclerc, could not be reached for comment Saturday. His executive assistant, Mai Lai, could not be reached for comment Friday or Saturday.

Zirk said the Empress is a strong community supporter and has the best venue in town. However, if forced to pay the full $10,000, "it's unfortunate the charity will have that much less money for youth," she added.

The success of Souper Bowls partly rests with Hughes, who is married to retired judge Ted Hughes and is widely respected in Victoria for her 18-year run on council and her charitable work. But, mostly, the charity's success is the result of the efforts of scores of volunteers and hundreds of donations from across Vancouver Island.

"I don't know what the heck we buy," Hughes said. "I don't think we buy anything. We scrounge."

Potters from as far as Saltspring Island donate their work. Local merchants donate goods and food. Major celebrities who come through town grace bowls and aprons with their signatures. Local celebrities serve the soup.

"The donations that have been given by restaurants and hotels [and others] have been really gratifying," Hughes said. "People realize it's an important aspect of our society to help youth who are having a difficult time."

Hughes isn't clear how the organizing committee ended up with a $10,000 bill a day before the event this year. "I guess times change," she said. At that point it was too late to cancel, she said.

Zirk hopes Souper Bowls can be held in the hotel's impressive Crystal ballroom next year, "but I don't know." The messy business of sorting out this year's bill must first be negotiated. She is optimistic that a compromise can be reached. If the bill must be paid in full, that would be "disappointing," Zirk said.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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