Why a Calgary Winter Stampede would be the Coolest Show on Earth


A Calgary Winter Stampede may not have much of a rodeo presence, but it sure would be The Coolest Show on Earth. (Julia Pelish photo/Vacay.ca)

[This opinion piece was first published on Vacay.ca and then the Huffington Post earlier this week.]

As the Calgary Stampede completes its first weekend after a heroic effort by volunteers, organizers and workers to overcome the devastation of the June flood, there’s a heightened awareness of the importance of tourism to the city.

Had the flooding occurred a week later, the Stampede very likely would have been wiped out, jeopardizing one quarter of the city’s annual tourism income. Disasters reveal vulnerabilities, not just in infrastructure and urban planning, but in economics, as well. The flood in Alberta indicates a need for more significant tourism draws to the city.

The Stampede, now in its 101st year, created $340 million in economic impact last year, when it welcomed a record 1.5 million visitors. Tourism totals $1.4 billion and attracts 5.2 million visitors each year inCalgary. For a city of more than one million people, having one event account for 25% of tourism is far too high of a percentage. In contrast, the Montreal Jazz Festival and Just for Laughs comedy festival — which both bring in more than $100 million in spending to Quebec’s largest city — are each responsible for about 5% of the metropolitan area’s $2.4-billion annual tourism industry. Even if either one was as large as the Stampede, it still wouldn’t be responsible for a quarter of the share of tourism spending. Likewise, if either one was cancelled for whatever reason, the loss wouldn’t cut so deep because other international festivals exist in Montreal.

If there’s a lesson for the city and tourism operators in Calgary to take away from the flood it might be that now’s the time to dramatically diversify event offerings to have another giant festival that attracts global attention. In my mind, the surest way to make an immediate and sustained impact is through launching an annual Calgary Winter Stampede.

Such an event accomplishes several objectives for Tourism Calgary and mayor Naheed Nenshi.

  1. It adds another significant event to the annual calendar to entice visitors and generate revenue.
  2. It boosts employment in the tourism sector, which currently employs 10% of Calgarians.
  3. It allows for another way to demonstrate Calgary’s astounding community spirit.

A Calgary Winter Stampede takes advantage of the city’s best-known brand, “the Greatest Show on Earth” itself, and allows the city to capitalize on the winter sports traffic to its airport, where skiers and snowboarders land en route to the Canadian Rockies.

The mindset in the Alberta tourism industry is to not have Calgary compete with BanffCanmore,Kananaskis and the other nearby ski destinations, but to facilitate movement to those areas. Perhaps, though, the sense should be to build on what’s already in place, including piggybacking on the terrific Banff SnowDays festival that started two years ago. Calgary’s hotel occupancy rates in January and February are less than 64%, compared to just below 70% in Ottawa.

There are opportunities to increase tourism to the mountains through a major festival in the city — similar to how Quebec City’s annual Carnival helps facilitate ski tourism to Mount Sainte Anne, 45 kilometres away. People will travel to winter festivals. Ottawa’s Winterlude, for example, is responsible for $160 million in spending, attracting 600,000 attendees this year, with more than 200,000 of them from outside the Capital Region. It’s a significant contributor to that city’s robust hotel occupancy rate.

If winter carnivals can be pulled off with huge success in Quebec CityMontreal and Ottawa — where the average temperatures in January and February are slightly colder than in Calgary — then Alberta’s largest city should at least be able to match those successes.

Jennifer Booth, publicity manager for the Calgary Stampede, says there hasn’t been any discussion of a large winter event tied to the brand. She notes that the Stampede and Tourism Calgary have attracted marquee celebrities for tour stops in the city, including Oprah Winfrey and Elton John. Those one-off events do bring in dollars, but they are more likely to attract residents than visitors. They also aren’t unique to the city and don’t offer the chance to market the destination nearly as well as a community-focused event.

Gisele Danis, the bright vice-president of marketing and communications of Tourism Calgary, says the goal is to grow existing festivals into national events. Those festivals include the Calgary Folk Festival and the Sled Island Festival, both strong music events. Marketing a summer music festival to eastern Canada, which already hosts some of the best such events in the world, poses some difficult challenges.

With the Stampede name on a winter festival, the marketing potential is immense and it provides a chance for Calgary to quickly have another multimillion-dollar annual event full of marquee names and funded by big-spending corporate sponsors. Calgary has hosted two Stampede-related winter carnivals, one in 1922, and one in 1959, held in honour of a visit by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The city annually holds an 11-day winter festival that is billed as a celebration of the 1988 Winter Olympics’ legacy, which means it’s more of a community event than a tourist draw.

That event could be re-branded as a Stampede-operated festival. A bold, brash winter celebration with a hockey tournament, outdoor skating rink, culinary events, high-energy concerts, dog-sled races, involvement from the Calgary Flames, aboriginal ice sculptures, carnival rides and late-night parties. Such a festival would make an instant economic impact — not to mention global headlines that will help people forget the flood. There may not be much of a rodeo presence in the traditional sense, but that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. The rodeo is one component of the Stampede, not the only draw, and there are certainly some clever ways to incorporate cowboy culture and competition into a winter event.

In Calgary, where people have managed to pull together so remarkably well after the flood to keep the Stampede going, anything appears possible — with enough political will power. The benefits of a winter carnival branded with the Stampede name are massive. Given how close the city was to seeing its biggest tourism event wiped out, having a cushion made of the dollars a second $150-million-plus annual festival would bring in may be worth discussion.


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