Calgary Stampede return was 'three years in the making': Stampede Board
To outsiders, it's a rodeo — a 10-day party featuring cowboy hats, country music and an abundance of pancakes.
But the Calgary Stampede — which kicks off in earnest Friday with its first in-person parade since 2019 — is also a high-powered networking event, as well as an excuse for boozy client appreciation lunches.
For dealmakers, the Stampede is an important business event and an economic barometer for a city and a province. That's why the six-fold increase in year-over-year sales at cowboy footwear maker Alberta Boot Company in 2022 speaks volumes about the current mood in corporate Calgary.
CEO Eytan Broder declined to name-drop, but admitted in an interview that some of the city's biggest wheelers and dealers have visited Alberta Boot's retail location in recent weeks to get outfitted for this year's festivities.
“We have several CEOs and higher-profile individuals who’ve ordered custom gator boots," Broder said. "They’re in the $2,500 to $3,000 range — of course, our boots off the shelf are in the $400 to $500 range."
Corporate types have also been snapping up bookings for his company's newly opened event space, so they can host clients during the 10 days of Stampede and take advantage of features like a boot shine station and a bourbon bar, Broder said.
“We are seeing everyone from blue-chip law firms to large construction companies to smaller, private enterprises. They’re booking events everywhere from 10 to 120 people," he said.
Calgary Stampede attendance has fluctuated over the years, from an all-time high achieved during the event's 100th anniversary in 2012 to the rain-and-recession-plagued year of 2016, when visitor numbers hit their lowest level in 22 years.
In 2020, the Calgary Stampede was cancelled entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the event did happen in 2021, there were a number of modifications in place and the festival saw only about half of its normal attendance.
This year, though, with the removal of pandemic restrictions, it's full speed ahead. Calgary Stampede spokeswoman Kristen Anderson said organizers are expecting more than one million people through the gates over the next 10 days. (The pre-pandemic 2019 Stampede drew close to 1.3 million visitors, the second-best attendance on record.)
Corporate participation is also back. Anderson said this year's Stampede has surpassed 2019 corporate sponsorship levels and corporate hosting packages — like a $4,750 option that comes complete with 10 reserved rodeo seats, lunch reservations and beverage vouchers — are almost sold out.
“It signals to us that corporate Calgary is back and really looking to celebrate here at the Calgary Stampede," Anderson said. "And we’re happy to welcome them, because it’s been a tough couple of years.”
Dave Lamberton, manager of business development for 360 Energy Liability Management, said the company will once again be hosting both a Stampede barbecue and a family pancake breakfast for its employees this week, as well as a special event for "key clients" at the evening chuckwagon races.
"It’s very much a social, party atmosphere, but it is a very important aspect of business and networking and client relations,” Lamberton said.
"The oil industry’s doing really good, commodity prices are high — the atmosphere this year is going to be really positive. There’s a lot of excitement in the city."
No one would say this year's Stampede is a return to 2014, when Alberta's economy was firing on all cylinders. While the energy sector is once again flush with cash, Calgary's business community still bears the scars of two years of pandemic restrictions, as well as eight years of depressed oil prices, layoffs and consolidation that have reduced some of the city's swagger.
"Coming to Calgary from Toronto, I was surprised that there were no restaurants here with those huge by-the-bottle lists, where you see wines for $500, $600, $700 regularly on menus," said restaurateur Adam Ryan, who moved to Calgary from Ontario in 2019.
"The feedback I get from colleagues is ‘it used to be like that – there used to be the budgets and the incomes and the expense accounts to support that.'"
Still, Ryan — who will open his new restaurant, Fire & Flora, in Calgary's Beltline neighbourhood during Stampede week — said there's a buzz in the air in Calgary this summer that can't be denied. In addition to the stunning turnaround in oil prices and the record amount of energy royalties collected by the provincial government this past fiscal year, the city's tech sector is taking off and Alberta is once again leading the country in inter-provincial migration.
"You need reservations again to get into the popular restaurants, and it's a struggle to find staff. So I know there are people with disposable income to spend – I can see it with my own eyes when I go out," Ryan said.
Ryan said he hopes that opening this week will give his restaurant a bit of a boost, adding that when he moved from Toronto, he was surprised to see just how big of a deal Stampede is and how its energy infiltrates the entire city.
"You can hear the noise and the excitement from anywhere in the downtown core for 10 days straight," he said.