The power of Calgary for MICE – how the Western Canadian city is becoming an international player: #FamPede trip, 11–14 July 2019

Calgary is the rising star on the international MICE scene. To many, the Western Canadian city may be known for the Calgary Stampede, the 1988 Winter Olympics or that the city headquarters the major oil and gas companies operating in Alberta, which is Canada’s largest oil and natural gas producer. 

Calgary is the fourth largest city in Canada after Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and its economic verticals and sectors of expertise extend beyond energy, renewable energy and green economy. These verticals also include financial services, technology, agribusiness, creative industries, real estate, transportation and logistics, manufacturing and life sciences. Calgary has a fascinating history, cultural heritage, dynamic urban life, international food, art and architecture scenes, as well as an extensive business offering, all of which we had the chance to experience from 11–14 July 2019 during the #FamPede trip. 

Thomas Loris and I were invited by Meetings + Conventions Calgary to attend the #FamPede educational trip around the Calgary Stampede experience, which took place on the second Stampede weekend. Calgary Stampede is an annual rodeo festival that throughout the 10-day event features a rodeo, Chuckwagon Races, parade, concerts, midway, agricultural competitions and many more events around the agriculture and rodeo traditions. Its roots go back to 1886 when the first Calgary and District Agricultural Society fair took place. Later in September 1912, an American-Canadian cowboy, performer and promoter Guy Weadic hosted the first rodeo and festival in Calgary, and both events merged in 1923 for the Stampede to become an annual event.   

White Hat Ceremony

Arriving late afternoon in Calgary, we checked-in into the Fairmont Palliser Hotel in Downtown Calgary and immediately headed for a dinner reception at The Garrett, one of Calgary’s newest event spaces and just a walking distance from the hotel.

David Woodward, Executive Director at Meetings + Conventions Calgary greeted everyone arriving for the #FamPede, and we started with our official programme to get to know all the involved partners working together with Meetings + Conventions Calgary on the trip, and other participants who had arrived from the US and Canada.  

The catering on the night was provided by Klein / Herris, an independent restaurant concept that was launched only three years ago by two locals. Their cuisine focuses on coast-to-coast Canadian food, inspired by the local flavours of Alberta with all ingredients locally sourced. For example, we were introduced to the local Eau Claire gin and had a cocktail demonstration of the classic and elegant, sweet and sparkling cocktail ‘French 75’, which is made from Eau Claire gin, honey syrup, lemon juice and Prosecco. Interestingly, Eau Claire is an award-winning distillery in Alberta and has won gold in the ‘Best Canadian London dry’ category at the World Gin Awards. 

Afterwards, we had our official ‘White Hat Ceremony’ by David Woodward, a long-established tradition to welcome guests in Calgary. David told us about this tradition and the symbolic nature of this event, ‘The White Cowboy hat has been the symbol of Calgary hospitality since 1946 when Calgary’s Mayor Donald Hugh Mackay took a contingent of 250 Calgarians to Toronto for the Calgary Stampeders first appearance in the Grey Cup, and he realised the value in the symbol of Calgary’s Hospitality, the White Cowboy hat. And since his return, in 1952, he started the tradition of providing a white hat as a welcome gift for visitors to Calgary from around the world, for VIPs and dignitaries. And today, it continues to be that symbol, and we proudly wear that hat every year during Calgary’s greatest outdoor show on earth, the Calgary Stampede.’ 

The ceremony was organised by Meetings + Conventions Calgary, and it’s a highly unique and memorable experience to offer to your delegates when they visit Calgary. 

Breakfast at Sheraton Suites Eau Claire

The second day began with a site visit and breakfast at the Sheraton Suites Eau Claire. Located in downtown Calgary, it has 323 guest rooms and 13 event rooms, with the largest room capacity suitable for up to 700 people. 

The breakfast on the top floor was spectacular, having a view over the city and the mountains. The breakfast included many healthy and vegan options. For example, the ‘vegan hash’ with tofu and roasted cauliflower was an absolute highlight! 

Walking tour of Downtown Calgary

After this power breakfast, we were set to begin our walking tour of downtown Calgary with Calgary Walks & Bus Tours. On this city tour, we learned about the early stages of Calgary’s development. Our guide told us about how Calgary got its name, ‘When Éphrem-A. Brisebois led the North-West Mounted Police to Calgary, they arrived here in 1875, and built the fort, but originally he thought that he could name the fort after himself, Fort Brisebois. His superior, Colonel Macleod, said that he can’t name it after himself. When he looked at the area it reminded him of Calgary Bay, in the Isle of Mull in Scotland, so he put forward the name Fort Calgary, which was accepted by his superiors and was named as such. Later, it was shortened to Calgary. The word Calgary is a gallic word and it means ‘clear running water’, which makes perfect sense because Calgary has two rivers—the Bow and the Elbow—that flow through Calgary, and they have very clear water.’ 

We passed by Calgary Chinatown, which is the fourth largest in Canada, and entered the Chinese Cultural centre. It opened in 1997 and was modelled after the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

Our next stop was the Bow Tower, the second tallest office tower in Calgary. Most interesting is the art pieces outside the building. The owners decided to commission an artist to create art pieces specifically for their building, and one of the pieces is a metallic head called the Wonderland by the Spanish artist Juame Plensa. This piece of art was inspired by the daughter of a coffee shop owner, Anna, where Plensa used to go regularly before he was commissioned to create the sculpture. The unique aspect of this piece is that if you go inside and take a picture of the face from inside, with the face looking back at you.   

In just under three hours, we learned about iconic places in Downtown Calgary, which provides a fantastic location as a stand-alone activity or an option to integrate it into your conference programme to keep delegates engaged, energised and active. Calgary has 1,000km of pathways and bike paths that connect the city, and this network is the most extensive in North America. Just to give you an idea for comparison, on this day we walked 7.5 km. 

Lunch at the Hyatt Regency Calgary

Our city tour concluded at the Hyatt Regency Calgary. At their reception, they have an iconic piece of art called ‘By the Banks of the Bow’, which is a miniature statue of the original piece which is located at the Stampede Park. It was built to commemorate the Calgary Stampede 100th anniversary in 2012. It features 15 horses, 11 of which in fact performed at the Calgary Stampede. The piece was built to commemorate the anniversary of the Stampede, but also to show how the horse is a part of the Western culture. Two artist and ranchers, based in the High River area south of Calgary, created the piece to be interactive; therefore, the horses in the original piece are of a realistic size, inviting visitors to get on them.

The Hyatt Regency Calgary is one of the three hotels connected to the TELUS Convention Centre by an elevated footpath, also called a Plus 15 in Calgary (the other two are the Calgary Marriott Downtown Hotel and Fairmont Palliser). The hotel has 342 guest rooms that were completely renovated last year, June 2018, as well as a full renovation of Thomson’s Restaurant where we had lunch. At the time of the visit, the meeting spaces were approximately one month away from completing their renovation as well. 

Our lunch involved family style dining and was inspired by the local flavours of Alberta. Geoffrey Miller, Executive Chef at the Hyatt Regency Calgary, shared how he combines the various local ingredients with Asian infusions to create the unique flavours we tasted for lunch, ‘The lunch focused on the bounty of flavours that we have here in Alberta. We work with a tremendous number of local producers, right from vegetables through to livestock. As a chef, I worked around the world, I’ve had experience living and working in Asia and I bring some of those flavours into our dishes here. So, using some of those vegetables, bringing spices, such as the five spice and others into the dished, creates a very unique interpretation of local ingredients.’

BMO Centre and Calgary Stampede 

From the Hyatt Regency Calgary, we continued to the BMO Centre, which is one of the two main congress centres in Calgary. It will undergo a $500 million expansion that is expected to be complete in June 2024, making it the second largest convention centre in Canada.

We spoke with Greg Newton, Business Development Director for the Calgary Stampede BMO Centre about this important development and received more background on the expansion project. The BMO Centre is part of the Calgary Stampede. This non-profit organisation is unique in Canada because as a convention venue they are not government owned. The organisation engages over 2,500 volunteers, and has further invested in 2,280 acres in downtown Calgary in a multitude of areas; therefore, the BMO is just one of their venues, ‘The BMO Centre was opened in 1981, and it’s been through three expansions already, adding about 5,000 sq m of exhibit space in each one of those expansions. Currently, we have another 5,000 sq m of space that has just been added that will allow us to get on the weeds of our larger convention centre expansion, which will be in the ground next year.’ 

Talking about why the expansion was necessary, Greg commented, ‘We have the 14th largest convention centre in the country. There are a multitude of conventions, national and international, that not getting the opportunity to experience a very unique part of Canada, a great community, a great vibrancy, and we want people to have this experience in Calgary.’ 

During the expansion, business will remain us usual, ‘The exciting thing about the way we planned our expansion is that we are adding the 5,000 sq m. That was done intentionally so that our space can remain holding what it can today, allowing us to tear down a smaller and older part of the building and replace it with the new building. Business as it is today should be able to remain relevant and in its current state for the whole four years of construction. We allow ourselves a little bit more time than what would be traditionally needed for a building of this size. We’ve done that for a number of reasons; number one, we do want to keep the business running as it is right now, and in order to be able to do that, we need to allow ourselves more time to be able to go into a softer construction mode to mitigate disruption. Also, with 107-year history of running the Calgary Stampede, which has 1.4 million people coming through our gates every July, we know that we can’t build this building during the two weeks in July when we are running our own major event.’  

Major congresses have been secured already for when the expansion is complete, with several more in the pipeline. For example, in 2025, they will welcome the Rotary International Convention with an expected 25,000 delegates throughout the 1-week event. 

With the expansion, new hotels will also be added as part of the wider district plan, planning an addition of a hotel or multiple hotels, ranging from 400–600 rooms that will open at the exact same time as the expansion if not earlier. But there is also an entire entertainment district that is coming in 2028 as part of the project. 

Calgary Stampede: Behind the barns, Lazy S Executive Suite, Chuckwagon Races and the Bell Grandstand Show

Afterwards, we continued to the festival grounds and for a ‘behind-the-barns’ experience to see and learn about the horses that perform at the Stampede and meet their owners, discovering particularly interesting facts about their day-to-day routines. 

We then continued to the Lazy S Executive Suite, which is Calgary Stampede’s exclusive restaurant in an upscale seat deck for corporate groups. Catering was provided in the suite, from where we had direct access to the fourth level of the Grandstand to watch the Chuckwagon Races and the Bell Grandstand Show. 

While waiting for the Chuckwagon Races to begin, we had a presentation from Andrew Abbott, Stampede Chuckwagon Committee member.

Andrew explained the history of this sports, ‘Chuckwagon comes from the word food wagon. The food wagons were developed as they did wagon trains coming out west, and originally, we started chuckwagons as the boys that had the chuckwagons will race into town and the last guy in the town had to buy the beer. The food wagons were for the most part a pretty important part of the wagon team; we now simulate those wagon races with the Chuckwagons. They originally started in Calgary in 1912 with Guy Weadick. He found them at the Wild West Show at Upstate New York. In 1919, we had them again, and in 1923 we started to have an annual chuckwagon race and they’ve been going ever since. The whole idea is to race a figure 8 around the inside of the track to race a 5 8th mile and then come in for the finish line. We’re racing nine heats a night, four wagons—the four wagons comprised four horses per team with two outriding horses.’

The day concluded with a spectacular Bell Grandstand Show with music, dancers, acrobatics, fire show and fireworks. It was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Hotel Arts

Pancake breakfasts are a big part of Stampede, so our day started with the most delicious towering stack of whisky-infused, soufflé rye pancakes served with crispy bacon and whisky caramel sauce at Hotel Arts. We then continued to view the rooms and event spaces of this boutique hotel that has 185 rooms and an event space for up to 1,000 people for a reception and 760 people theatre style. 

We spoke with Frasor Abbott, Director of Business Development at Hotel Arts, who told us about one of the unique features of the hotel, which is ‘its court side pool and patio. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and now we’re also building an inflatable shelter that will wrap the whole courtyard, so visitors can enjoy this location all year round, even when it’s minus 6 in February.’ The rooms were renovated last year by a group called DIRTT, which stands for Do It Right This Time. They built modular guest rooms that are all panels, and this is a new and innovative way to conduct a renovation, which is also more sustainable and time efficient. The hotel is leading the way with its unique and boutique appeal with its catering and design, either by serving the Alberta cuisine in a surprising way or attempting to be on the design edge that delivers a novel experience. It also has a second, smaller, property in Calgary called Hotel Art Kensington. 

Coffee experience with Rosso Coffee Roasters

Saturday was all about food because after the rich pancake breakfast, we headed for coffee tasting and a food tour.

We learned that Calgary has a dynamic and growing coffee culture, and one of the pioneers is Rosso Coffee Roasters, which was launched in 2007 by David Crosby. We visited their very first location Ramsay where they also roast the coffee. We met with Blake McLeod, Manager of Rosso Coffee Roasters who shared the ideas behind the concept, ‘The idea behind the Rosso is to bring that hospitality in the real, good, crafted coffee, something with a lot of care in it and making it widely accessible.’ Now, they have seven locations and they take pride in every cup that they produce. The community and coffee go hand in hand, ‘The coffee scene is thriving right now. There are so many award-winning baristas and roasters in the city, and there is a lot of collaboration going on. It’s becoming like a household thing—the specialty coffee is becoming expected, a really delicious cup of coffee.’ They also have their own special coffees. Initially, they attempted to stick to the basics, serving the traditional cappuccino, latte and americano, but there is a need for something that is a bit sweeter. They wanted to step away from the very basic flavour shots, and instead partner with a local company called Drizzle Honey in order to be able to make their own sweet lattes, ‘Every season we create something different, so right now is our maple latte.’ Talking about favourite coffee, they presented the new addition to their assortment, a coffee from Myanmar, ‘One of my favourite coffees is called Min Dwin, a really juicy and fruity sort. It’s because it breaks away from a lot of the coffees that we see, and I haven’t had a cup of Myanmar coffee before, so this is just exquisite.’ The awareness for coffee in Calgary is growing, and six out of the seven winners in the 2019 Canadian National Barista Championship are from Calgary—two of them, who took first and fifth place this year, are from Rosso Coffee Roasters.

Savour 17 Ave SW with Alberta Food Tours 

After the coffee experience, we headed for the Savour 17 Ave SW with Alberta Food Tours. 17 Ave is also known as the entertainment district and has many bars and restaurants for every taste and budget. On the 3-hour food tour, we visited five different international food and beverage establishments. We started with a lunch at the Italian restaurant Cibo Ristorante, had a beer tasting at the Vine Arts, had macaroons and tea pairing at Ollia Macarons and Tea, tried Korean crispy Tofu at Anju Restaurant, tasted biryani at the Indian restaurant Calcutta Cricket Club and concluded with Creme Brûlée at the Royale. A food tour is a great option to explore this pulsing district and try the various restaurants. If you are staying only for a short time in the city, that’s the ideal option to get the maximum out of it, and if you like any in particular, come back later for a full meal.   

Calgary TELUS Convention Centre

In the afternoon, we visited the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, one of the two major convention centres in Calgary (the second one being the BMO Centre). The largest seating capacity theatre style is for 4,000 delegates, and there are 36 meeting rooms in total. Some of the spaces that stood out were the Colab, which is great for smaller strategy meetings to exchange ideas in a flexible sitting environment, encourage movement and allow delegates to choose their seating style. The second unique space was the Ideation Centre that also has a flexible seating space, allowing for delegates to step away from a big plenary session if they wish and discuss ideas in an informal and relaxed setting. The centre is connected by foot path to three hotels—the Hyatt Regency Calgary Hotel, Calgary Marriott Downtown Hotel and the Fairmont Palliser—, and the official catering provider of the centre is the Calgary Marriott Downtown Hotel. 

Each year, just over 300 events take place at the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, 24–28 of them being conventions, and approximately 5–8 of them being international.

We met with Clark Grue, CEO of the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, and asked him about the latest developments, among others, winning The World Petroleum Congress that takes place once every three years, with the 24th congress in 2023 coming to Calgary, ‘The World Petroleum congress is a large event that took a lot of effort to win. We had a very strong champions group from the energy industry that led a lot of the industry connection to the actual energy sector. Then of course there are the hotels, the city, everything that has to do with hosting of the event. We played a very critical role in engaging our city council, the Mayor in the project, because we brought him along with us to St. Petersburg where the 2023 host city was announced. He really got behind the bid, which I think was a big part of us winning.’ 

A lot of the business is local, but the European market is highly important and growing, an aspect upon which Clark commented, ‘Europe has a lot of conventions that fit the TELUS Convention Centre very well, the 1,500–2,000 delegate count is very good for us. European delegates don’t only come for the convention, but they also want to see the mountains, the prairies and what Canada has to offer in the West, so they stay longer, and this is a big part of the economic impact that we love to bring into Canada and Western Canada from Europe.’

Major conventions usually take place across both the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre and the BMO Centre, such as the World Petroleum Congress and the Rotary International congress in 2025 (the largest convention that the city has hosted since the Olympics in 1988), ‘Those were really big wins for us in the last six months, so it’s been exciting to see these conferences start to really look at Calgary as a place to host larger and larger conventions.’

The association market is also growing as Calgary is continuing to grow its brand in the association world, ‘Calgary has done very well with corporate business. Calgary as an association destination is somewhat new and growing for us, and Europe and the US are important to us in getting in front of the associations. We’re doing quite well with the Canadian association business, but in the US and Europe we’re not very well known; we’re building, and it takes a lot of relationships, getting to know people, and them getting to know us, because Calgary is not as famous as other Canadian cities, or sister cities. But I think when people come and actually experience Calgary, they discover something really unique, which is very friendly and inviting, and we’ve got some nice experiences for them.’

The venue is investing approximately 20 million dollars in the next years to generate a more modern feel and make it technologically advanced, so that planners can imagine their conference taking place there, that they like how it looks and feels being there. ‘We’re also expanding our offering to include our neighbourhood. So for example when we go on a pitch now, we’re not just pitching a convention centre, we’re also pitching other venues around us as a full-some offering so it broadens the offering that we can provide—it’s not just about our spaces, it’s about the spaces surrounding us and our city as a whole, so that’s the difference.’ 

Calgary TELUS Convention Centre is also substantially committed to sustainability, ‘We’ve worked on energy reduction, reducing our energy consumption with LED lighting and also system controls. Oftentimes, it’s the control system that reduces your energy intake, so we are replacing all of that. We also have solar panels on our roof, we have own bees producing honey, and we’re looking at sustainability at all times. ‘Reduce, recycle and reuse’ any waste we have is a big topic among all other convention centre CEOs I speak to. It’s really focusing on reducing waste. ‘Another important aspect for us is clean air—we’ve focused on filtration, so we are providing a very clean environment. When you have thousands of international people in your building, there is always a risk of influenza or other diseases, so the better we can clear the air constantly, the better off the experience will be.’ 

Yahoo moments 

Delivering closing remarks at the Model Milk restaurant, David Woodward, Executive Director at Meetings + Conventions Calgary, spoke about a so-called ‘Yahoo moment’ that the delegates will take with them when they leave Calgary, ‘that Yahoo moment is what Calgary is all about: the friendships, business partners and experiences that put a smile on your face, reminding you of the time you spent here in Calgary.’ Calgary is ready for the big convention business, ‘We are a market that is ready to host your events, and in five years, we’ll be double the capacity from a meeting perspective because the expansion on the Stampede ground will be complete, and we’ll be second-largest meeting and convention city in Canada in 2024. When you return, talk about those Yahoo moments, and we’re ready to welcome your business in the city of Calgary, and if in the past we weren’t big enough, we’ll be ready to host you in a bigger and better way.’

For me, every moment on this trip was a Yahoo moment, and I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting experience than visiting Canada for the first time, and Calgary during the second Calgary Stampede weekend. Visiting Calgary, experiencing the western hospitality and hearing about the current developments made me feel like an early adopter of something big that is happening, and I look forward to following these developments in the next five years and seeing the city become the second-largest convention city in Canada!

Photos: Thomas Loris

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Comments (2)

  • Valerie 5 years ago Reply

    Hi Irina,

    I already followed you on Social Media – Instagram and Twitter – during your stay and I was especially impressed by The White Hat Ceremony! I have to go to Calgary, I need this hat 😉 Also the additional information about Calgary about green energy, economy and innovation brought me closer to the city. Thank you for your detailed article and your impressions of Calgary. And as always great pictures of Thomas.

    Best regards,

    The MICE Blog 5 years ago Reply

    Thank you Valerie for your feedback! You’d love it when you visit – you’ll feel the energy, passion and pride of the people who live and work in Calgary and you’ll experience something very unique in this city, and especially if you visit during the Calgary Stampede!

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