Explosive growth is transforming Calgary into one of Canada’s most exciting meeting destinations that combines a rich western heritage with a new air of sophistication. By Donna Carter, May/June 2008
Largely fueled by Alberta’s oil and gas bonanza, Calgary is among the fastest growing centres in the country. During the boom that began about a decade ago, nearly every aspect of the city once nicknamed ‘cowtown’ has been enriched, including its group-travel appeal. While Calgary will always retain and promote its cowboy culture, it has nevertheless developed another side to its character – one that combines its rich western heritage with a new air of sophistication. “We call it cowboy chic,” says Doug Dion, president of CEO Productions, one of the city’s premier DMCs.
While ample opportunities prevail for people wanting traditional western-themed events, the new Calgary is also equipped to offer upmarket programmes equally as urbane as anything found in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal, albeit on a smaller scale. “Calgary is truly a happening place,” says Jan Desrosiers, senior sales manager for Tourism Calgary.
In fact, even with 11,000 hotel rooms and a host of off-site venues, the city is such a thriving place, that a substantial increase in its corporate business sometimes creates a delicate balance between supply and demand. Almost every DMC in the city recommends booking programmes at least eight months out, although Kenneth Kristoffersen, president of Experiential Events, a DMC and event-management company with offices in Vancouver, Victoria and Calgary, insists that even short-notice bookings can be accommodated. “It’s just a matter of thinking outside the box and, when necessary, using non-traditional venues,” he says. However, he cautions that booking well in advance is a must if groups expect to visit during July’s Calgary Stampede, the famous rodeo extravaganza that attracts 1.2-million people per year. “Calgary is a new money town that’s rapidly advancing beyond its singular cowtown image, and the city has never been in a better position to offer memorable programmes,” he says.
Calgary’s boom has fostered a proliferation of trendy nightspots, new casinos and spas, an eclectic selection of restaurants and an invigorated shopping scene that includes classy boutiques and upscale stores such as Holt Renfrew. The surge also includes expanded hotel space and property renovations, together with an exciting cultural landscape embodying everything from museums to opera, ballet and Broadway shows.
However, in spite of its growth and rising sophistication, the city that lies in the foothills of the majestic Canadian Rockies continues to hold true to its legendary western roots, maintaining a no-pretense attitude, a casual environment and a special brand of Old West hospitality.
At least 4,000 hotel rooms are located in the downtown core, with three major properties, together with the Calgary Telus Convention Centre, connected via indoor walkways. Delegates can move seamlessly from the Convention Centre, a facility with 122,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, into the landmark 405-room Fairmont Palliser, the 384-room Calgary Marriott and the 355-room Hyatt Regency without ever going outside. Two of the three hotels boast substantial meeting space and are within walking distance of downtown restaurants, nightclubs, shopping and cultural attractions.
Overall, the city’s accommodations scene is well served by major brands such as Delta, Sheraton and Westin; however, the best representation of Calgary’s new, edgy tone is Hotel Arts. This 185-room downtown property, promoted as the city’s first boutique-style hotel, recently underwent a $10-million renovation. A second, $30-million project, already underway, will enlarge the property’s ballroom to over 9,000 sq. ft., increasing the hotel’s total function space to 11,300 sq. ft. “We are a contemporary hotel that truly represents the new West,” says Fraser Abbott, Hotel Arts’ sales and marketing director. “We have hosted high-profile dignitaries such as former U.S. vice-president Al Gore and actors Jason Priestly and Luke Perry.”
“Groups that want a fun, western night out will find it at Ranchman’s,” says Jennifer Laraway, Tourism Calgary’s destination marketing manager. Minutes from the city centre, this large, saloon-type facility, with seating for 1,000, is an authentic country-style nightclub, where scenes from the 2005 Oscar-winning movie, Brokeback Mountain (and, some years ago, the film Cool Runnings) were shot. “This is a legendary establishment,” says Wendy Daniel, Ranchman’s marketing director. “For 36 years, we have been known worldwide as a museum of rodeo memorabilia.”
Ranchman’s is a full-service restaurant and dancehall, where groups can dine on western fare, kick up their heels on the dance floor and even saddle up for a ride on a mechanical bull. To enhance the mood, planners often outfit delegates with white cowboy hats, Calgary’s official symbol of hospitality.
On the wild side, the Calgary Zoo is among the city’s most popular off-site venues. The 285-acre park, which features more than 1,000 animals from around the world, has several sites for meetings, special events and team-building. Its largest and newest facility is a replicated African game lodge that can accommodate 285 for a plated dinner and 425 for a reception.
Located in a section of the zoo called Destination Africa, the Safari Lodge was built with corporate groups in mind and is surrounded by enclosures housing giraffes, zebras, warthogs and others. “An event here can be as elegant or as casual as a group desires, and delegates can break at any time for close-up viewing of our exotic wildlife,” says Aaron Cunningham, manager of sales and memberships for the Calgary Zoo.
However, no city venue is more unique than Calgary’s 32-acre Stampede Park, a mega-complex housing more than 450,000 sq. ft. of state-of-the-art, multi-purpose meeting and special-event space. Its Roundup Centre can accommodate everything from trade shows to gala banquets and small meetings. It’s also a place to wow delegates with a mini-rodeo staged in the centre’s corral. Alternatively, if a group visit coincides with Stampede, attendees can witness the real deal known as The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
Calgary’s plethora of entertainment and special-events sites is increasingly indicative of the city’s multi-dimensional character. Among the new additions is Flames Central, a downtown nightclub and entertainment centre that’s a shrine to the city’s beloved NHL Calgary Flames. Accommodating 1,500, it’s one of the hottest nightspots in town, featuring giant TV screens, live entertainment and casual and upscale dining. “This is an ideal place to take sports-fan delegates, where you can arrange a full buyout,” says Kristoffersen.
In November, 2005, boomtown saw the addition of the Deerfoot Inn & Casino, an ultra-modern property containing 188 guestrooms, a 60,000-sq.-ft. casino, 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting and function space together with Calgary’s largest indoor waterpark. “There’s nothing else like us in the city,” says Cori Crawford, Deerfoot’s sales and marketing director. “We are Calgary’s only hotel, convention centre and casino all under one roof.”
HOME ON THE RANGE
No place in the country is more suited to offering groups an activ
western experience than area ranches such as Rafter Six Ranch Resort, 45 minutes west of the city. “Delegates can play cowboy for a day and they love it,” says owner Stan Cowley. Rafter Six is a year-round ranch resort, but May to October is the ideal season to offer city-slicker delegates a cowboy adventure. Activities include trail and wagon rides; for team-building, there’s barrel racing and roping contests. Accommodating up to 300 for an outdoor event, Rafter Six also offers thrilling mini-rodeos, where real cowboys demonstrate calf roping, bull riding and bronco busting. A day at the ranch can be capped off with an Alberta beef barbeque followed by an old-fashioned hoedown featuring line dancing and square-dancing lessons. Rafter Six has a log lodge with 18 guestrooms, plus a saloon, a dance hall, whitewater rafting, a new adventure ropes course and zipline, and an on-site First Nations Museum. Dating back to the 1880s, the ranch has been used in a number of Hollywood movies, including the 1954 flick, River of No Return, starring Marilyn Monroe.
Located on the doorstep of the Rocky Mountains and the resort areas of Banff, Lake Louise and Kananaskis, Calgary is well-positioned for pre- and post-trips. Moreover, a Stampede City programme can be enriched with a value-added excursion to one of Canada’s most impressive alpine wonderlands. A scenic trip to Alberta’s Banff National Park opens the door not to just spectacular scenery, fabulous mountain resorts and elegant hotels, but to world-class golf, fly-fishing and skiing.
Getting there is easy, either by charter coach, self-drive trips or, during summer months, private rail charters offered by the Royal Canadian Pacific (RCP), a luxury train that departs from downtown Calgary and operates under the umbrella of the Canadian Pacific Railway. RCP’s fully restored vintage cars accommodate 32 people in opulent surroundings and the company’s Empress train (a standard coach) can host groups of 200.
The return RCP dinner-train trip to Banff costs $600 per person and is only available through a private charter for a minimum group of 24.
“Some might say the trip is pricy, but the feedback we get is that the cost is worth every penny,” says Catriona Hill, RCP’s marketing and sales manager. The company also offers a variety of trip itineraries that includes multi-day excursions where passengers overnight onboard.
– Donna Carter is a Cobourg, Ont.-based freelance writer.
Photo: Tourism Calgary