Takeaways from the Calgary Stampede as the revered rodeo event celebrates its centennial.
BY ALLAN L YNCH
The Calgary Stampede celebrated its centennial by maintaining its position as the world’s biggest, best-attended outdoor show and richest rodeo. This year, 1.4-million people took in the Stampede, representing a 20-per-cent growth in attendance over the previous year. You don’t get those kinds of results by being the same static event, year-after-year, decade-after-decade.
It’s a massive job keeping an iconic festival or event fresh. So many events become faded or frayed around the edges as locals tire of it, volunteers repeat themselves, audiences feel they’ve seen it and new blood is too often met with a dismissive ‘we tried that,’ so that once-great events become strangled by inertia and protectionism from an old guard. Not the Calgary Stampede. This celebration, which started in 1912, manages to maintain its youthful energy, positive freshness and frontier scrappiness.
Even more surprising is the strength of this bastion of cowboy culture in a 21st century city whose skyline is dominated by the office towers of oil companies, banks and the financial-services sector. The Stampede keeps itself fresh by understanding who and what they are, who their audience is, what the competition is and the need for innovation, while continuing to respect the event’s hard-core traditionalists.
So how do you make an event which seems to the outsider to be built around passé clichés of a cowboy life fresh and relevant after a century?”
It begins with how the Stampede sees itself. Stampeders envision something that is both a cultural and sporting event. Jim Laurendeau, the Calgary Stampede’s director of programming, says the challenge is not falling into the trap of catering to a mythology that doesn’t represent a reality, like assuming attendees roll in off the ranch. The reality is that the bulk of attendees are urban, rather than rural, cowboys. Laurendeau says, “With the decline in rural populations, we could be three or four or more generations removed from agricultural lifestyle and not know anybody who lives on a farm. So it’s really important for us to recognize that people have an interest in agriculture and find it fascinating in many ways, if it’s presented in a way that is relevant to them.”
To ensure relevance, the Calgary Stampede conducts extensive research, according to Paul Rosenberg, vice-president of programming, “We talk to our community a lot and we ask them a lot of questions about what they want from us, what they like to see, what don’t they like to see. It’s a fine balancing act, but we use research maybe more than a lot of organizations like ours would be expected to. And we use it to find out how we can move our product further ahead without leaving anybody behind. We truly do want to be an all-inclusive event. We don’t want people saying that’s only if you’re 35 and love rodeo or 18 and love rock music.”
Rosenberg adds, “We view ourselves as playing in the arena of live entertainment and it requires people to make a plan to get off the couch, leave their home and come to see us. We can’t be enjoyed as well at home, unlike a lot of entertainment features today. So our major challenge is, in a time-sensitive world, to make sure that we resonate with our patrons enough that they will make the trip to see us.” He continues, “We recognize, for the person sitting in the stands, the rodeo is HD [high definition] in 3D, so how do we make it multidimensional and how do we make it super-sharp for the live spectator, because that’s what they expect. They expect multi-media. It’s not just what’s happening in the arena, it’s the music and all the senses activated.”
Laurendeau sees a parallel between program-element changes and evolving musical styles. The public’s tastes change, so organizers shouldn’t become trapped or be too in love with any element which fails to appeal to current tastes. Not surprisingly, Stampede attendees are country music fans. “If we were still playing Hank Snow here on the park or some old-school country and western singers,” they would appeal to a smaller number of people. “But country music has moved on, with the Keith Urbans and Taylor Swifts and some of these more contemporary artists, and so there is a freshness to their sound.” Accepting pop-culture change keeps the Stampede fresh and relevant.
Like all professional sporting events in North America, connectivity is as important as the competition. In an age when audiences feel the need to connect via social media in real time to their family and friends, the Stampede and park are totally prepared to encourage attendance by providing that cyber connection.
“Our local cellular provider, Bell, who is our main sponsor, installs an immense amount of temporary infrastructure to handle the call load,” says Laurendeau. “It wasn’t that many years ago that people were just calling or texting each other to find out where to meet up. Now they’re surfing on their smart phone—we have a smart-phone app that’s available on multiple platforms, where people can find out what’s coming next, get suggestions on what to do right now and direct them to different venues on the park. We also integrated a density monitoring program on the park, so if there are some less busy or more busy places that we can see through our closed-circuit televisions and in-person reports, we are using that app and people on the ground to direct visitors to things they will enjoy based on what we know about them, demographically and otherwise, that may be less busy.”
Laurendeau says they not only market and engage their audience via Twitter and Facebook, they also employ technology to provide “things like a Rodeo 101 video. Things like that really help bridge from what we know our audience already knows, to what we think they’d like to know, if given the chance.”
“So we have all of our agriculture programming, but instead of just having a heavy horse pull that might have been seen at the Calgary Stampede 100 years ago, now we have moving lights and our own Calgary Philharmonic programming accompanying the heavy horse show. We’ve got pre-produced video that outlines what some of the hitches have done to prepare for the show, so there’s just that layering on of backstory and storyline to authentic traditional events that sort of combines the old and the new and keeps everything fresh.”
However, they understand social media can help and hurt. Laurendeau admits, “The other thing that has changed the event industry is the immediacy that if you’re not at your best, there’s a video of that right now, out there, on the Internet, affecting your brand and at the end of the day, our brand is all we have.”
On the programming front is the “constant search for equilibrium between” traditionalists who resist most, if not all, change, and change agents who have no sacred cows. Respecting the views and passions of both sides of the programming debate means “no one’s wrong.” Laurendeau says, “While it would be possible for us to over-modernize or go too fast and lose our core audience, lose some of our heart, it’s important to listen to traditionalists as well as people who are driving innovation and be somewhere down the middle. So we are constantly retiring or updating programs.” Surprisingly, as much as 30 per cent of program elements can change from year to year. The key is to keep change from being too jarring.
Part of the peace-making comes via the decision-making process which involves an annual review of the strategic plan.
The strategic plan starts with a six-person core group of executives and elected officers and then expands to several dozen people who oversee the 50 committees involved in the organization and operation of the event. Laurendeau says, “There is lots of opportunity for feedback and ownership and change until the thing is locked in.”
On the revenue side, while the not-for-profit Stampede and its facilities are well known to their host community, their challenge, says manager of sales development Greg Newton, is making others aware of what’s available year-round.
Outside the 10 days in July when the Calgary Stampede takes place, the park plays host to 700 events a year. These range from high-school graduations, corporate meetings and western-based incentives, to mega-trade shows like the Global Petroleum Show. It features huge trade-show space in the 250,000-sq.-ft. BMO Centre, and in 2014, is adding the 20,000-sq.-ft., 3,000-seat Agrium Western Event Centre.
Their sales message is that as the largest meeting and convention space in Calgary, they are where city meets western culture.
Should a client feel neglected by missing the actual Stampede, they can produce their own bespoke rodeo. “In the next calendar year, we have four groups holding their private rodeos with us in conjunction with their conventions. It’s a professional evening of entertainment, tying in the groups’ corporate branding and theme of that group’s convention and conference. It’s one memorable evening of activities that includes food, beverage, rodeo, as well as other entertainment.”
As for riding the recession and retaining sponsorships, it hasn’t been an issue because of the consistent growth of the event, the loyalty of the audience and sponsors, and international buzz created by being a world leader.
For other event managers, the Calgary Stampede may seem a fantasy, but the key is the research into the audience, reinvestment in facilities and programming, and rejection of the status quo, while respecting the core values that gave birth to the Stampede.
Allan Lynch is a freelance writer based in New Minas, N.S.
A Century of Lessons Learned
- Know your audience/client, don’t rely on old assumptions. Study demographics, but talk to attendees about their preferences. Don’t assume attendees have static tastes.
- Don’t be afraid to change. But allow traditionalists time to adjust, by staggering implementation of innovation by focusing on how to keep the event’s soul relevant to modern attendees.
- Let pop culture be a guide for change—harness new trends in music, fashion and technology to maximize relevance to your attendee.
- How change or innovation is accepted is based on how it is initiated. Allowing as many people as possible to have input into changes decreases criticism, while increasing acceptance and success.
- Embrace technology by ensuring it works. Dropped signals or slow connectivity angers everyone on site, keeps people away, and drives attendees to shorten their stay. Both result in lost revenue and reputation. Make sure attendees are as connected as they want, when they want and where they want. Be prepared to employ live apps to drive them to everything from live events to short lines for washrooms.
- Know your competition—it may be down the street, another event, or more likely, in an attendee’s living room. Events have to work to motivate someone from leaving their really wired homes.
- Don’t be cheap. Saving a few dollars on staffing this year can cost you next year.
- Think outside the box—or arena—to bolster budgets by looking for new ways to rework the event, facilities or expertise outside the actual event calendar to create a bespoke, saleable version of event elements for other clients.
- Make sure the host community knows you’re happening. That starts with airport signage and displays, information flow to clerks and cab drivers, an information-rich website and aggressive public relations campaign.
- Look for your PR weakness—the thing you can be criticized for —and like the Boy Scouts, be prepared to address it.
Ethical Animal Husbandry
Any event involving animals can be controversial. Every aspect of their care and treatment becomes subject to intense scrutiny. The Stampede knows they are under the magnifying glass on how animals are treated. They address controversy as it arises, but work to prevent or limit negativity by focusing first on the welfare of their animals.
This begins by maintaining a team of vets and animal therapists onsite 24/7 at the Stampede Park.
Prior to each rodeo event, a representative of the Stampede explains the equipment used and measures employed to protect animal and athlete.
Furthermore, according to director of communications Kurt Kadatz, “We have an independent animal care advisory panel which monitors and suggests improvements to our practices. And we provide the Calgary Humane Society and the Alberta SPCA with unfettered, unrestricted access to our park, so they can observe everything.”
Kadatz says, “We feel, first and foremost, the need to have strong practices to protect animals. We believe we do. We’re always seeking improvements. One of the things we did this year was work with the University of Calgary on an EKG [electrocardiogram] study measuring the fitness of chuckwagon horses. That’s the first time that kind of study has ever been done.”
The lesson for other organizers is simple: be prepared to handle criticism by doing what’s right. Don’t hide, hoping it will go away. Truth will set the record straight.