Oilpatch Stampede parties can be a barometer of the health of the energy sector in Calgary: Are they excessive with free-flowing booze and name-brand bands? Or are they quieter events for clients and investors, or cancelled altogether?
If 2016 marked the bottom of the cycle, this year's party circuit is showing a small uptick. One of the energy industry's key investment banks, Peters & Co., is holding its Firewater Friday event this week, but competitor GMP FirstEnergy has cancelled its FirstRowdy for the second year in a row.
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Secure Energy Services is holding its 10th annual Stampede party this year, but with a different focus. The company's chief executive, Rene Amirault, said that until 2015, the focus was on showing a good time to clients and shareholders, and raising a few bucks for charity, but that shifted with the recession.
'We don't have the parties anymore. The 2,000-person, 1,000-person parties. They're gone.' - Paul Vickers, Cowboys
"In 2015, we decided that charity would be No. 1 and friends and family and customers would be No. 2," said Amirault. "So we pared back on food and how much free booze was given away and made it more of a scaled-down event, and ultimately more money could go to charity that way."
Secure Energy takes donations at the door from partygoers and their employers and raises money from staff and executives as well, last year giving $250,000 to KidSport.
Amirault said that has become a common tone for Stampede parties in the past three years. "They're a lot less extravagant."
'We don't have the parties anymore'
That financial restraint is being felt by the bar and restaurant industry in the city.
"Year over year of course our sales are down," said Paul Vickers, owner of Penny Lane Entertainment Group, the managing company of Cowboys Dance Hall.
Cowboys sets up massive party tents at the entrance to the Stampede grounds, books bands and encourages corporations to buy a $6,000 festival pass to be shared among employees who want VIP access to the tents.
"Stampede parties are not like they used to be three, five years ago.… This year we started out really great in the new year when oil was rebounding. You can just see, as soon as the oil price drops, our phones stop ringing."
The lacklustre bookings from corporate Calgary have forced Vickers and his team to reimagine their marketing strategy surrounding Stampede, permanently.
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"We don't have the parties anymore. The 2,000-person, 1,000-person parties, they're gone," Vickers said.
Now the parties range more from 20 to 100 people or 200 people at most. The focus has turned to the general public buying their tickets for the Cowboys tent.
"We are winning, two by two. That's what we spend our time on."
2017 slightly better than last year
The tarp auction for the chuckwagon races, where companies buy the right to advertise on tarps on the 36 chuckwagons that compete at the Stampede, brought in $2.4 million in 2017, $100,000 more than in 2016, but almost half the 2012 high of $4 million. The Stampede said that corporate tent rentals are also roughly on par with 2016.
David Howard, who has worked for years organizing Stampede parties as the owner of the Event Group, has seen a resurgence in the number and scale of parties over the last two years. However, he agrees the parties aren't what they once were.
"Events are scaled back, either they're scaled back by numbers, or scaling back on high-priced talent they're bringing in," said Howard. "Or they're cutting back on how much alcohol is served, or how much food is being served. They still want to do the events, but they're being more conservative."