Calgary

Some Calgary businesses plan for last minute crowds during this year's Stampede

Some Calgary businesses that rely on Stampede crowds, parties and tourists say they are not sure how to prepare for this year’s 10-day extravaganza because it's the first major event following the easement of restrictions in Alberta.

Businesses say it's hard to predict turnout for this year’s 10-day event

Businesses in Calgary, like Barcelona Tavern, say it's unknown how much Stampede crowds will impact business this year. (Tiphanie Roquette/Radio-Canada)

Some Calgary businesses that rely on Stampede crowds, parties and tourists say they are not sure how to prepare for this year's 10-day extravaganza because it's the first major event following the easement of restrictions in Alberta.

But since most COVID-related decisions have been last minute, they expect this will be no different.

"It's really a flip of a coin right now on how many people are going to be in the downtown core," said Jeff Hanna, manager of Barcelona Tavern.

In a typical, pre-pandemic year, the Calgary Stampede draws more than one million annual visitors to the city and, according to the Conference Board of Canada, it pumps $540 million into the provincial economy annually.

Organizers cancelled it altogether last year due to COVID-19.

But this year the Stampede decided to proceed with a scaled back version, expecting daily crowds of about half the usual size.

What that will translate to in terms of spin-off economic benefits at nearby bars, restaurants, venues and hotels is still unclear.

One Alberta economist suspects pent up demand will drive more people out to bars and restaurants, but said that will be offset by a reduction in international travellers who tend to spend more than locals.

"A good rough estimate is that it probably will be half of the normal economic impact," said Charles St-Arnaud, chief economist with Alberta Central.

But he said that figure is really just a best guess and the impact won't be known until Stampede attendance is tallied.

Hanna said in years past he'd be running flat out for the entire 10 days, hosting parties.

"It would have been busy lunches, breakfasts, happy hour, dinners right through to last call," said Hanna.

Jeff Hanna, manager of Barcelona Tavern, says there are some party bookings during the Stampede this year — just smaller groups than usual. (Tiphanie Roquette/Radio-Canada)

Hanna said this year he does have a few party bookings during Stampede, they're just smaller groups than usual. 

Still Hanna said he plans to set the bar high and plan for bigger crowds in the hope they'll come at the last minute.

"All of our staff are really excited about putting their duds back on, the music, the look of the place, we're getting it all decorated out with the hay bales and all the wood and the barrels, so we're all-in for sure this year," said Hanna.

Calgary hotelier Grant Erickson said he hasn't seen a rush of room bookings since the province announced restrictions would be lifted July 1, but he too expects any increased demand will arrive at the last minute.

"Where people will make their plans a few days out and just decide to go ahead and do it," said Erickson, who is the general manager of the Sheraton Cavalier Hotel in Calgary.

"So we're anticipating when that does come, it's going to be within probably that 72-hour window."

Wild cards

Erickson said he doesn't expect to see pre-COVID bookings, which he said were in the 80 to 85 per cent range, but he believes rates will be higher than they would be if Stampede didn't run at all.

Last year they were running at about 20 to 25 per cent capacity.

He said he couldn't guess what the rates will be this year because there are too many wild cards — people's appetites for crowds, travel and desire to celebrate.

"We're grasping at straws a little bit to try and predict it."

One Calgary event planner said from a corporate perspective there are other factors at play, such as not wanting to be responsible for hosting super-spreader parties.

"So they're staying out of the game altogether," said Dave Howard, owner of The Event Group.

Howard said some companies weren't able to pivot quickly to organize an event after the province came forward with its plan to lift restrictions.

He also said some companies are unable to justify spending money on a party when they've laid off staff.

So Howard has had to get creative in order to keep afloat.

He came up with the idea of the Grey Eagle Drive-In —  which has been hosting outdoor movies and concerts at the Grey Eagle casino since May. 

"We can't just sit back and wait for companies to do events, we've got to create our own events, create our own opportunity," said Howard.

Howard said the drive-in format has been altered and now people can either park and watch the shows or bring lawn chairs and sit up near the stage.

Thankfully, he said he's had a few corporate bookings during Stampede.

"Stampede is happening this year, it's going to be toned down, certainly not for what it's expected to have been in the past, but I'm not so not so sure that that's a bad thing," said Howard.

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