Visitors who haven’t had a chance to visit Stampede Park since last year’s Calgary Stampede will notice one big change for 2023.
This time last year, the BMO Centre Expansion project was approximately two-thirds steel framed, but this year significant work has been done to complete the structure of the centre and clad it in what will be the final look for the expansion.
“I think there’s gonna be a lot of surprised faces when they come in for Stampede 2023, and they kind of look up and ‘say what is that and what are they doing?'” said Kate Thompson, CEO of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation.
“I think there’s no better compliment to have Calgarians surprised and appreciative of what we’re delivering.”
CMLC is overseeing the project, with construction by PCL.
Currently, the expansion has just over 600 workers per day on-site, with much of the work—more than 80 per cent—being done on 150 lifts at over 20 feet because of the scale of the enormous building.
“They’re on time and on budget to deliver this exceptional project, but they’ve also hit some recent milestones in recent weeks,” said Thompson.
“We’ve hit weather-tight, which is a huge milestone for a project like this that allows us to really focus on a lot of the interior work in the coming year before we open up the building fully for occupancy.”
Part of that interior work is putting up 30,000 sq. ft. of drywall per day.
When complete, the $500 million expansion will be 565,000 sq. ft. in size and will be made up of over 9,000 metric tons of steel.
With the addition of new halls that will be directly connected to the existing ones within the BMO Centre, the expansion will offer up to 350,000 sq. ft. in uninterrupted exhibit space with the ability to host more than 33,000 people.
The expansion also contains a junior 20,000 sq. ft. ballroom and a main 50,000 sq. foot ballroom.
In total, the entire facility will have over one million sq. ft. of space for conventions, meetings, exhibitions, ticketed events, and weddings.
Joel Cowley, CEO of the Calgary Stampede, said that the Stampede would be very excited to show off the new expansion before the next Stampede, likely in June of 2024.
“The biggest open house will be at 2024 Calgary Stampede when we welcome our 1.2 million plus people to come into the building,” he said.
Better design to meet the needs of convention goers
Much of the design, said Greg Newton, General Manager of BMO Centre and Stampede Park Events, has been directly influenced by conversations had with convention and event planners.
“The first thing that we did was went to market with prospective clients to say, what do you want in a building?”
What visitors won’t see are large chandeliers in the ballrooms or things that would affect the ability to rig sound and lights.
Instead, the building will have a modern clean design that incorporates natural light and natural meeting spaces, including that of Canada’s largest fireplace.
The second-floor meeting areas are being organized into neighborhoods, with subtle design changes to help guild visitors to where their event is being held.
Behind all of that are carefully thought out back-of-house corridors and kitchens, which will allow for direct delivery of food to spaces without the usual hotel convention centre scene of buffet carts being trolleyed through hallways.
The exhibit space has also been designed with direct access in mind, with the new halls having access large enough for a tractor-trailer to be driven inside the building. Vehicle access to the other floors will also be available due to a freight elevator that can carry a full-sized GMC truck.
The pandemic also played a large part in the elevator design, with the building design team saying that the freight and service elevators will be operating on a clean/dirty system. Fresh items will be brought to the various floors on clean elevators, and dirty items like linens or waste will be removed via a different one.
Dozens of conventions booked so far
Cowley said that there has already been a tremendous amount of excitement about the BMO Centre as a Tier 1 convention facility when the sales teams have attended conferences and spoken to potential convention organizers.
“At this point, we have 34 conventions booked post opening with those occurring primarily between 2024 and 2028,” he said.
“We’re really encouraged by the reception that the building has received. I think once conventions are in here, and that community talks about how great this building is, it’s going to be even easier to sell.”
He said that the farthest out-booked convention is for 2032.
Cowley characterized this change to becoming a Tier 1 convention space as one that will actually begin to bring external dollars into Calgary in a significant way.
“The BMO Centre, pre-expansion, was largely a trade and consumer show facility. In other words, the show would come here, and local patrons would come, but they’re not bringing money into Calgary. Conventions bring money into Calgary,” he said.
“We will draw conventions and bring international visitors and visitors from within Canada outside of market here. And really what generates economic impact is when individuals from outside of this market come here and spend money on hotels and restaurants. That’s the true economic impact.”
Newton said that 20 of the 34 conventions could not have been booked in Calgary without the expansion.
“I will tell you that shortly after opening, we will be hosting aquariums and zoos, and we’ve done that in partnership with the Calgary Zoo—first time to Canada in 43 years, and this building was a big driver for that,” he said.
“Outside of that, you’re looking at life sciences. We’re working on a couple of different oncology-based events, which are fantastic for what they’re doing with the world. We’re working on an agriculture and international agriculture convention, as well as we’re doing something with cartography.”
He said that many of the conventions are based around things that are tied to the intellectual property that currently exists within Calgary.
Hotels needed to fulfill demand
Cowley said that the limiting factor now—although with the caveat that it’s not preventing convention sales from happening—is the lack of hotels within easy walking distance from the expansion.
“The main thing we need to really allow this facility to fulfill its potential is hotels in the area. I don’t know that I can put it in percentage terms, but certainly, with hotels within walking distance, it’s an easier sell. Particularly in the wintertime,” he said.
“We certainly have a lot of hotel rooms in the downtown core and in the interim, we’ll work with those hotels to transport convention goers back and forth. But having those hotels within walking distance is really important to a lot of convention organizers.”
He said that pre-pandemic there had been three RFPs put out for hotels in close proximity to the expansion, but that changing market conditions throughout the pandemic itself led to those projects being stalled.
Cowley said that there has been renewed interest in revisiting the development of hotels and that the Stampede is confident that they will make additional announcements to the one they made in December of 2022 about a hotel being developed that will connect directly to the BMO Centre.
That hotel will have an indoor path into the convention spaces via Cowboys Casino.