By the time the Calgary Stampede visitors leave the grounds on the final day of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, one of two things will have happened.
Either the Stampede will have broken the all-time attendance record set in 2012, or they will have seen enough visitors to easily mark the number two spot.
It marks a return to form for the organization, in both interest and financial stability, after being shaken by three years of the pandemic.
The 2023 edition has been bolstered by a pair of other milestones—100 years of chuckwagon racing and pancake breakfasts, and 10 years past the 2013 flood.
“The community’s response to the flood is an amazing story of resiliency. The rallying cry of come hell or high water drove an unprecedented remediation effort. It made the impossible possible, and it’s left a legacy that defines the power of community spirit in Calgary,” said Calgary Stampede Board Chair and President Will Osler, who is marking his first year in a four-year term as President.
“It’s a reminder that through good or bad, our community is at its greatest together. As we near the end of this stampede we are focusing on those values, and we’re already thinking about what’s next.”
This year was also different from 2022 in the way that the organization knew immediately it was going to be a big year, said Calgary Stampede CEO, Joel Cowley.
“We had a fantastic show in 2022, but we didn’t know it was going to be a fantastic Calgary Stampede until about day three. Coming out of the pandemic and the lifting of restrictions related to the pandemic, people really delayed their purchase decision,” he said.
“We really knew it was going to be a spectacular Stampede and draw over 1.2 million visitors this year, because of the advanced ticket purchases, and also looking at hotel bookings, which are tracked by the Calgary Hotel Association.”
He said that those numbers were showing that trend weeks in advance, and that led to the Stampede being better prepared to handle crowds. Consistently the booking numbers from the Calgary Hotel Association have shown occupancy rates of more than 90 per cent.
Less crowding this year due to better layout, but work still to be done
The expectation of larger crowds this year defined the way that the Stampede was laid out, and the way that visitors were guided through the grounds to various activities.
“It really came down to footprint and flow, and our team was paying attention last year,” said Cowley.
“When we looked at our surveys of those who came on park, crowding, congestion lines, were at the top of the list. I actually think they were probably kinder to us, and more accepting than they would be because they were coming out of the pandemic, and people were just happy to get out again.”
This year, he said it meant moving large crowd draws, which were not dependant on specific locations on park for visitors, like the Dog Bowl, to new places to manage crowds.
“It doesn’t matter where you put the Dog Bowl, people will go to the Dog Bowl, and it proved proved to be a fantastic setting and a fantastic experience down there,” Cowley said.
“Then as far as the general layout, the Coke Stage was reoriented significantly to create better flow around the Coke Stage. The grand wheel, some other rides, and just the Midway were laid out to create better flow—even inside the BMO, our staff took notes of how people moved and how we could we could flow them through more easily.”
He praised the work that Stampede staff did to make the layout work, saying that it felt better on the busiest days this year with larger numbers than it did last year with smaller attendance.
“That opening day record of nearly 165,000, as I walked around it felt better than the 130,000 last year. I have to give them a tremendous round of applause for all of those efforts to improve the experience here on park,” Cowley said.
Cowley acknowledged that even with changes that there was some congestion this year in terms of lineups for some of the concerts at the Big Four Building and at Nashville North, but said that it can sometimes be hard to predict what people will want to see.
“Our team is always tracking that, and they’re taking notes with regard to you know what night an act is booked, and then who is booked,” he said.
“I know that prepared booking on a particular night and preparedness for the crowd is something that we will very much look forward to doing and 2024.”
Part of that increased preparedness for 2024 will come in the form of the newly opened BMO Centre Expansion, which will vastly increase the size of indoor space available for the Stampede, said Cowley.
Space will also be reclaimed for outdoor activities from the contraction site, which will in turn further change the layout for the Stampede.
The opening of the BMO Centre, said Cowley, will also help the Stampede address future climate related issues on park.
“This this new plaza in front of the BMO Center is a place that we look to put some shade and some outdoor activities that people can come and enjoy,” he said.
“We can’t control the weather, but there’s no doubt you’ll see as you walk around the grounds misting stations and water being available, and attempting to maximize the indoor spaces where people can get in and cool off, because we want them to stay on park as long as possible and want them to enjoy their experience here.”
Back in the black
Cowley said that in terms of spending and revenue at the Stampede, it hasn’t been affected by inflationary pressures in the same way other entertainment venues have been.
“With regard to inflation, fairs and festivals typically weather those things very well. It’s largely a staycation mentality,” he said.
“People who might spend three or $4,000 on a summer vacation because of looking at their chequebook decide not to do that, but they will come to an event like the Calgary Stampede, maybe spend $300 or $400, and they’ll use that as their summer enjoyment.”
Cowley said that the pandemic years affected the revenues of the Stampede in a way that inflation does not, because that revenue was entirely predicated on people gathering. Which they could not.
The first year of the pandemic, 2020, saw a $26 million loss for the organization even after government support, and 2021 saw a more than $8 million loss with a partially opened stampede.
Last year, 2022, saw about $13 million in positive revenue, and 2023 is expected to continue that trend.
“This is a fantastic year for this. This is what we really need to set our footing going forward,” Cowley said.
“We’ve taken on a lot of debt. Over the past couple of years, we have a lot of deferred maintenance with regard to the facilities on park that need to be addressed, and we need to continue to add back staff.”
The good year for the Stampede also represents a return to the levels of economic impact enjoyed previously in the city from the 10-day festival.
Cowley said that the previous Conference Board of Canada estimates had said that there was $282 million in economic activity from the Stampede.
“Looking at this year’s attendance, looking at the bookings, I would have to say we’re probably back with regard to generating that economic impact,” he said.
“Drawing people from outside of Calgary—we love it when Calgary comes together and celebrates as a community, that’s our first and foremost mission—but when we can draw people from outside of Calgary that bring money here that otherwise wouldn’t have come here, and that money is spent again and again, it creates a multiplying effect and we’re keenly focused on that as well.”
Volunteerism alive and well at the Stampede
Osler praised the volunteer spirit this year that made some major in Stampede events this year possible, including the Guinness Book of World Records record for the most pancakes served.
“The previous record for pancakes was 14,280 pancakes served in about eight hours. Well, we knew the community would come together and make it happen, and in true Stampede spirit we galloped past that number with 17,182 pancakes served in just over three hours,” Osler said.
“It’s a pancake breakfast but for a century, they have symbolized bringing the community to get together is one of Calgary’s oldest and best traditions.”
He praised all of the volunteers and staff for their hard work this year.
“Behind each of those experiences is a team of hardworking and dedicated volunteers and employees. For some of the employees, my kids included, it’s their first job. And our volunteers who give, there’s more than 3000 of them.. they are our heartbeat.”
How the Stampede continues to engage with volunteers, will, like the Stampede, continue to evolve to meet people where they are at, said Osler.
“For many of us, when we started out, you’d land on a volunteer committee, you would learn what the commitments are, X number of shifts over the 10 days, and in the case of most of our committees there’s some there’s some year round commitments as well,” Osler said.
“Even pre Covid, we were we were developing more flexible options like event volunteers, where a volunteer can can go onto our website and sign up for specific events and get their experience that way. That’s going to continue.”
He said that one thing hasn’t changed from the volunteers, to the staff, to the guests, to the sponsors: “Calgarians want to be part of it, from all ages, from all corners of the city, and it’s up to us to make sure we have offerings where they can find a way to contribute and be involved that works for them.”