To many locals, it's heaven on earth. To others, it's a whole lot of noise, rowdy parties and people dressed up like children at Halloween. Love it or hate it, the Calgary Stampede – which kicks off today – is an economic boon to the city that is anything but trivial.
The annual event, now more than 100 years in the running, is more than just a rodeo and midway. It is 10 days of festivals, music and the famous pancake breakfasts. It's estimated that the Stampede generates $345-million in spending on events, hotels, restaurants and recreation. Without question, it is the single largest event drawing international tourists to Alberta.
Corporate Calgary has embraced the Stampede in a big way, and hosting parties – while fun and alcohol-fueled – is treated seriously. Business relationships are honed in the boxed corporate seats at the chuckwagon races and private barbeques. The tailored suits and silk ties that typically grace Calgary's corporate boardrooms are ditched for Wranglers, boots and Stetsons. These cowboy get-ups give the city both a fantastically relaxed and yet strangely goofy veneer.
Aside from the measurable consumer spending and the corporate relationship-building, the most significant economic value of the Calgary Stampede is marketing and image. The Stampede – which operates as a not-for-profit community organization – understands the economic value of its brand. According to the group's website, the event is a "storied and valuable brand … an internationally recognized embodiment of western culture and heritage. As one of the world's most enduring identities, it helps distinguish Calgary and Canadians through its principles and traditions."
It is the marketing value of this image that offers Calgary the greatest economic benefit. And for that reason, the Stampede's image needs to constantly be refined and protected. Without the event, Calgary would fall into the club of third-tier global city of about a million people with no clear distinguishing character. Try marketing a city with nothing more than friendly people and low crime. Cities like that are a dime a dozen – pleasant, but unmemorable. The Stampede gives Calgary a unique brand image.
The event is generally adored by Calgarians, yet it does have detractors. These Grinches usually point to the (sometimes) boorish and drunken behaviour that spills from the parties onto the streets. A cowboy Mardi Gras certainly isn't much to aspire to.
Another point raised by critics is that the Stampede can overshadow Calgary's other fantastic qualities. Do international travellers know about our unique arts and cultural events, such as the High Performance Rodeo theatre event every January? Or our burgeoning culinary scene that puts Calgary on par with anything happening in Toronto or Vancouver? There's a danger that when people think of Calgary, they think "cowboy hat" …and then draw a blank.
But in an economic sense, promoting Calgary's other characteristics does not require diminishing the Stampede. Rather, with careful marketing and imaging, the arts and culture that make Calgary unique can piggyback on the Stampede. It need not be one or the other.
Diminishing the Stampede's promotion or getting rid of the iconic cowboy hat (which has been seriously debated) isn't necessary. What is necessary – indeed critical – is that the Stampede evolve with changing Canadian and global values. I don't suggest that this isn't happening now, but there is sometimes too great an emphasis on the traditions of the Stampede that may not be consistent with those of the rest of the world.
The question comes down to this: How can you best protect an international brand and preserve its value in marketing Calgary to the world? You don't do it by stubbornly digging in heels around tradition. You do it by evolving, something the Stampede board and organizers are often eager to do but run into opposition. If you don't, you may find yourself on the wrong side of cultural acceptance, thus damaging the brand.
The Calgary Stampede is not only The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. It's also one of the world's greatest marketing tools worth millions to a small-sized global city. Let's not neglect the brand. Economically, it's far too important.
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial, and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.