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More than Just the Stampede

Calgary’s growing festival scene


Calgary is known around the globe for its Cowtown roots and the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth – the Calgary Stampede. It’s worth noting, however, that our city’s festival scene appears to be vibrant and strong. From the Lilac Festival to Sled Island and the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) to Oxford Stomp, the list goes on and on.

“Our city has created a great festival culture – one that is diverse and connects to all individuals within our community,” says Sid Mark, president of the Rotary Club of Calgary Downtown. “For sustainability and growth purposes, Rotary is excited to join Stampede Entertainment Inc. and the Calgary Exhibition & Stampede in forming Rotary Stampede Live so that our Stampede Shaker and Oxford Stomp barbecues can continue to add to Calgary’s cultural and festival scene.”

CIFF’s executive director, Steve Schroeder, boasts, “Calgary currently hosts a number of events that routinely draws 100,000-plus visitors each year, with other festivals like CIFF and Sled Island growing very rapidly.” He goes on to say that the level of public awareness and enthusiasm for these events is at a completely different level than it has been in the past. In 2016, CIFF set a record attendance for their 12-day festival, hitting 36,700 attendees, representing a four per cent increase over the previous year.

The growth of the festival scene in Calgary not only puts us on the map, but it brings a significant economic benefit to the city as well. CIFF alone, according to Schroeder, brought in more than $2.8 million in economic activity across Alberta, of which more than $2.1 million occurred in Calgary (Source: 2015 Economic Impact Study conducted by Tourism Calgary). “And that’s just one small part of the impact of festivals and events. The aggregate economic benefit dwarfs the public sector investment made in supporting these festivals. Everyone benefits from the restaurants and hotels to the city’s parking revenues downtown.”

“Festivals are big economic drivers: they create jobs, provide business to a variety of local suppliers and contribute significantly to the tourism industry,” confirms Maud Salvi, executive director of Sled Island, a local five-day music and arts festival that attracts over 30,000 attendees, both local and from out of town, in more than 35 local venues.

Salvi says an economic impact assessment produced by the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance in 2015 showed that Sled Island generated $3.4 million in economic activity for Alberta that year. Salvi says about 30 per cent of their audience comes from out of town and spends on average $685 on accommodations, food and shopping. She also echoes Schroeder’s comments and says hotels, bars, restaurants, music venues and other local businesses all benefit from this economic impact.

In celebration of Rotary’s 60th year of Stampede barbecues, Mark says Rotary of Calgary Downtown is offering special pricing for their events. “This is our gift back to the community for their long-standing support of the events. Recent economic times have understandably put pressure on corporate budgets and entertainment dollars, but our goal is to keep our community together, celebrate our resiliency and continue to raise money for local charities.”

And though some of us may not consider ourselves as “festival-goers,” Geoff Gordon, a local executive producer who most recently produced the award-winning Blake Reid Band documentary, No Roads In, believes, “As humans, we have an innate appreciation for art.” But he says that ironically, it remains very challenging to earn a living as an artist or a musician. “One of the best ways, and in many cases, one of the few practical ways for an artist to create awareness is to participate in local events or festivals. The more people attend local festivals, the more support the festivals can, in turn, offer to artists regarding opportunities to perform and showcase their talent.”

Gordon adds that festivals like CIFF offer independent films the important opportunity to start building public awareness and to be seen by industry influencers. “As a performing band with an independent film, if accepted to a film festival, we can look for opportunities to perform in conjunction with the film festivals. We can promote the band, the film and the film festival in a unique and highly synergistic manner. This opportunity would not be possible if it were not for festivals like CIFF.”

Aside from the economic advantages, festivals also provide social and cultural benefits as they play an important role in the social fabric of the city because of the large amount of people they bring together. “Volunteering at festivals is a popular choice for newcomers to meet like-minded individuals and create friendships,” says Salvi. “It’s an opportunity to gather and engage with their peers as well as with a large audience. From a cultural standpoint, they bring attention to the city and its artistic scene and contribute to shaping its image and reputation on a national and international level.”

Rotary engages over 1,100 volunteers to host the Stampede Shaker and Oxford Stomp events. This, in turn, promotes community building and social opportunities for its volunteers.

“Since the vast majority of festivals occur in the core, the benefits are there. There’s a huge intangible level on which this operates. Quality of life, which includes arts, culture and entertainment offerings, is a major attractor for new businesses and a skilled workforce locating itself in the city. A vital downtown is the cornerstone of any city’s economic development profile. If we want to be like Austin, Nashville, Seattle or Toronto, we need to know that we’re in competition for a talented workforce. Festivals and events are a factor when people decide where they want to live,” says Schroeder.

And as the city’s festival scene continues to grow, it’s important to understand just how much it has evolved over the last decade. “There are way more festivals in Calgary now than there were a decade ago, in a wide array of disciplines, which is great. Having more events and festivals throughout the year makes it possible for seasonal workers to move from one to the other and remain in their line of work for most of the year. It also helps attract people to Calgary. Overall it contributes to a more vibrant city,” says Salvi.

Schroeder says he’s been involved with festivals in Calgary for 22 years and it has transformed “unrecognizably” from when he started. “When I started, the Calgary International Film Festival didn’t exist, the High Performance Rodeo was a tiny boutique event, Lilac Festival was a quaint neighbourhood street party and Comic Expo, Sled Island and the Calgary Fringe Festival didn’t even exist. The festivals that did exist were by and large very small and had a low profile compared to today’s events.”

It doesn’t appear that Calgary’s vibrant festival scene will slow down any time soon and, according to Schroeder, we can also expect to see music as a major part of the city’s national and international brand. “With a critical focus on the Music Mile, Folk Festival’s new Block Heater winter festival, the rapid growth of Sled Island, the new Studio Bell (home of the National Music Centre), and our own popular Music on Screen film series, let’s continue to rightly put our focus on music as a key part of what’s distinctive about Calgary.”