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Meeting expectations


Calgary’s corporate event sector has become a proverbial smorgasbord of options – and not a moment too soon, say experts.

After years of being told to socially distance, the lifting of pandemic-related restrictions earlier this year has unleashed a wave of corporate events that many industry professionals say they’ve never seen before.

“Since the second week of February, the phone has not stopped ringing,” says Lisa Marks, owner of Brand Alive, a local event management company that specializes in employer brand events, executive meetings and experiential marketing.

“There just seems to be a complete investment happening on the corporate side of events right now. In fact, we’re in a position where the pendulum has fully swung. There is now often more demand than there is event space in our city – as far out as May 2023.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Ernie Tsu, president of the Alberta Hospitality Association and owner of Trolley 5 Brewpub, who argues that Calgary is starting to punch well above its weight as a destination for corporate events.

“Things are making a comeback. It’s good to see a return to normal,” says Tsu, noting properties such as Trolley 5 benefited by an “exceptionally strong” Calgary Stampede earlier this summer.

“It’s great, specifically, to see companies getting back out there, whether that be corporate events with 50 to 200 people, or more intimate client lunches.”

Of note, Tsu points to the variety of corporate events being held over the summer and into fall – from appetizer-only to live music. “It’s just great to see that resocialization.”

Even more good news is the landscape of venue spaces in our city continues to evolve. Marks points, specifically, to several restaurants downtown and in the Beltline that she recommends to clients looking for something more intimate with an upscale food and beverage experience.

“One of my favourites is The Nash in Inglewood,” she says of the Michael Noble-owned foodie favourite on 11th Street S.W., noting highlights, in addition to the locally inspired menu, include a full-time event manager and veteran servers that allow for a high-end service that doesn’t feel stuffy.

Marks also points to the event experience at The Nash in which guests transition from a “beautiful sense of arrival” with the off-cut bar, and then to a transformed dinning room with an open kitchen.

“There’s just enough activity for it to be exciting with it still feeling intimate. And post event, you can always do a stand-up dessert back at the off-cut bar,” she says.

Also high on Marks’s list is Major Tom, the ’60s supper-club designed hot spot recently named the country’s best new restaurant in the latest edition of Canada’s 100 Best magazine.

Located on the 40th floor of Stephen Avenue Place, the Concorde Entertainment Group-owned property offers incredible views, seamless transitional spaces and, Marks’s favourite, a highly creative menu – Crispy Hen Egg, Miyazaki Prefecture Wagyu and Smoked Sturgeon, to name a few.

“There’s a lot of unique flare in what they offer,” she says, saying this theme extends to many of Concorde’s properties that are popping up across Calgary. “Major Tom is a real win for our city. It’s one of those properties that metaphorically and realistically elevates Calgary.”

Last, but not least for Marks, is a local classic in River Café. The charming Prince’s Island-situated restaurant offers unparalleled views of the park, veteran servers, one of the best patios in the city and room to accommodate private standing receptions for up to 250 or seated meals for up to 90 guests.

“And do I need to go into how amazing their food is?” asks Marks, noting, of course, that River Café is known for having some of the best seafood in the city.

Restaurants are not the only venues on the menu for corporate events, either. Many dedicated event spaces across the city report they are also seeing a surge in interest from companies looking to get back out there.

Like Marks, Heather Cooke at Pioneer on 8th says her phone has been ringing non-stop since earlier this spring as companies look to bring events to their unique space in the heart of Calgary’s historic Stephen Avenue.

“Corporate is definitely coming back. All at once, this wave has hit. It’s great to see it,” says Cooke, sales and events coordinator at Pioneer on 8th, a designated historic building that has roots back to 1901.

The venue, which was renovated in 2018, is billed as a space that “boasts a balanced blend of historical beauty and industrial edge,” featuring exposed brick and original sandstone, concrete flooring, a picturesque floating iron stairwell and a retractable glass and iron wall.

The multi-floor property is, in fact, made of several different spaces that includes The Tall Gallery, The Mezzanine and The Mill, and can accommodate nearly 300 guests. As a result of its history and versatility, Pioneer on 8th has seen a bit of everything – from pancake breakfasts to cocktail receptions and movie screenings to live music.

“The biggest thing I’ve been noticing lately has been people looking for something entirely different than what things were like pre-pandemic,” says Cooke.

“They want to breathe some new life into their corporate events with something that’s a lot more exciting and unique. Our venue allows for this by allowing companies to tailor the space to fit their event, which includes bringing in any vendor they want.”

The Event Group president Dave Howard says, overall, Calgary benefits from having event spaces across the spectrum, especially as demand hits the high-water mark.

“There’s certainly a lot more competition these days. And our clients are looking to take advantage of many of the unique opportunities that are out there,” says the industry vet, whose group has been producing live performance events for corporate and charity clients since 1997.

Of note, he singles out the continued importance of the more traditionally known venues in the city such as the Calgary Telus Convention Centre, Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Stampede and Grey Eagle Casinos – the latter of which was the site of the Grey Eagle Drive-In that The Event Group created during the pandemic.

“There’s still a cachet with holding an event at some of these more established venues,” says Howard. “Going to a place like the Hyatt Ballroom is still an experience. You know you’ll be attending something extremely high-end and well produced. With these types of venues, they are always going to deliver a high-end experience that caters to companies’ needs.”

In addition, many of these larger venues offer companies more options with their events. In addition to different configurations and larger capacities, they are also better equipped to handle larger productions association with celebrity speakers or musicians.

“I’m seeing a lot of companies wanting to leverage celebrities or bands to elevate a brand while also giving people an experience they might have never had before,” says Howard, whose company has produced events featuring with celebrities such as Al Gore and Steve Martin, as well as artists such as Ringo Starr and Sarah McLachlan.

“And many of these celebrities and bands won’t perform in smaller, unique spaces. So venues like the Jubilee, Arts Commons, Mount Royal University … they are very important in this context.”