There’s nothing like summer in Calgary. Stampede spirit is in the air, patios erupt with energy and parks become city-wide festivals. Propelling that vibrancy is the travel and tourism industry. Coincidentally, it’s the sector hit hardest by two years of constantly-changing pandemic restrictions.
“I don’t think any of us anticipated what a worldwide pandemic stretching on this long would look like,” says Cindy Ady, CEO at Tourism Calgary. “This industry has shown incredible resilience and determination. One of the most impactful things throughout has been that fighting spirit to open our businesses’ doors and get our industry back.”
As COVID restrictions continue to ease, signs point to a livelier season. In early April, 96 per cent of Tourism Calgary partners had their doors open, albeit not at full strength or without challenge. Still, that number sat lower than 40 per cent in April 2021 and at 23 per cent in June 2021.
Traffic at the airport is increasing with domestic travel nearing 2019 levels and more international flights being restored and announced. Forty-six major sporting and culture events are already on the books and expected to generate $123 million in economic activity.
Business meetings and conventions are also rebounding with 39 events scheduled for this year. Other events continue to be delayed and will seek a hosting venue, perhaps just in time. “In 2024 we’ll open the largest convention centre in Western Canada,” says Ady. “We’ll then have the TELUS Convention Centre and a brand-new BMO Centre. We’ve lost two years of selling cycle, but it’s a golden opportunity for our city and we just have to work faster now to return that business travel.”
All this promise comes off the heels of a wild ride for the travel and tourism industry.
Prior to the pandemic, Ady describes Calgary’s tourism industry as “banging on all cylinders.” In 2019, eight-million annual visitors generated approximately $2 billion into the city’s economy as one-in-10 Albertans made their living connected to the visitor economy.
An almost-overnight shutdown of non-essential travel changed everything. About 68,000 travellers passed through Calgary International Airport in April 2020. That’s a 95 per cent drop from April 2019. In December 2021, traffic was back up to 65 per cent of 2019 numbers.
Summer 2020 saw people leave their homes with trepidation after the lockdown. By summer 2021, Ady and her team evaluated strategies to support their 920 industry partners beyond “staycation” tactics. “If we consider ourselves ‘the ultimate host city,’ what could we do to ride on that banner and get things going as restrictions kept coming and going?” she says.
A wide range of businesses – hotels, restaurants, event planners, caterers, florists, taxi services and small businesses – were in dire need of support. “There have been times our hotels were down to six per cent occupancy,” says Ady. “Supporting businesses like caterers and live entertainment were hammered throughout.”
So, Ady and her team explored the potential in a hosting bubble. With that, the Curling Canada bubble came to town holding seven events from mid-February into May 2021. When the International Ice Hockey Federation’s 2021 Women’s World Championship was postponed, they came to Calgary that August. The two events injected approximately $75 million into the local economy.
Calgarians continued to push ahead and the Stampede returned at partial capacity. “One of the bravest things I ever saw was the Calgary Stampede stepping up into that space last summer,” says Ady. “They worked with us, AHS, performed extra cleaning and safety measures, while vaccinations were holding at the time. It wasn’t easy for them, trust me, and they took a lot of criticism.”
These larger events are critical to the industry and benefit the entire city. “[They] create compression that makes the city hum. Hotels fill up, restaurants are bustling, cab drivers are busy, people are buying flowers and food.” says Ady.
A determined industry and the City of Calgary got creative and sidewalk patios popped up everywhere. Outdoor venues such as the Zoo and Heritage Park provided some relief and new events may be here to stay. Chinook Blast kicked off in 2021 with 300,000 attendees despite temperatures dropping to -30 Celsius. “The 2022 event helped catapult what we’re hoping can become a permanent winter festival each February juxtaposed against summer’s Calgary Stampede,” says Ady.
New initiatives were also appreciated by Arts Commons as they stopped all performances, closing their doors from March 2020 until September 2021. “Our building has traditionally been our main vehicle to connect artists and audiences,” says Josh Dalledonne, associate director of social impact at Arts Commons, adding that the pandemic brought the realization that intersection could happen anywhere.
To negate the impacts of isolation on people and reanimate communities, Arts Commons launched ArtsXpeditions. “When we couldn’t bring people in, we decided to bring live performances out into the communities,” says Dalledonne. Calgarians were treated to almost 40 performances in 2020 and double that in 2021, including a partnership with Chinook Blast. “We saw Calgarians be tourists within our own city,” he adds.
This summer, ArtsXpeditions is partnering on larger events, including Canada Day celebrations and various outdoor concerts. “When the weather starts to turn again, we can properly welcome everyone back into our building,” says Dalledonne.
The sports industry, another connector, was probably the most resilient in their quicker return. “As we’ve moved into and endemic perspective, we’ve seen the restoration of hockey, concerts are being re-announced, and the Stampede is in preparation to return full-on. That signals the beginning of a great summer season,” says Ady.
However, a remarkable season hinges on the international visitor. “Calgarians are the number one tourists in our own city, but spending increases the further you travel from home,” says Ady. In normal years, locals make up approximately 75 per cent of traffic and 25 per cent of spending; it’s vice versa for international guests.
Kananaskis country is also anticipating more local and international visitors. “Tourism is, and always has been, the largest driver of our economy in Canmore,” says Rachel Ludwig, CEO at Tourism Canmore-Kananaskis. “COVID’s impact on the tourism industry deeply impacted our area. We were grateful throughout the pandemic that Albertans stood behind us, continuing to visit and help keep our businesses afloat.”
Tourism Canmore-Kananaskis is happily in recovery mode. “We can move on and do what we do best – welcome visitors to Canmore and Kananaskis,” says Ludwig.
All the area’s flagship events return this summer, including Canada Day with the pancake breakfast and parade, August’s Canmore Folk Festival and September’s Canmore Highland Games. Main Street will again open to biking and walking traffic only, a move that brought vibrancy downtown throughout the pandemic.
Trail experiences will be enhanced thanks to Alberta Parks’ $4 million investment into the Grassi Lake and Goat Creek trail infrastructure and environmental protection. New attractions await, including CanGOLF indoor golf facility; The Anger Management Collective axe throwing facility; Pedego Electric Bikes sales and rentals; new restaurants; and a new ice cream parlour.
Tourism Calgary has also shifted its focus from response to recovery mode and the visitor economy holds great potential.
Patios are expected to be bursting everywhere. Heritage Park, the Zoo, WinSport and TELUS Spark will continue to welcome visitors. In addition to the Stampede’s full return, Spruce Meadows is set to reopen, as are all the summer festivals, including Global Fest, Folk Fest and the International Blues Festival. Passes like the Calgary Beers & Cheers Pass will encourage people to explore Calgary’s robust craft beer scene.
In June, audiences can look forward to Ragtime: A Concert Performance, hosted at the Jack Singer Concert Hall. It’s the first time Arts Commons Presents, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Theatre Calgary will collaborate to bring a show to the stage. “It’s a historic collaboration led by Stafford Arima, who knows the piece inside and out,” says Dalledonne. “If you’re looking for quality music in one of the best concert halls in the country, this is it. It’s going to be a fantastic performance.”