Convene On Site

Lassoed at the Calgary Stampede

As I stepped into the arrivals lounge of Calgary International Airport, a rope fell over my head, my arms were pinned to my sides, and I felt myself being tugged backwards.

“Gotcha!” hollered a graying cowboy, who was holding the other end of the rope. I’d been lassoed by Art, a garrulous local, while the twangs of a nearby bluegrass band transformed the lounge into an unlikely honky-tonk.

Such is the raucous hospitality of Calgary Stampede, the 10-day rodeo and festival that whips the western Canadian city into a froth every July. This year, Meetings + Conventions Calgary shepherded a few meeting planners (and me) on a fam trip during the rollicking event, and it was a head-spinning three days of good eats, hotel visits, and old-fashioned carousing.

The Stampede dates back to 1912, long before Calgary was a booming oil and gas center with a skyline of glimmering office buildings. When the opening day arrives, residents break out their cowboy boots, take the day off, and ready themselves for an ongoing party of concerts, pancake breakfasts, chuck-wagon races, and revelry.

After the 20-minute ride from the airport — which is undergoing a CAN $2.1-billion runway and terminal expansion — we arrived at the 407-room Fairmont Palliser Hotel. The night before the opening Stampede parade, the lobby had an elegant hush befitting a lovingly tended 100-year-old property. When we stepped from the elevators at 7:45 the next morning, that same lobby had been transformed into a rambunctious party with live country-western music, straw bales, Bloody Mary stations, and hundreds of celebrants in cowboy hats. This was the Fairmont’s annual parade-day breakfast, and it was one of the hottest tickets in town.

After feasting on spit-roasted pork, party-goers crowded the front of the hotel to watch actor William Shatner cruise by on a baby-blue convertible, followed by marching bands and floats that would snake their way through downtown for hours. Upstairs, the hotel’s 13 meeting spaces were eerily quiet, as few Calgarians were holding 12-person board meetings, 320-person sit-down dinners, or 450-person presentations on parade day.

Many of Calgary’s hotels are clustered downtown, within walking distance of the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, as well as each other. A total of 1,100 of those rooms are linked by enclosed, climate-controlled skyways — called the +15 — that enable pedestrians to avoid winter’s chill on their way to shops, restaurants, or the 122,000-square-foot convention center, with its 47,000-square-foot exhibition space and string of more intimate meeting rooms.

Although Calgary has a distinct business-first sensibility, its hotels don’t conform to a particular template — they’re wildly divergent in their respective vibes. While the Calgary Marriott Downtown Hotel may be one of the city’s longtime standard-bearers — it has 384 rooms and 9,571 square feet of meeting space spread across 19 meeting rooms — the hotel is undergoing a radical renovation that will make it one of the first Marriott properties in North America to debut the hotel company’s new look. A few blocks way, the 525 rooms of the Westin Calgary are all modern lines and muted tones, and its 23,000 square feet of meeting space is wind-powered. The Delta Bow Valley, also downtown, pairs spectacular farm-to-table food with 394 rooms and 11 meeting spaces, while the soaring, sandstone-lined lobby of the Hyatt Regency Calgary is filled with Western art and serves as a jumping-off point to 355 guest rooms, 33,000 square feet of meeting space, and Catch restaurant — where the chef flies in fresh seafood and uses produce and honey from the hotel’s rooftop garden. More moderately priced, the International Hotel Calgary — with 248 spacious suites and upper-floor meeting space — has served Calgary travelers since 1970.

A meeting space inside the hip Hotel Arts.

The city isn’t without its boutique hotels, either. In the midst of downtown is the brand-new Hotel Le Germain Calgary, whose exquisitely designed guest rooms feature custom cabinetry and walk-in showers, and whose sustainably sourced food reflects the Gallic tastes of the chain’s owner, a Montrealer. Further afield — in the up-and-coming Victoria Park neighborhood — is the uber-modern, 175-room Hotel Arts, with a lively poolside scene, funky bistro, Vietnamese “raw bar,” and a famous pastry chef, Karine Moulin, who makes her own ice cream for the hotel’s dessert menu. Also on downtown’s outskirts is the Hotel Elan, a converted apartment building with sleek, red-and-white suites — some with kitchenettes — along with two high-tech boardrooms in the lobby.

Touring so many hotels in the space of two days could leave any fam-goer weary, but we recharged at Stampede Park, a complex of arenas, fairgrounds, grandstand, corral, and bustling midway that hosts 700,000 Stampede visitors each July. Anchoring the complex is the 265,000-square-foot BMO Centre, Calgary’s largest venue; for the unrestrained chuck-wagon races, our group took over one of the rodeo-side Infield Suites, which come with their own cook and front-row seats to the action.

This year, the opening night of the chuck-wagon races were delayed by some animal-rights protesters who had chained themselves to a gate. It was a reminder that even the best-laid plans can hit a snag — but also that feisty Calgarians embody passion, patience, and hospitality in equal measures.

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.