Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

December 17 2015

Up-Close And Personal In Canada’s Up-And-Coming Convention Destination

By David McMillin


When you travel to southern Alberta in Canada, it’s rare to meet someone who’s really from Calgary. In fact, those who were born in Calgary and returned home for their professional lives are affectionately known as unicorns. It’s not that those who grew up here decided to leave. No, the unicorn population is actually quite large. Finding them has become more challenging, though, due to the large audience of outsiders who have recognized Calgary for what it really is: a city of opportunity.

Since the turn of the millennium, Calgary’s Economic Development statistics show that the city has welcomed an influx of more than 500,000 newcomers. They’ve come to work at companies like Shaw Communications and Suncor Energy. They’ve arrived with dreams of opening innovative tech startups like eThor and BlackSquare. They’ve chased the balance of splitting their time between a cosmopolitan city and the rustic Rocky Mountains just an hour from downtown.

“I like to tell people that if Denver, Minneapolis and Houston had a Canadian love-child, it would be Calgary,” Marlise Stewart, Business Development Manager, Meetings + Conventions Calgary, told me when I spent four days in Calgary at the end of the summer.

The offspring of this love triangle will ring true for anyone who spends plenty of time on the US side of the border. With Denver, Calgary shares an adventurous outdoor spirit that comes to life in the shadows of the Rockies. With Houston, it shares the big business of the energy industry. With Minneapolis, the city shares a reputation for eco-friendliness: one half of the Twin Cities was recently voted the cleanest city in the US. Although, Calgary one-upped it. This city is ranked the cleanest city in the entire world.

While Stewart’s comparison is accurate — the city shares plenty of similarities with well-known destinations in the US — the Calgary unicorns and transplants are carving out an identity as a destination that needs no comparison.

F&B Fuels The Future

Eric Larcom, the Executive Chef at the Calgary Marriott Downtown Hotel & Calgary TELUS Convention Center, has seen that identity come to life in one essential area: food and drinks. Larcom, who previously worked in Tucson and Orlando admits that when he first arrived in Calgary, he felt the food scene had some catching up to do.

“When I first got here, it felt like the Calgary culinary landscape was five years behind some other destinations,” Larcom says. “Now, though, this downtown has done more than just catch up. In many ways, we’re helping lead the charge forward.”

Larcom is playing a key role in that charge with One18 Empire, which boasts one of the most impressive bourbon selections I’ve ever seen — and trust me, I’ve done plenty of research. Less than a mile away on the East Side, where cranes and new condominiums showcase the neighborhood’s resurgence, Charbar welcomes diners to a space that would fit perfectly in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and a menu of Alberta beef that would set the dining scene in Buenos Aires on fire. Outside of traditional restaurants, the city’s catering leaders were among the first to embrace to hyperlocal ingredient craze. At Calgary Stampede, the city’s massive exhibition center and host to its wildly popular annual summer rodeo festivities, the venue’s catering team focuses on partnering with local farms to infuse each dish with an authentic Alberta flair.

Convention Leaders Look To Calgary

With all this progress, the city isn’t just welcoming a surge in new residents. Calgary is also attracting plenty of attention from meetings and events professionals.

“As a first-time visitor to the city, I was amazed at how the hotels and venues have thought about the attendee experience,” Altovise “Al” Davis, Meeting Planner, National Association of College and University Business Officers, says. “Throughout the city, the use of natural lighting, the flexibility of space conversions, the use of outdoor space with rooftop views and healthy meal options show that Calgary is a forward-thinking destination. It doesn’t operate with a state-quo mentality.”

Davis highlights a key component that struck me during my time in Calgary: the city’s ability to appeal to a multi-generational audience.

“In a time where planners are satisfying the wants and needs of boomers and millennials, I think Calgary sets an atmosphere for both,” Davis says.

Keeping Up With The Global Meetings Movement

Every US-based planner has heard about the need to look outside the States to uncover an organization’s growth opportunities. I’ve written about the importance of an international strategy too many times to count. Still, I recognize just how daunting it can be to consider a move from US dollars, US tax codes and US business norms to anywhere unfamiliar.

Calgary is an ideal place to make that first step feel less overwhelming. For attendees, the city is synonymous with convenience with non-stop flights from more than 15 US destinations and major global hubs in London, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City and more. For planners, the Canada Border Services Agency offers assistance to ensure smooth border crossings.

By the fall of 2016, planners and attendees alike will have even more reasons to love Calgary: a massive new international terminal at the Calgary airport that will more than double the size of the airport. With 22 new gates and new Canada and US customs facilities, getting to and from Calgary will be easier than ever. As the airport reaches supersize status, area hotel supply will keep pace, too. The Calgary Hotel Association projects a 20 percent increase in hotel rooms over the next three years.

While the rest of the world watches the progress in southern Alberta, Calgarians have a refreshing sense of humility about all the growth.

“I’m proud to see where the city is heading,” Yvonne, an interior designer who moved to Calgary seven years ago, told me as I enjoyed a Czech Pilsner at the city’s renowned microbrewery, Last Best, on my final night in town. “Calgary still feels like a small city for those of us who live here, but we’re happy to see the city making such big strides.”

Interested in learning more about how those strides can help your meeting move forward? Click here

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