This article originally appeared in The Meeting Professional, a strategic partner of Facility Manager magazine.
“I’d love to have a rodeo with a sit-down meal for 600 people,” says Gail McHardy, CMP, director, conference and events, Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE). But during her walkthrough of the Calgary Stampede’s Agrium Arena, with its rows of stadium seating and enough dust floating around to make the place feel like a giant snow globe, she wondered exactly how their team could transform the space into a formal dining room that also had bucking broncos, pyrotechnics, fire ring dancers and foot-stomping bands.
It would require ripping out half of the arena’s seating, building an elevated dining room, laying carpet and building a dance floor—with only 24 hours for the transformation.
The CSAE banquet was running concurrently with the Royal West Jumping Tournament, whose stakeholders agreed to turn over the arena for one day during the middle of their competition with the stipulation that by four the following morning the room would be handed back to them in the exact same condition it was before. This left the CSAE event setup team with a down-to-the-wire construction schedule rivaling an Extreme Makeover home-renovation episode.
“I remembered looking at them and saying, ‘You really think you can do this?’” McHardy says.
Dominic Manca of Production Canada says the first time he took a look at the arena, his response was, “‘No problem. It will take four to five days to set up and then come back and take four to five days to break down.’ When they told me we’d only have 24 hours I took a deep breath and said, ‘OK.’”
Then he turned to his partner, Todd Skinner, and jokingly said the crew was going to need to “drink lots of water.”
The Calgary Stampede Park is no stranger to pulling magic out of mayhem. Stampede Park is a short hop southeast of downtown Calgary, with 2.5 million people attending sporting events, concerts, trade shows and meetings on grounds that host more than 1,000 events annually. Permanent structures at the site include the Saddledome and Corral, Big Four Building, BMO Centre—a convention and exhibition facility—a casino, the Stampede Grandstand, the agriculture building and a number of facilities that support the exhibition and livestock shows.
The namesake event for the big venue, the Calgary Stampede, attracts 1.1 million guests over a 10-day period, and visitors spend roughly CDN$345 million. A good example of how the staff can get things done came on June 21, 2013, two weeks before the annual Stampede, when southern Alberta suffered massive flooding, leaving nearly all of Stampede Park underwater—with fish swimming in the lobby of the Big Four Building. The Stampede staff vowed that “come hell or high water” they’d be open for the event. By Thursday, July 4, the infield and track had been completely reworked, 63 buildings had been dried out and restored for business and the Stampede opened its gates on time.
“In Alberta, we roll up our sleeves and get things done,” Manca says. “If we say it’s going to happen, it happens.”
Skinner says he’s used to a lot of uninteresting shows that don’t amount to much more than “load in, set up and load out.”
“But for people who pride themselves on logistical coordination, this was a super interesting challenge for us,” he says. “This was a completely inflexible schedule; we had to have the doors open and be completely finished on time.”
The ‘Dirt’ on Two Big Events
The purpose of the CSAE annual conference is two-fold: a national conference with noted keynote speakers to provide education for the membership and a trade show to showcase their businesses. For the October 2015 conference, Calgary was a great pick for the more than 600 association executives and suppliers who wanted to straddle the city’s two identities: the old west hospitality of the Calgary Stampede and the fashionable “New Calgary,” an urban hotbed for artists, restaurateurs and visionary pioneers transforming downtown.
The conference’s daily activities were held at the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre (CTCC), which encompasses 122,000 square feet of convention space and more than 47,000 square feet of exhibit space, perfectly fitting the CSAE trade show and educational symposium requirements. With indoor pedestrian bridges connecting the facility to three of CTCC’s four-star hotel partners—the Hyatt Regency Calgary, the Fairmont Palliser Calgary and the Calgary Marriott Downtown Hotel—conference attendees would have no trouble maneuvering between their rooms and the event.
Conference attendees could also navigate the 11-mile-long network of elevated walkways, known as the “+15,” making the densely packed downtown walkable under any weather conditions. They could explore the Stephen Avenue Walk (a pedestrian mall lined with historic buildings), shop at The Core Shopping Centre and the Scotia Centre or stroll to galleries, restaurants, pubs, off-beat cinemas and nightclubs within walking distance from their hotels.
But even with all the excitement of a thriving downtown hub, conference attendees still had their hearts set on an old-fashion western rodeo for their gala, held on the final night of the conference, allowing attendees to finally cut lose.
“Our attendees really wanted a rodeo—it’s Calgary after all,” McHardy says. “And at the same time they prefer a sit-down dinner for gala.”
Billed as an “A Night at the Stampede,” it was up to the planning team to make McHardy’s dream happen. But a sit-down banquet and live rodeo show seemed out of reach, especially since the room was already booked for the week with the horse-jumping competition.
The Royal West Jumping Tournament is a prestigious international high-jumping tournament and features World Cup and Olympic riders competing for up to $500,000 in prizes. Horses make 15 jumps through meticulously placed jumping stations within 80 seconds across specially processed dirt on the 250-foot-by-125-foot show floor.
Horse jumping dirt is as vital to the competition as smoothly laid asphalt is to racecar driving. The dirt needs to be even and consistent—no dips, holes and able to absorb some of the concussion when the horses’ feet hit the ground. A horse on shaky ground may lose confidence and could blow a contender’s chances at winning. Although it was risky for Royal West to turn their room over to CSAE, they had confidence in the Stampede team’s proficiency with western competitions, so they agreed to share the arena, with two huge requirements—turn the room back to them in the exact shape it was in and don’t jeopardize the dirt.
Lassoing the Right Team
Because the room conversion would require breakneck speed and spot-on accuracy lest it spoil two events, the Calgary Stampede team knew it would need to reach out to meeting industry experts to ensure success.
“I think that you need to find an inventive way to use space,” says Tara Sweeney, CSEP, event coordinator, Calgary Stampede. “If a client wants something different, you need to find a creative way to make it happen. You also need to know when to engage others when you are working on a complex event.”
The 40-member production team met two to three times and included the Stampede staff, CSAE meeting planners, Production Canada, OneWest Events, construction crew members, pyrotechnic engineers and some rodeo cowboys.
“We were all equally nervous,” Skinner says. “Most of the time we have weeks and weeks to prepare. But this wasn’t going to be an 8-to-5 day. We’d be working through the night.
“There were the rodeo riders who were used to things like specialty dirt and rodeo games—but not events—and we were used to doing events and not dealing with specialty dirt and rodeo games. We were dealing with the added challenge of a timeline that was not just inflexible but unreasonable,” Skinner laughs. “Together we were better than the sum of our parts.”
Manca says the rodeo guys needed different things than they were used to, such as having fencing up by a specific hour because that’s what the horses needed.
“There were pyrotechnics involved, and specialty lighting and loud sounds in a space that was half the size they were used to performing in,” he says, also noting concerns about the dirt. “It was some sort of specialty dirt needed for equestrian horse jumping and they were concerned about it getting packed too hard. But it just looked like dirt to me.” (To maintain the integrity of the dirt, they packed it carefully under the dance floor.)
“We worked the schedule backwards because the tear-down time was the shortest timeframe we had,” Manca says. “Originally, the party was going to run to 1 a.m. [Friday morning] and we had to return the room [to Royal West] at 6 a.m. for the public to come in at 7 a.m. We only had six hours to tear out the dining room and put the arena seating back in place.”
The timeline Manca developed included building schematics, floor plans, a construction timeline and a responsibility checklist—all packed into what became their dog-eared bible by the end of the event.
“We got access after the horse show at 10 p.m. [Wednesday] and the carpenters worked overnight,” he says.
First they removed the arena seating. Then they forklifted the seating decks one by one, and as each section was installed a second crew came right behind to build railings around each deck, then another crew installed the carpeting then finally a crew glued the tables to the platform.
“By 6 a.m. [Thursday] the production team started laying the dance floor on half of the arena,” Manca says. “By noon we were in full rehearsal mode.”
The Gala: Dinner and a Show
At 6 p.m. on Thursday, CSAE members boarded buses for the 15-minute ride to the Calgary Stampede. A legion of volunteers greeted them and handed out white cowboy hats upon arrival.
“The promotion committee ‘branded’ guests with a little horseshoe stamp on their hands, and we had our mascot Harry the Horse welcoming everyone,” Sweeney says. “We had the Ranch girls on horseback, the Stampede royalty and a photo opportunity spot where guests could get pictures in their white hats.”
McHardy says it was a “jaw-dropping experience.”
“We had the Young Canadians performing on one end of the stage, then a hoop dancer native—who was amazing—performing in a ring of fire at the opposite end,” she says. “All the Stampede-style entertainers were there, including some of the Stampede champions. We had the rodeo itself, which included bucking horses, barrel racing and bull riding. The attendees went wild.”
After the show, guests trickled down from the stands and made their way to the dance floor while a band drowned out the sounds of hammers and construction crews breaking down the banquet seating. As the dancing ensued, large potted plants made their way back to their original positions, signage was discreetly being replaced and the room started to leave the gala-inspired elegance and move towards a horse-jumping show again.
“One happy accident that happened was during the after party,” Manca says. “There was a sea of blue uniforms tearing stuff apart. They were working so fast they were about to start taking up the dance floor with people still on it. At first we were horrified, but Greg Newton [manager, sales development, Calgary Stampede] thought it was fantastic. It demonstrated how hardworking the crew was. This was the same crew that had helped put the Stampede back together after the flood. We turned back the room 45 minutes early.” FM