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Calgary Stampede: Canada Fairs Open with Strong Community Turnout
Event deemed not a COVID-19 "Super Spreader"
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After a cancelled 2020 and a delayed 2021, the Calgary Stampede officially reopened the Canadian Fair season. It was the first and so far largest outdoor event held in Canada since the pandemic's outset.

Although a few of its signature events needed to be cancelled, such as chuck wagon races, Rangeland Derby and the indoor concerts, that are traditionally held in the Saddledome, the Calgary Stampede was a welcomed respite by a community just getting out of lockdown. The higher profile and more intense spotlight were not lost on the organizers, but what shone through was an intense outpouring of local love.

“Stampede 2021 was quite a ride and we are so thankful to our community for riding with us,” said Kristina Barnes, communications manager with the Calgary Stampede. “Our measure of success for 2021 was in smiles and laughter and in great memories made with family and friends. Success was also local businesses getting a much-needed boost, and our economy a kick start. No matter how you measure it, Stampede 2021 is a success!”

The final attendance was 528,998, about half the usual turnout. The event had several restrictions in place, such as 50 percent capacity in the grandstands and international travel restrictions prevented the tens of thousands who normally attend one of the largest annual rodeo events in North America. These limitations refocused the energy back to the community origins of the event.

Calgarian Centric

“The Stampede is known around the world as the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” she said. “But in 2021, it was put on by Calgarians FOR Calgarians. Our community celebration was the first step in the safe return to live events for our city – and our country. We were proud to lead the way with more than 500,000 guests enjoying all of the experiences Stampede 2021 had to offer. We are extremely pleased with this, especially given the overall Park capacity and venue reductions in place as well as enhanced pandemic safety protocols.”

Barnes's position was created due to COVID-related restructuring. Jennifer Booth, who departed in 2019, was Publicity Manager for the stampede and Barnes was responsible for Western Events and Agriculture. The two roles merged when COVID shut down operations and now Barnes manages all publicity and communications for the event. Planning for the 2021 Stampede could not begin in earnest until the fall of 2020, with the caveat that the plans were subject to change, not knowing what sort of restrictions would be in place come summer.

In fact, those restrictions remained in place nearly up to opening day. “With international travel restrictions still in place, the Stampede opened only 8 short days after the lifting of provincial restrictions, and only a few days after the repealing of the municipal mask bylaw,” said Barnes. “Fortunately, our thorough advance planning provided the ability to flex and adjust our programming accordingly. Our team of employees and volunteers began planning for the 2021 Stampede in the fall of 2020, knowing experiences and activations would need to be flexible and adaptable depending on the health guidelines in place in July.”

Travel restrictions were still in place, which not only hampered the out of town visitors, but the midway. “As part of the health guidelines in place at the time, NAME was required to quarantine for 14 days after crossing the border prior to set-up,” said Barnes. “Calgary was their first stop in Canada after attending more than 40 fairs and festivals throughout the US in the first part of the year.”

Health & Safety

The final plan – reviewed and approved by the by Alberta Health, the regional health department, included a full range of protocols, mainly to minimize clusters and to encourage social distancing. Permissions was finally granted, giving “the Stampede the ability to host an event with an operating model that supported physical distancing and included a modified park layout, elimination of high traffic areas, and overall reduced capacity.”

The restrictions weren't limited to the midway. Rodeo events were “limited to 50 percent capacity, and offered a variety of seating options to the public depending on their preferences regarding distancing from other guests,” she said. “Rodeo competitors for the 2021 Stampede were required to participate in a modified quarantine and testing program.

Results after the event indicated that indeed, the 2021 Calgary Stampede was not a super-spreader event. According to Alberta Health, only 71 cases of COVID-19 were “likely acquired” at the Stampede, which they said represented about seven cases a day, or .01 per cent of the 528,998 people who attended the Stampede in 2021.

“This year, our community celebration was the first step in the safe return of live events for our city and our country,” said Dana Peers, Interim Chief Executive Officer, Calgary Stampede. “We believe Stampede 2021 was a success. We committed to operating safely, and these results show the effectiveness of the enhanced safety measures that were put in place.”

Dr. Jia Hu, a public health physician advising the Stampede, stated: “The Stampede has gone above and beyond when it comes to safety measures, and events across the country can learn a great deal. In context, over the past two weeks, 749 cases were reported across Alberta. The low number of cases associated with the Stampede is not unexpected and reinforces the safe operating measures put in place along with the effectiveness of vaccines.”

NAME Midway

The safety measures Dr. Hu references were most apparent on the midway, provided by North American Midway Entertainment (NAME), who reduced its ride contingent to 44 (down from 61 in 2019), with 22 dedicated to the Great Funtier Kids' Midway. “This year's Stampede experience provided more room to roam on the Midway, with a slight reduction in rides, games and food vendors,” said Barnes. “Guests to Stampede Park were able to enjoy all of their favorite rides, games and foods – just laid out in a different way with more space between experiences. The focus was on ensuring all of the most popular rides were at Stampede.”

For NAME, the Calgary Stampede was its first Canadian event since 2019 – usually the company's Canadian unit is playing dates by June, but those were cancelled. The Calgary Stampede was a welcomed return to its Canadian customer base.

“We had to cut back on the presentation of rides, but we brought our most popular attractions and kept the presentation as traditional as possible,” said Scooter Korek, Vice President of Client Services.

Stampede weather was Midway-conducive, rain-free, with ideal Canadian summer temperatures. “The weather was amazing in 2021 with mainly warm, sunny conditions throughout the Stampede,” said Barnes.

According to Korek, as fairgoers became more comfortable with the concept of being out in public again, midway business picked up. “We started slower than usual,” he said. “People were coming out of lockdown. It took a few days to feel like a regular stampede again. Our spending was good, above our normal average. People seem to have more disposable income and they were thrilled to see us.”

The rodeo is why the event has earned such an international following, but the midway's main following tends more towards Alberta families. “We did see a decrease in the international and rodeo customers, but our bigger crowds are the locals and they came out and supported.”

He added, “The Calgary Stampede was a great trail blazer, it set the stage for the rest of Canada. It's exciting to be the first midway to open in Canada in nearly two years!”

 The pandemic era has changed nearly every aspect of all our lives. Expectations and assessment criteria have likewise been realigned. “With reduced overall capacity on Stampede Park including in our Grandstand and other venues, 2021 wasn't about setting records,” said Barnes. “Our focus was on creating safe and enjoyable experiences for our guests. The Stampede is grateful for the opportunity to be a supportive part of Calgary's economic fabric, supporting the safe return to live events and the rebuilding of our economy after a difficult couple of years. This year's event created over 3000 Stampede-time jobs and also gave a boost to local hotels, restaurants, taxis, ride shares and retailers.”
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