by Susan Falk
For ten days every year, more than 1.2 million people flood the grounds of the Calgary Stampede, looking for fun, entertainment and even an education. Marketing agriculture to urban audiences is a major task on the festival's list of priorities, and, by the looks of it, they're doing a great job.
A pitchfork and a wagon are two rather silly (and unfortunate) images that come to the minds of urbanites when they think of agriculture. Let's face it: as more people are moving to large centers and fewer are living in farming communities, fewer people have a sufficient understanding of the agriculture industry they so greatly depend on. This gap certainly threatens agriculture, which is why it is essential that positive relationships between producers and consumers, between rural and urban communities, are created and fostered.
This is where the Calgary Stampede steps in. When it comes to Canadian festivals related to agriculture, this is the mother ship. Every year, more than 1.2 million people of all ages visit the world-renowned Stampede held in Calgary, Alberta, and enter a world of Western culture, hospitality and North American heritage. While the event is not only about agriculture, the ag element is so prominent that there's little chance a visitor will leave without at least a taste of the industry.
Visitors to the Stampede have the opportunity to take part in a guided walking tour of the large barn. "We try to make it as interactive as possible," explains Sullivan. "Walking through a barn with animals on either side of you can be a rather static experience if you don't know anything about the animals. So we have knowledgeable guides taking people through and teaching them about what they're seeing."
Other attractions include show rings, the steer classic and a blacksmith show. Blacksmiths from all over the world come to the Calgary Stampede to demonstrate their wares and enter competitions. "So it's not just the animals and exhibitors," adds Sullivan, "but it's all the auxiliary things that make up the world of agriculture."
But just how do they get so many urban people interested in these ag-related activities? Sullivan says it's a combination of things: the ag-related exhibits are made to be entertaining and accessible to urban audiences, and there are an endless number of more typical exhibits not related to agriculture that draw urban audiences.
One major draw is the $3-million Las Vegas-style show that runs nightly. It boasts a cast of 300 people, fireworks and pyrotechnics, all in the unique atmosphere of an outdoor venue. Another attraction is the music concerts. "We've had a wide range of very popular musicians, from the Dixie Chicks and Martina McBride to Collective Soul," says Sullivan. "There are all kinds of tastes out there, so we have to be able to cover them to be a complete festival."
"In the past, we've even put on a heavy horse show with the Calgary Philharmonic," explains Sullivan. It is this type of interesting collaboration between rural and more urban interests that also brings people to the Stampede. "And we run stock dog trials, which are very popular with the general public, as we make it easy to understand and entertaining." Sullivan believes the Stampede offers visitors a full package, and this is what brings people in - visitors can expect to learn and have fun through a wide variety of shows and events.
THE BIGGEST COSTUME PARTY EVER
Perhaps the most vivid indication of the success of the Calgary Stampede is the city-wide involvement in the festival during its 10-day duration every year. "This is a festival on par with the biggest festivals in the world," Sullivan explains. "I would compare it to Mardi Gras in the States as far as the involvement of the entire city." Sullivan says that, during the Calgary Stampede, anyone who visits the city of 1 million people knows there's something major going on from the moment they step off the plane. "Calgary is second behind Toronto for the city with the most head offices in Canada, so it's very much a white-collar town. But in those 10 days, everyone dresses the part; you cannot find a Gucci shoe or a tie anywhere. Even presidents and CEOs trade in their suits for Western garb. It's like a giant Halloween.
"That spirit, you can't design that in a marketing boardroom. But you need to protect it; you need to do what you can to make sure you continue to get that kind of support year after year." This support is what Sullivan says is the difference between a simple festival and a world-famous event.
Staying connected - that's how the Calgary Stampede is able to maintain such support. During the rest of the year, when the festival is not taking place, this nonprofit group is involved in countless other programs geared toward youth, agriculture and education. For instance, the Stampede runs "Aggie Days," a program focused on educating children about the world of agriculture. This includes an animal-related exhibit through which they learn about domestic farm animals, how the farm system works, how the animals are cared for, and facts and figure about the animals as well. "Schools are invited to our site. It's a very hands-on experience for the kids," Sullivan says. They are also involved with the Calgary Board of Education. Every Friday, a different fifth- or sixth-grade class comes to the Calgary Stampede site for a day of learning about agriculture from a teacher hired by the Stampede itself.
Connections with the arts community are important too. "We run a program in which art students in the city practice their skills by doing murals that end up displayed at the Stampede, covering chain link fences." And recently, they had a unique partnership with the Calgary Opera: "We got together with them to figure out what we could do together that would benefit both organizations from a community perspective. We decided to help them with their season ticket launch," Sullivan says.
In addition to year-round involvement in a wide variety of sectors in the community, the Calgary Stampede markets itself worldwide by devoting staff resources entirely to traveling the globe and promoting the festival. "While the United States is where most of our international visitors come from, we have people from Australia, New Zealand, Germany and England - where we actively market - and even from countries where there is less promotion, like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Russia." The marketing plan for international markets is simple, says Sullivan. "Basically, we sell three images: the concept of the West, including its lifestyle and culture; the Rocky Mountains; and the city of Calgary itself."
The most effective way the Calgary Stampede is promoted internationally, however, is through the use of the organization's partners. Arrangements are made with tour operators and wholesalers to create attractive travel packages for potential visitors to the Stampede. "It's like a fan-out system," Sullivan says. "Since we don't have the resources to go directly to the individual, we make contact with a few key groups, who will then make contact with potentially thousands of people."
Sullivan believes the Calgary Stampede will maintain its focus on agriculture. "Agriculture is where we started 120 years ago," he says. "Today, half of the 52 Stampede committees are involved in agriculture in some way." With 320 full-time staff and 2,000 volunteers, it's no wonder the Calgary Stampede is a force to be reckoned with. And with promoting the agricultural industry as one of its top priorities, the positive impact the Stampede has on the ag industry should come as no surprise. Editor's Note: The 2003 Stampede was held on July 4-13. AM
Susan Falk is Staff Writer at Issues Ink, Winnipeg, Manitoba, which publishes several agriculture magazines, including Germination and Manure Matters.