CALGARY - The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth will fly out of the chutes Friday, and Calgary Stampede officials hope to hold on tight and ride out the recessionary bucking bronco that has tossed much of Canada's tourism industry into the dirt.
The 10-day celebration of the cowboy way of life has attracted roughly 1.2 million visitors in each of the last few years. About 350,000 people turn out for the annual Calgary Stampede parade alone.
"It's either maintain business as usual or ramp it up another notch. I have a saying as a veterinarian that if you're riding a horse in a mudhole, you'd better not say, 'Whoa,"' quips David Chalack, chairman of the Calgary Stampede's board of directors.
The Stampede draws visitors from every Canadian province and 27 countries. The good news during tough times is that about 70 per cent of its visitors are from Canada and the number of tourists from the United States is actually expected to edge up this year.
"We've certainly put a lot more effort into marketing because getting the message out is important," says Chalack. "We've put a concerted effort into getting folks aware of all the new things."
Still, in the past, finding a hotel room during Calgary's premier cultural event was next to impossible and prices were sky high. This year, it's a different story.
"I'm hearing for the Stampede in Calgary that the rates are pretty reasonable and there's rooms to rent," says Dave Kaiser, CEO of the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association. "Usually it's been pretty tough, but we're in different times - there are not as many international tourists coming in, tour groups are smaller and operators are pressing for deeper discounts."
Kaiser says Alberta's hotel sector tends to mirror problems in the economy, and with a downturn in the energy and forestry sectors, things are bad all over.
"It's definitely feeling some tougher times out there. It started in the last quarter of 2008 and it's progressively getting more painful as we go on here."
Hotel occupancy rates across northern Alberta are down by 30 per cent since this time last year. The bigger cities are in better shape, but demand is still down by eight per cent in Calgary and slightly less than that in Edmonton.
"Competition gets stiffer and there's a tendency to drop rates," says Kaiser. "Revenue per available room has suffered for sure."
Hotel revenues dropped by 10 per cent for the first quarter of this year, and resorts such as Banff and Jasper are suffering from a 20 per cent drop.
So many people are staying away - particularly those from other countries - that Travel Alberta is predicting a decline of 11.6 per cent in tourist numbers.
"There's certainly a feeling that this will be less than a stellar year for tourism in Alberta or indeed Canada, certainly in international visitation," says Don Boynton, who adds that Alberta is better positioned to hold its own than other tourism destinations in Canada.
He hopes a 1.3 per cent increase in the number of visitors from the United States will help.
"When it comes to the United States, which is our biggest international market, we have been holding our own in relation to last year. We've been particularly targeting California, Texas and New York where we have good air access."
Tourists spent $5.6 billion in Alberta in 2007, and more than half of that money came from Albertans themselves.
With all the doom and gloom economically, the Stampede is hoping the event will give visitors a chance to let off some steam.
"They're ready for a party," says Chalack.
"People know Calgary from the Stampede and the Olympics. I am always wanting to entertain people."