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The Ultimate Guide to the Calgary Stampede

How to make friends, sway acquaintances and flip the perfect pancake

Jul 2, 2014

by Eric Blair

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The Calgary Stampede: It’s all cowboy boots, country music, culinary concoctions and rivers of booze, right? For the tens of thousands of tourists who visit the Stampede each year, that’s a pretty accurate description of what it has to offer. But for some people, Stampede can also be about mixing business with pleasure. They’re not just there to crush beers and consume cronuts – they’re also looking to make connections, build relationships, and maybe, if they’re lucky, lay the groundwork for a deal or two. If you want to be one of those people, here’s how you can turn the 10 days of Stampede into the most productive party of the year (More: Tourism Calgary’s Alyssa Berry spoke to Alberta Venture on the July podcast).

Mission Accomplishable

A failure to plan is a plan to wander around aimlessly

This isn’t an event you can just jump into. If you’re trying to do more than pollute your body with alcohol, fried carbohydrates and loud music, you need a rough framework of who you want to see and what you’d like to accomplish. Given the thousands of people and the constant churn between venues, your odds of running into someone you want to see are about the same as winning the lottery. So plan ahead – and plan to spend your time rewarding current and potential new clients and contacts rather than making new ones. In other words, it’s about relationships, so prime the ones that matter beforehand.

If you’re coming in from out of town, be sure to give your acquaintances a heads up. Stampede event tickets are hard to get a hold of, and doubly so in the case of coveted corporate hospitality suite invites, so the earlier you can plan your trip, the better. Have your accommodations settled way ahead of time as well. If you’re prone to forgetting things, book yourself a white-hat ceremony at Calgary’s international airport, too. Why? It’s an inexpensive insurance policy against a forgotten cowboy hat, which is something of a necessity during Stampede.

If you’re a local, you probably have these basics covered. But that doesn’t mean you should just show up to the Stampede grounds and expect things to happen. If you’re not already hooked up with invites, try to find a volunteer opportunity. Sure, it will help you get into the spirit of things, but it’ll also give you an edge when it comes to scoring late tickets and getting the goods on where to find the best functions.

But no matter where you’re from, if you have contacts in the professional services industries, now is the time to let them know how much you value them. They have tickets, their firms hold parties and they have other clients they might want to introduce you to. Don’t be afraid to squeak if you want some of that grease. “If you want to get into an event, you have to make a case to whoever’s hosting it,” says Jocelyn Flanagan, the founder and CEO of e=mc2 Events and one of the pre-eminent event planners in the city. “But you definitely do that in advance, because if it’s a ticketed or private event there’s a lot of security around the doors.” And, she says, trying to crash a party will only ensure that you get blacklisted from it in the future. “You’re not going to look good if you try to crash an event. If your goal is networking, you’re not going to make any friends that way.”

And remember: while it’s ok to mix business with pleasure, make sure you do it in the right proportions. There may be stories about deals getting struck during Stampede week, but they are, by far, the exception to the rule. Bill Brooks, the Calgary Herald’s Society Editor, has seen his fair share of Stampede social gatherings, and he says that coming to Stampede with a single-minded focus on work misses the object of the exercise. “I say to those that think they’re going to close a deal or do business during Stampede: good luck. It doesn’t happen. Not a lot gets done because they’re not thinking about that – they’re focused on having a good time and maybe entertaining out of town guests. Networking, sure, it’s a good chance to meet people and exchange business cards, but you’re not going to get a lot of business done. Just be a good guest, and follow up afterwards.” Oh, and one last thing? Don’t try to do everything at once. “Pace yourself,” Brooks says. “It’ll kill you otherwise.”

Do This, Not That

Four things to try at this year’s Stampede – and four to avoid at all costs

Do

Get something to eat at the Midway
Yes, some of it’s disgusting, or at the very least obnoxiously decadent. But Stampede is all about doing things you might not otherwise be caught doing the rest of the year, and in this age of hyper-finicky eaters there’s something about cramming down a handful of deep-fried Cheezies that’s a little bit rebellious. Just remember not to rebel too much or you’ll pay for it later that evening.

Watch the Stampede Parade
An early morning parade might sound like a terrible event to attend, but this one is the exception to that rule. It’s a family-friendly event that doubles as a breakfast opportunity for a vast majority of businesses with downtown Calgary locations, and as the kickoff for Stampede it’s a great opportunity to connect with people before the wear and tear of ten days starts to take its toll. If you’re lucky you’ll be invited to a party by one of the many firms located along the parade route that hold a Parade party. And if you’re not? Find someone who can get you into one in 2015.

Take refuge in the Stampede Showcase
During the Stampede the BMO Centre will play host to 100,000 square feet of western art and culture, but perhaps more important is the fact that it will also serve as a sanctuary for those looking to get out of the sun and away from the excess. “It’s a really tranquil space,” says the Calgary Stampede’s Jennifer Booth.

Go to a chuckwagon race
Unless you find the possibility of seeing an animal injured too much to bear you really can’t afford to miss the chuckwagon races. Held nightly, including the so-called “semi-final Saturday,” the races involve 36 drivers, 216 horses and more than $1.15 million in prize money up for grabs. If nothing else, the fact that Vice Magazine hates the event is reason enough to go.

Don’t

Go anywhere near an elected official (well, except the mayor)
Stampede wouldn’t be complete without a rabble of glad-handing politicians looking to connect with supporters and recruit new ones. This year they’ll be in overdrive, too, what with the vast majority of provincial and federal politicians at this year’s Stampede either being in the midst of a provincial leadership race or gearing up for the next federal election. Unless you like the idea of seeing your face on television newscasts or in campaign literature, you should steer clear.

Say “yeehaw”
If you want to avoid outing yourself as an, err, outsider (or worse, an Ontarian,) you’ll need to say “yahoo” whenever you feel the need to express some western-themed enthusiasm. Think it’s a minor quibble? Think again. As Calgary’s media-savvy mayor and the self-anointed “yahooer in chief” (not, as he quipped, the “yahoo-in-chief”) tweeted last year, “It’s yahoo. I’m very particular on this point. #notyeehaw”

Try to drive – anywhere
Calgary traffic is bad at the best of times. During Stampede? It’s utter madness. That’s why, unless you derive pleasure from the combination of frustration and exhaust fumes, you should leave the car at home. Transit might be crowded and, depending on the weather, a bit smelly, but it will still be better than trying to fight gridlock.

Be A Buzzkill
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when in Calgary during the first week of July, well, you get the idea. And while you might be more comfortable in Canali than cowboy boots, if you’re not wearing a pair along with a hat and some denim you’re effectively broadcasting that you don’t fit in – and don’t want to. Lawyers representing clients in court have been known to do so in jeans and cowboy boots during Stampede, after all. What’s your excuse?

Physical Education

The combination of alcohol and loud music can make it difficult to engage in a meaningful conversation – just ask anyone who’s tried to have one in a crowded bar. That’s why you need to learn to use your body to communicate, both in terms of starting a conversation and keeping one going. Here’s how it’s done.

The Approach
If you’ve spotted someone you want to talk to (whatever the reason might be), it’s best not to be too direct – literally. In the animal kingdom, a head-on approach is a clear sign of aggression, and while the Stampede is a few steps removed from that world (the number of steps depends on the time of day) that’s still a move that isn’t advisable. Instead, come in at an angle.

The Introduction
Your grandfather was right: a handshake can say a lot about a person. Indeed, studies have shown that a proper handshake can actually improve the quality of your interactions with people by increasing their level of perceived intimacy and trust.

The ideal handshake is, of course, firm without being aggressive – crushing someone’s hand doesn’t communicate anything other than the fact that you’re an insecure jerk. You ought to maintain eye contact and keep your right hand perpendicular throughout. Don’t linger for longer than three seconds, give or take, and ensure that your palms meet more or less at the midpoint between your two bodies – there’s no need to invade their personal space. And don’t come in with the other hand unless your last name is Clinton and you’re running for office.

Given that you’ll probably be doing this a few (hundred) times over the course of Stampede, you might want to invest in some anti-bacterial lotion. And it never hurts to give your paw a wipe before you press it against somebody else’s.

The Conversation
Do what you do, but remember to respect the person’s time and attention. If you’re fiddling with your smartphone or looking over their shoulder to see if someone more important is there, you might as well just move on. If the conversation’s going well and you want it to continue, feel free to adjust your positioning accordingly. By turning to face the person head-on, you’ll communicate to other people that yours is not an open conversation, and that they should be wary of approaching. And for the times when it isn’t – say, because the person can’t stop talking about the virtues of Ayn Rand, or that time he got really drunk – use your body to create space to invite other people into the conversation – and allow you to exit gracefully.

The Close
When it comes to meeting new people, you don’t want to overstay your welcome. That’s why, if you feel like you’ve made a good connection and said a few reasonably witty things, you might want to pull the chute and get out of there. Exchange business cards, toss in a final handshake for good measure (remember that eye contact) and get on your way to meet someone else. As P.T. Barnum said, you should always leave them wanting more.

Sin City

It’s no secret that Cowtown can get a little bit crazy during the first week of July. But as PayPal executive Rakesh Agrawal discovered this past May, getting crazy can come at a substantial cost.

While attending the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Agrawal apparently had a few drinks – enough, at least, to start Tweeting hostile messages at and about his co-workers, and his use of the words “duck” and “ducking” had more to do with a drop in his manual dexterity than it did with a sudden fondness for mallards. Within a few hours he was no longer working for the company, and while he claimed he’d already quit that evening to start his own company, the fact remains that he apologized to some of his former co-workers for his unprofessional conduct.

This is the reality that we all live in now, Brooks says, and those who plan to indulge at Stampede ought to remember that every single person in attendance is capable of making a documentary of someone else’s drunken downfall. “You know that Las Vegas mantra about what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Well, I think many people think that what happens during Stampede stays during Stampede, but you have to remember that people don’t forget – especially with social media. You have to be aware.”

There’s an app for that
It should go without saying that you should monitor your drinking and moderate your behaviour. But there’s also something you can do ahead of time to ensure you don’t end up joining Rakesh Agrawal as an object lesson in self-destructive stupidity. And, appropriately enough, it comes in the form of a smartphone app. It’s called “Drunk Lock,”

and it prevents you from Tweeting, Facebooking or otherwise using your phone for nefarious purposes by forcing you to answer a series of math questions (you set the difficulty level, and you should set it appropriately) to unlock its functionality. If you’re good at math while you’re slobbering drunk, though, you might just want to leave the phone at home.

These Boots Were Made For Stampeding

For the Cowgirls

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For the Cowboys

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Whether it’s visiting businesses, speaking to schools or cutting ceremonial ribbons, the Stampede Queen and her two princesses spend a lot of time on their feet over the course of their year-long reign. That’s why, in anticipation of this year’s Stampede, they asked the Alberta Boot Company to make them all custom kangaroo leather kicks. And Stephanie Patterson, who along with Shannon Black serves as a princess to queen Danica Heath, says that anyone planning to walk the grounds this year should do the same. “I would absolutely suggest investing in a good pair of boots,” she says. “That’s going to make or break your day, because you’re down on the pavement all day and it can be hard if you’re not wearing a good piece of footwear.”

And if you’re planning on getting a pair, you’ll want to do it sooner rather than later. According to the Alberta Boot Company’s Ben Gerwing, who’s the third generation in his family to ply the trade, waiting until the last minute only ensures that you’re part of a stampede of a different kind. “Our busiest day of the year for 35 years now is the day before Stampede,” he says, “and I’m 100 per cent sure it’s going to happen again this year.”

Made to measure
For a few extra bucks you can order a pair of custom boots, a process that allows you specify the shape, the detailing and even which piece of hide they use to make the boots. But because the making of each pair involves more than 200 steps, this isn’t something that they can – or will – put a rush on. That doesn’t stop people from asking, though. “We always end up having people come in the week before Stampede saying they want custom boots,” Gerwing says, “and we say ‘absolutely we can make custom boots for you – but they’ll be ready for next Stampede.’

The breaking point
There’s no surer way to ruin a day at the Stampede than by beginning it with a pair of virgin boots. That’s why Gerwing suggests people break theirs in before taking them out on the town. “Some guys can throw a boot on and have them broken in by the end of the day, and for some people it takes a week or so,” he says. “But a good week or so of wearing them usually does the trick. By that point the leather is starting to move nicely, the sole’s starting to flex really easily and the boot’s starting to take the shape of your foot.”

Pancake Perfection

There’s no surer sign that Stampede has arrived than the profusion of cowboys, but the ubiquity of the humble pancake is a close second. Calgarians consume hundreds of thousands of them during the 10 days of Stampede, and if you’re so inclined – and, to be clear, you probably shouldn’t be – you could probably live off them for the duration of the event. There’s even an app called “Free Stampede Pancake Breakfasts” that helps you geo-locate the nearest free flapjack.

But there’s no better way to hang out with old friends and make a few new ones than throwing a pancake fry-up of your own. And while making them might seem easy – or, if you’re nursing a hangover, manageable – local food writer Julie Van Rosendaal says there’s both an art and a science to doing them properly. Behold, the prescription for perfect pancakes.

1. Don’t use store-bought mix. “A lot of people assume you need to have pancake mix, and pancake mix just makes for terrible pancakes,” Van Rosendaal says. Instead, make your own. “You need two of everything: two cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, two cups of milk, two eggs, and two tablespoons of oil. That’s the magic formula.”

2. Lay off the heat. “You want to keep your heat medium,” she says, “not too high, or they’ll burn before they have a chance to cook through.”

3. The first is the worst. “Some people wipe the skillet with some oil first. That sort of simulates the first pancake, because the first pancake never works out as well as the ones that follow it. And even when you wipe the skillet, the first one still isn’t quite the same as the rest of them. So that’s the dog’s pancake.”

4. Flip with caution. “A lot of people prematurely flip,” she says. “I’ve flipped pancakes at a lot of Stampede breakfasts, and a lot of the politicians that are there flipping pancakes are premature flippers.”

5. Keep it simple. “In general, we’re pancake purists in Calgary. You don’t see many fancy pancakes during Stampede. It’s usually a pancake with syrup and some sausage or bacon.”

Take it to the next level

For those wanting to take pancakes to the next level, Van Rosendaal has a couple of suggestions. First, put the bacon inside the pancake. Just lay it in there before you flip – and make sure it’s already cooked, of course. Second, experiment with different – and deliberate – shapes. “If you put the batter in a heavy-duty Ziploc bag and snip off a corner, you can pipe it out. And it’s not as tricky as you’d think.” Third, try heating up the syrup rather than just pouring it on cold. “I like to throw some berries into the syrup and warm it up on the stove. They simmer and burst, and turn the syrup this bright colour. It looks really fancy.”

Julie van Rosendaal’s Nanking Cherry syrup

Put as many cherries as you’ve picked into a pot, and add a bit of water. Not much, mind you – like a cup of water to half a pot of fruit. Bring it to a boil and let it cook for approximately 20 minutes, as the berries soften and burst and release their juices. Then, take it off the heat and cool, mashing occasionally with a potato masher or whisk. Line a colander with cheesecloth and strain it – you’ll get clear, ruby red juice. Stir in as much sugar as you have juice, set over medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Store the syrup in the fridge to use over pancakes or to drizzle in lemonade, soda water or cocktails.

Stampede Steve Says…

“Everyone loves the daily fireworks at the Stampede, but it’s hard to get a good vantage point from which to watch them. Here’s my secret: get off the Stampede grounds entirely and head south on Blackfoot Trail. Once you reach Highfield Trail, find a parking spot and get out. Walk towards the stand of trees to the north, and you’ll have the best angle in the city – no traffic, no crowds, and the city’s skyline framing the festivities.

“So, you had too much to drink last night. Hey, it happens. Here’s how you dig yourself out of that hole: go buy yourself a two-litre bottle of Sprite. I’m serious. A few years ago Chinese scientists tested all kinds of different liquids – teas, sodas, and yes, hair of the dog – and discovered that lemon-lime sodas like Sprite are by far the best at minimizing both the effects and duration of a hangover. Now, just don’t do it again – or, if you do, have the Sprite at the ready.”

“Hey, I love kids just as much as the next guy. But I want to keep it that way, which is why I steer clear of the Stampede grounds on Kids’ Day, when it’s infested with marauding crowds of sugared-addled children. This year it’s Wednesday, July 9, and I’m marking that on my calendar as a day of rest and rejuvenation. You might want to do the same. Oh, and if walking behind doddering senior citizens makes you want to double up on your blood pressure medication? There’s a day for them too that you’ll want to avoid.”

“You’re at the chuckwagon races, and a friend or colleague wants to make a wager on the outcome. You don’t know the first thing about who’s most likely to win, so how do you place your bet? It’s easy – bet on the one that’s sponsored by the most successful company. They know who has the goods, and they’re willing to pay to have their name attached to it. In other words, if there’s a wagon that’s sponsored by, say, a local record store, you might want to give it a pass.”

“Pancake breakfasts are always fun, and free ones are even better. That said, steer clear of any breakfast that’s being put on by the Stampede Caravan Committee. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with their flapjacks, but the promotion they do on their behalf tends to draw big crowds. Zig where everyone else is zagging and you’ll find yourself with a shorter line separating you and a stomach full of free carbohydrates.”

– With files from Simon Lavoie and Caleb Caswell

The Shat

Is this your first year at Stampede? Well, you’re not alone – it’s also going to be the maiden voyage for Stampede Parade Grand Marshal William Shatner. And in the highly unlikely event that you run into him at one of this year’s beer gardens or pancake breakfasts, we’ve collected some facts about the man that might distinguish you from the rest of his fans. And let’s be honest: we’re all fans.

He loves horses
Shatner has a big farm in Kentucky named Belle Reve (the name of the Dubois family home in A Streetcar Named Desire) where he raises American Saddlebreds.

He’s A Creative Philanthropist
Yes, he gives plenty of money to charity, but he also gives … well, other things to it as well. In 2006, he sold his kidney stone to GoldenPalace.com, an online casino, for US$25,000.

He’s made some weird movies
In 1966, he starred in a gothic horror film called Incubus. It was the second feature-length movie ever made in which all the dialogue was spoken in Esperanto.

Plan Your Stampede Week:

Calgary Stampede Online Schedule
Official Stampede Planner
Calgary Stampede Tickets
Stampede Parade Information
Visit Calgary Stampede Itinerary
Calgary Stampede Downtown Attractions Committee

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