Alberta’s capital city, Edmonton, bills itself as “Festival City” for good reason, but in truth, the entire prov-ince of Alberta could lay claim to being a hub of unique and wonderful festivals. There are hundreds of them every year, everything from the North Country Fair near Lesser Slave Lake to Calgary’s mash-up of science, technology, engineering and art, Beakerhead, to Lethbridge’s 125-year-old Whoop-Up Days.
“It’s our version of the Calgary Stampede, with the traditional parade and midway and rodeo,” says Trevor Lewington, CEO of Economic Development Lethbridge. Whoop-Up Days also brings in big musical acts and has partnered with local Indigenous partners to ensure lively representation from those communities. “Each year also has a specific theme,” says Lewington. “This year it was the return of pro rodeo.”
Travel Alberta, a government-owned destination management organization, reports that approximately 40 per cent of people interested in travelling to Alberta identified an event or festival as their reason for travel. Travel Alberta’s goal is to double the province’s visitor economy from pre-pandemic levels to more than $20 billion annually by 2035. One of ways the organization is working to achieve that goal is by directing $15 million annually into tourism operators to help them develop their offerings and build on the halo effect created by bigger, world-renowned events and festivals in the province.
One prong of the effort is specifically meant to help communities outside of Alberta’s two major urban centres fill up their event calendars. In Red Deer, a city with a population of approximately 104,000 people that sits along Alberta’s main north-south highway, halfway between Calgary and Edmonton, that means a combination of major one-off events and smaller annual ones.
“Events are huge and festivals are huge. They’re a big part of our community,” says Rene Rondeau, executive director of Tourism Red Deer. “The money back into our community is huge. It directly impacts our storefronts, hotels and restaurants, but indirectly impacts the people that work in those industries to live and go to school and pay for housing.”
While the major one-off events can provide a huge economic boost, it’s the smaller annual events, like the Bear Creek Folk Festival in Grande Prairie and Cochrane’s Winterfest, that create sustainability and the ability to create a thriving festival destination.
“You have to blend the major events with some regional plans and really balance out the gaps in your calendar too,” says Rondeau. “You don’t want to be hosting 17 events in November when you’ve got nothing in January, February. You really want to balance that economic impact in your community.”
Coming out of the pandemic, Tourism Jasper is also looking to festivals and events as a way to smooth out the peaks and valleys of its seasonal tourism season.
Nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains about 350 kilometres west of Edmonton, Jasper has a resident popula-tion of approximately 4,500 but that number can swell to as many as 30,000 on peak days. “Between May and October, and sort of peaking in July, August and September, we have occupancy well over 90 per cent,” says James Jackson, president and CEO of Tourism Jasper. “Strategically, if you build a really great festival or event, it can drive significant visitation to key need periods, especially when it’s on the shoulder of your peak season.”
Tourism Jasper organizes three annual signature events — Jasper Dark Sky Festival in the fall, a winter festival called Jasper in January, and Jasper Pride and Ski Festival in the spring — while supporting approximately 12 events put on by other organizations throughout the year.
“Our strategic goal by 2027 is to achieve 80 per cent in annual occupancy. We’re not going to achieve that by more visitation in the summer, we’re going to achieve that by raising the floor throughout the winter,” says Jackson. “And if we can do that, it’ll incentivize private businesses to stay open throughout the whole winter. That’s very good for employment, it’s good for housing, it’s good for everything.”
While big events provide a huge economic boost, smaller events create sustainability and make for a thriving festival destination.
As the CEO of Travel Alberta, David Goldstein, says, festivals, events and meetings are all important drivers. “We can rank all kinds of decision paths, culinary and cultural reasons,” he says, “but probably the best hooks are globally renowned festivals, events and business meetings.”