Stampede revelry becomes subdued in tough economy

Burnet Duckworth & Palmer’s renowned soiree has been a regular fixture on the Calgary Stampede party circuit for more than 15 years, but the law firm won’t be playing host to the cowboy hat and bolo tie set this year.

CALGARY — Burnet Duckworth & Palmer’s renowned soiree has been a regular fixture on the Calgary Stampede party circuit for more than 15 years, but the law firm won’t be playing host to the cowboy hat and bolo tie set this year.

The annual bash has fallen, like the economy, on tough times, cancelled in the face of the greatest recession since the Second World War. And they aren’t the only group that has decided to call off or scale back parties linked to the city’s famous celebration of cowboy culture.

“As the end of ’08 crept up on us… our long-term partner in the food bank started experiencing an unbelievable increase in food requests, people who aren’t able to make ends meet and who weren’t able to put food on the table,” said Brian Feick, director of marketing for the law firm.

“Our partners got together and said ’Hey, maybe the right thing to do, instead of hosting a party for $150,000, we give that money to the food bank.”’

Clients who would have attended BD&P’s party — described by Feick as a night of “high-end food and booze” with around 2,000 guests — fully supported the firm’s decision.

“In fact, they sent cheques back into us in support of the (food bank) program,” he said.

For 10 surreal days every July, bales of hay appear throughout Calgary’s otherwise sleek downtown core. Even the most polished corporate executives trade in their suits and ties for plaid shirts and jeans.

The huge private parties thrown by law firms, investment banks and other companies are just as much a part of Stampede week as chuckwagon races and bull-riding.

In the wake of the recession — which has caused huge job losses throughout Alberta’s all-important energy industry — some firms are toning down or cancelling their events, while others are going full-steam ahead.

David Howard, president of The Event Group, said the number of corporate Stampede parties his company has been planning this year has been “cut drastically” from last year, when oil prices above US$140 were fuelling dizzying economic activity in the province.

Howard has shifted his business away from elaborate Stampede parties, which can cost hundreds of dollars a head, toward smaller-scale concerts and speaker events. For the Stampede parties that are actually taking place, Howard said his clients are scaling back.

“They’ll say ‘We’ll provide the meal and some entertainment. You want to drink, you pay for it,”’ he said. “Where you’ve seen three bands at an event before, there’s one. If you’ve had a full steak dinner, well, maybe it’s a burger event and cash bar.”

Peters & Co., a Calgary-based investment dealer focused on the oil and gas industry, hosted about 1,000 people at its Firewater Friday event, another Stampede-week institution.

The party featured live music and “a decent chunk of dough” was raised for the Calgary Hospice Association, said chief executive officer Ian Bruce.

“We’ve always had this party rain or shine, good times and bad,” he said.

The Calgary office of law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon also went ahead with its Stampede Roundup party, an event that attracts around 10,000 revellers and has raised more than $200,000 for charity each year for the past 14 years, said partner Dalton McGrath.

On the Stampede grounds themselves — which feature rides, carnival games, live music, rodeo events and other attractions — miserable weather has affected attendance much more than the recession has, said spokesman Doug Fraser.

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