“Negotiate with the venue’s conference managers, keep your eyes out for cheap entertainment, and be willing to think outside the box.”

Late in 2015, as Christmas was on the horizon and this cruel recession was beginning its onslaught, David Howard of the Event Group in Calgary told CBC that 90 per cent of his clients had cancelled their Christmas parties. Enmax, the City of Calgary-owned power utility, famously hired the legendary rock group Blue Rodeo for its 2006 Christmas party, but went public with the cancellation of its 2015 party. (“Blue Rodeo” would have been a good way to describe the mood in Calgary that year: Everyone was sad and felt like a horse had just kicked them.) Enmax was trailed by companies like Suncor and Cenovus, all trying to save money and avoid the public relations debacle that comes from laying off employees and then hosting a half-million-dollar holiday bash. Let’s face it: the oil price crash, and its resultant two-and-a-half-year downturn, has hit everyone’s pocketbooks, and if some of the world’s most-profitable oil and gas companies can’t afford to host a money-burning bonfire, chances are yours can’t either. There’s less money going around to host conferences, conventions and events, and fewer people are attending them. But maybe you’ve always wanted to plan an event at one of the province’s fanciest venues and your dream just won’t pass. Fear not – there are ways to make do on a budget. Steve Dickey is a site manager with Data Communications Management, which operates a business centre within one of Canada’s most remarkable venues: the Fairmont Banff Springs. If fewer events are being held at the Fairmont, he hasn’t noticed. “If one company doesn’t want to have a conference here, another will step in,” he says. “We’re always busy, all year long. Usually we see repeat conventions, because they know that Fairmont Banff Springs is a mecca for conventions.” How can convention planners afford to pick such a prestigious venue? Dickey says there are lots of unexpectedly inexpensive activities that planners can pick out, like snowshoeing, biking and hiking. In fact, Banff’s main attraction – its natural beauty – is entirely free. “If people want to come to Canada for a convention, they want to come to the most beautiful place in Canada,” he says. That’s one way to squeeze the most out of your budget, but Dickey says venues like the Fairmont are surprisingly accommodating, and the Fairmont’s own conference managers can work with people booking conferences to entice them into visiting Banff. It even works with local businesses to offer packages that let planners save on group activities. The Data Group, for example, offers printing services for brochures, books and handouts, which can substantially reduce the cost and labour of shipping. “No one is completely sheltered from downturns,” Dickey says, and it’s not effortless for glitzy venues like the Fairmont to keep their business. In fact, Banff is a bit of an anomaly, with its abundance of cheap fun, great restaurants and good people, not to mention its reputation as a picturesque mountain retreat. But the Fairmont Banff Springs shows you that, with a bit of digging around, you can cut costs in substantial ways – perhaps enough to make your dream venue a viable candidate. Negotiate with the venue’s conference managers, keep your eyes out for cheap entertainment, and be willing to think outside the box. Remember that in a downturn, it might be difficult to afford a great convention, but the venues need clients more than ever. It might not be Blue Rodeo, but it could leave you in the black.

Crude Conventions

Where to host your next convention, based on the price of oil Picking a venue for your next meeting or convention is one of the toughest decisions you’ll make. So why not let the (inflation-adjusted) price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) choose it for you? It’ll save you time and give you one more reason to appreciate Alberta’s oil industry.
Illustration Jenn Madole

1946 January $15.52: JT’s Lounge, Calgary Starting at $40/hour, JT’s Lounge, a Triwood Community Centre, only has seating for you and 20 others, but it has a kitchen facility inside, and the size just means more face time. In a space like that, you can’t help but network
1980 April $103.76: Spruce Meadows, Calgary The price of oil is moving up, and so are you. Bring your guests to the famed Spruce Meadows, with its 4,000 acres of pristine ranch land, and seat them in the British House, Congress Hall, Equi-Plex, or one of the facility’s other massive event rooms
2003 September $38.03: Yellowhead Brewery, Edmonton Connected to an actual brewery, the rustic event room at ­the Yellowhead is ideal for meetings you hope will impress your guests without breaking the bank
2008 June $145.31: BMO Centre, Calgary The good times will never end, right? You’re living large, so put on your new suit, hop in your sparkling SUV and get three photo-radar tickets on the drive to Stampede Park. Prepare to watch the band the event planner hired, which may or may not be U2
2009 January $47.70: Commonwealth Centre, Calgary Located on 52 Avenue, away from the downtown core, the Commonwealth Centre will save you from the crippling costs of other large venues, and its 15,200-square-foot main room is big enough to satisfy any trade show or convention needs
2016 February $26.55: University of Alberta Alumni House, Edmonton The Alumni House is – wait for it – an actual house. It has four meeting areas and a dining room (it’s a bungalow, after all). With a maximum of 100 guests, it’ll force you to pick the best ones