CALGARY - There's a fierce competition in Calgary right now and it doesn't involve broncos or bullriders.
Away from the rodeo, companies in the financial heart of oilpatch country are spending big bucks to throw the biggest, flashiest, most memorable Stampede party as the 10-day cowboy celebration marks its 100th anniversary.
"This is the first year that I've seen that people are really trying to one-up each other," said David Howard, president of The Event Group, which is throwing a soiree each night.
"I consider this the Olympics of the Stampede."
The Event Group throws corporate parties for oilpatch investment banks and other firms that want to show their clients and staff a good time.
When the financial crisis sent oil prices plummeting in 2009, some Stampede parties were scaled down or cancelled altogether.
"This year it's really just been a 180. It's madness," said Howard, who owes the pickup to an improving economy and the fact that it's the Stampede's centennial.
"If you don't tone it up this year ... you're kind of forgotten, so next year people aren't coming to your event."
In the past, clients might have spent $5,000 to book a local band, but this year they're shelling out $60,000 on major headline country music acts.
As far as food goes, beef on a bun might have cut it in the past — but no longer.
"They're doing high-end salmon and caviar and fillet."
And the parties are featuring fancy specialty cocktails in addition to that old Stampede standby — beer.
Howard estimates the Stampede made up about five per cent of his company's business in past years, but in 2012 it represents about 20 per cent. The biggest bashes, with more than 2,000 guests, can cost as much as seven figures.
Paddy Sorrenti says his company, Sorrenti's Catering, is having its best year ever.
In 2008, the caterer had a pretty good year, serving 25,000 guests pancakes and other Stampede breakfast fare. Things went downhill with the rest of the economy in 2009 and his numbers dropped to 14,000.
This year, Sorrenti's is serving 28,000 — and this time it's not just plain old pancakes and bacon.
"We're doing smoothies and mini-yogurt parfaits and little pastries and little French toast sampler things with syrup in little cups."
A typical breakfast event for Sorrenti includes a couple of thousand guests. The big chowdowns cost upwards of $100,000.
The company has almost three dozen different events planned during the Stampede. Most are daytime parties that companies throw for their employees.
"There's two seasons in catering in Calgary: There's Christmas and Stampede. The other how many days of the year are basically just getting ready for those two," said Sorrenti.
When times are tough, parties are often one of the first things to be axed in a corporation's budget, so "I like to think that Calgary's doing well right now," he said.
"If they're spending money on us, they're spending money everywhere else and they can't be doing all that bad."
Paul Vickers, founder of Penny Lane Entertainment, said this year has been "absolutely insane" when it comes to bookings at Cowboys, a rollicking night club that recently opened a new two-storey location by the Stampede grounds.
Cowboys, which made headlines in 2007 when Prince Harry visited the club's earlier location, is guaranteed to be full to the brim every night of the Stampede.
But this year it's booking up for the breakfast and lunch crowd, too, said Vickers.
"The way we can get more money and do better business is getting busy earlier in the day."
Cowboys used to feed 1,000 people at lunchtime, but this year it's more like 2,000 or 3,000.
Big companies usually book their parties several months in advance of the hoopla. But smaller outfits, from upstart oilfield services companies to dentist offices, are rushing to book 10- or 20-person tables at Cowboys.
"It is — for us in the hotel, restaurant, bar, service industry — bigger than Christmas," said Vickers.
Vickers sees the Stampede as a barometer for how Alberta — and Calgary specifically — are faring economically.
In the boom around 2007, Calgarians were spending money like it was going out of style — something Vickers said wasn't necessarily good for his business because it made it harder to find workers and drove up costs.
"To be honest with you, it was a good top-end year, but the bottom end of 2007 wasn't my best."
The recession years were tough, but now Stampede revellers appear eager to spend again — but not too eager.
"They're not as free with their money as they were in 2007. They're still questioning what they get with it, but they're quicker to pay."
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