How the Calgary Welcome Made This Event a Success [Case Study]

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Calgary hosted over 700 participants for the International Play Association World Conference and demonstrated the flexibility of the destination by combining outdoor elements with the internal programming for a truly unique event experience.

This is a case study sponsored by Meetings + Conventions Calgary. More information about Event Manager Blog’s case studies.


The Event

The 20th International Play Association (IPA) Triennial World Conference took place in Calgary, Alberta, over four days, in September 2017.

The IPA Triennial World Conference brings together 700 dedicated play researchers, advocates, designers, educators, practitioners, providers and policymakers from 29 countries to celebrate play, understand its many benefits and provide all children with the chance to engage in rich, meaningful, free play…every day.

The IPA has been working for more than 50 years to secure every child’s right to play and to promote healthy, valuable play opportunities and environments.

The International Play Association needed a destination that could provide high quality event space – both inside and out. A number of the conference sessions and activities over the four days take place in the great outdoors, meaning that they had an unusual and specific event brief.

Calgary and the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre (CTCC) were selected because of the compact downtown location (easy walking distance to hotels and restaurants and the outdoor spaces) and the proximity to City hall.


Quick Facts about the Event

  • Calgary, Alberta hosted the 20th IPA Conference
  • The event ran over four days, between 12 – 16 September 2017
  • Over 700 attendees and volunteers from 29 countries
  • The 2017 conference theme was ‘unleashing the power of play’
  • Sessions programmed both inside the CTCC and in the great outdoors

Why Calgary?

Recognized globally for volunteerism, entrepreneurial spirit and community pride, Calgary offers a mix of big-city energy, western hospitality and natural beauty which aligned well with the conference vision.

Calgary has over 8,000 hectares of parkland within the city limits and the Canadian Rockies are just an hour away.

Above all, they are a flexible and hospitable destination, which meant that they could go the extra mile for the IPA to deliver a solution for their unusual brief.

Calgary International Airport (YYC) is the 3rd largest and busiest airport in Canada. Calgary is easy to access, within one-stop of any global destinations, and with hundreds of direct flights to US hubs.    

Calgary’s range of top-rated restaurants, shopping, entertainment, theatre and beautiful downtown architecture offered the perfect complement to the major meeting venue for attendees to explore.

Calgary is a strong choice for corporate and association meeting planners looking to book Canadian destinations and IPA was excited to work with them to create a unique event.   

The Destination – Quick Facts

  • 14,000 hotel rooms in over 80 hotels
  • 1.3 million square feet of meeting space  
  • 2 major meeting venues
  • The downtown CTCC  
  • BMO Centre at Stampede Park
  • Direct flights to 100’s of US hubs  

The Client Brief

Green Spaces

An uncompromisable element of the client brief was the importance of using outdoor spaces, including using outdoor breakout space within the conference programming. This unusual request isn’t something that is asked by event planners every day but Calgary is unique with its network of pathways, city parks and proximity to the Bow River to promote healthy exercise and the great feeling you get being out-of-doors. To fit within the event schedules, all the locations had to be within walking distance of the downtown venue and include some access to green space in a downtown urban setting. The destination suggested suitable outdoor spaces within easy reach of the CTCC which were suitable for their requirements.

Showcasing the Power of Play

The IPA Conference took advantage of these numerous outdoor spaces during the four-day conference and utilized the variety of spaces to highlight the importance of play. In addition, the conference planning team wanted to introduce the delegates to some of the local cultural experiences, support the discussion regarding outdoor natural play, and expose local Calgarians to quality play opportunities. To achieve these outcomes, outdoor spaces were used for sessions, meals, and for programed play opportunities for local children.

Local Culture

The conference had all of the “normal” conference activities – sessions, plenaries, meals, etc – as well as these important outdoor elements. The conference started with a traditional ‘Calgary Stampede Breakfast’ which is essentially a pancake breakfast complete with entertainment in the outdoors. This provided an opportunity for delegates to experience local Calgary culture and for the city to officially welcome global attendees to the conference.

Food Truck Lunch

On day two of the conference, lunch was provided via food trucks outdoors to the 700+ conference delegates and volunteers. Again, the goal was to highlight a Calgary activity and to bring the delegates outside of the conference venue where there was some play programming occurring nearby.  

Meeting Point Logistics

Throughout the conference, there were presenters that wanted to use outdoor spaces for their workshops. To accommodate this, the organizers worked with the City Parks department to identify green spaces downtown that could be booked. To manage the logistics, delegates signed up for these sessions in advance and met at an indoor location within the conference venue. From there the volunteers and presenters moved the delegates to the predetermined outdoor location. This worked well as both the presenters and delegates had a consistent meeting point even though the sessions occurred in a variety of locations.  

Public Play Day

A significant element of every IPA conference is a large play day for local children and delegates to participate in. This occurred on the final day of the conference, a Saturday, in a large regional park and was dubbed a monstrous adventure playground. The conference team worked with local businesses and partners to provide the loose parts necessary for a child-led day of fun. The delegates were transported to this location and were keen to interact and participate with the 800+ children and their families that attended.

Grant Funding

To increase the local Calgary awareness of the importance of play the planning team were able to secure grant funding from the Government of Alberta to offer free play events during the conference. The funding allowed for bussing of children from schools outside the downtown core to the conference’s outdoor locations.  

The Challenges

The IPA had a very specific brief in terms of their requirements for space inside and out and this challenge was welcomed by Calgary to be able to demonstrate their flexibility and the proximity of their green spaces within the city.  

Booking the Outdoor Spaces

Calgary was able to offer programming along Stephen Avenue, a pedestrian walkway that runs alongside the convention centre; and Olympic Plaza, which is a half block from the CTCC. These are both easily accessible by walking and offered a unique way to deliver on the ‘play’ program. Permits were required for Olympic Plaza and also Shaw Millennium Park, so Calgary supported the event planning team with their applications.

The Weather

Understandably, the biggest obstacle to hosting so much of the event program outside was the weather. Unfortunately, after an unseasonably warm summer, the weather turned for the worst right as the conference began. There was rain, hail, and temperatures near freezing. For the delegates from Canada, this was not an issue, but for those that came from generally warmer climates they were not as prepared to be outside as they should have/could have been. In the conference communication to delegates the unpredictability of Calgary’s weather had been highlighted, but if you haven’t lived in a place that can go from temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius, to -5 overnight, it is hard to prepare appropriately. Additionally, the cold weather meant that some of the schools cancelled their attendance, and some of the program providers were unable to attend as well.  

Backup Plans

The communication with the presenters that wanted to host their session outside was that it would run “rain or shine” and to be prepared for this. The organizers also knew, however, that a backup indoor location may have been required, so on site the team communicated with these presenters some of their options for alternative indoor space. These indoor spaces were coordinated with the CTCC, which was conveniently adjacent to the outdoor programming should the weather turn for the worse.

Indoor Seating for the Food Truck Lunch

The planning team had approached the CTCC with the idea of offering a food truck lunch. Typically external food and beverage is not allowed in the CTCC but because the centre understood their clients goals and that outdoor programming was such an important component for their client, they looked for ways that they could help to support this vision. The CTCC came back with a flexible support offer to provide space for delegates to sit and enjoy their lunches inside if they wanted to. The agreement ensured that the centre was not liable for any food brought in from outside.

Due to the weather, the ground was wet, limiting the seating opportunities outside. Although many participants were still delighted to eat lunch outdoors and brave the weather, about half of the group chose to eat indoors at the centre where it was warmer! The organizers were grateful for this arrangement with the CTCC and it worked extremely well. A food truck lunch should always be planned with this type of a backup plan and indoor space available.  

Food Truck Hold Ups

The second issue with the food trucks were the queues. Some of the delegate feedback was that the lines were too long, whereas others said they appreciated the lines because it encouraged and enabled them to chat with other delegates in the line that they otherwise probably wouldn’t have met. One and a half hours was allocated for the lunch, and this was *just* enough time to feed 700+ people.

The organizers had worked with the food truck vendors to determine the number of trucks required and were told that five would be more than enough. Next time though, the planning team would plan for one or two extra, even though it would cost more. Each truck needs to serve enough meals to make their investment of time worthwhile.  

How The Objectives Were Achieved

The CTCC worked closely with the conference team and the feedback from the organizers was that the venue and the city were fantastic to work with, always going the extra mile.

Providing the indoor location for a lunch that the Centre wasn’t serving was a life saver for the conference and went over and above what many venues would have offered. They also provided experience-based recommendations on where to put the meeting location for the outdoor sessions. Working with the local Parks department to book the space and understand what could and could not occur in the green spaces was important. Furthermore, grant funding was accessed to enable the conference planning team to offer play activities for local children.

The City of Calgary (local hosts) and Meetings + Conventions Calgary began working together in 2014 to bring the International event to Calgary. The event was confirmed for Calgary in 2015 and held in 2017.

The IPA were extremely grateful to Meetings + Conventions Calgary for the support offered to the conference. This included helping with their bid to bring the event to Calgary and source hotels and venues, and sponsoring a world board member to come to Calgary.

They also offered a white-hat ceremony recognizing the board as honorary Calgarians. The famous White Hat ceremony is a tradition that has solid roots within Calgary and originated in the 1950’s.

The committee were able to focus on achieving the right environment, the content and organization, while Meetings + Conventions Calgary took on the details and fringe tasks that needed certain expertise, such as venue sourcing, bid development and event servicing support.

Feedback from the organizers in working with Meetings + Conventions Calgary were full of praise for the inclusive and can-do attitude, of which they said “it’s moving – it’s really moving.”

The Results

Meetings + Conventions Calgary went the extra mile to bring the IPA conference to Calgary and to deliver on an unusual brief. Right from the initial bid, they offered support to make the conference a success, even when the planning team was trying to do things outside of the norm, like finding green space in the city for outdoor programming.

Given the content and the feedback from the delegates, it was worth all the blood, sweat and tears to make it happen.   

There was a high approval rating for the overall conference experience and the organization was praised. Above all, Calgary enabled 700 experts from across the world to come together to celebrate and explore the importance of play.

Takeaways For Event Planners

  • Work closely with your destination to enhance your event, for example by incorporating cultural elements into the program, making the most of the local amenities and even to access and unlock additional funding.
  • Don’t limit your conference programming only to the indoor spaces. When appropriate try to showcase and make the most of the outdoor environment to strengthen your conference program too.
  • Weather happens and never how you want it. Communicate to key stakeholders what will happen rain or shine but ALWAYS have a backup plan.
  • Consistency is key for delegates. Use multiple destinations if required, but keep the meeting point the same and use manpower to guide and make sure people get to where they need to be.
  • Queues can quickly develop when relying on food trucks for lunches, so allow plenty of time. If budget allows, add one or two additional service vehicles to ease the pressure.
  • Plan the downtime (like standing in line waiting for food) to achieve your desired outcomes. For example, next year the IPA organizers are thinking about providing small cards to hand out to people in line with question prompts to ask others they hadn’t met before as a conversation starting point.  
  • Aim to give something back to the local community and demonstrate through actions the theory and learning from your event vision. The play day was a great end to the IPA conference and a chance to give back to the local community that hosted the event.

In Conclusion

The International Play Association had many unique demands to ensure that their 20th conference could showcase the ethos and best practice of its members and participants. Calgary rose to the challenge and assisted the planning team not only on the internal event programming but also coordinating the outdoor spaces which made the event so special.