Skift Meetings' research shows that authenticity is the new "it factor" for event destinations. How can planners ensure that they deliver this kind of deeper connection to the local culture? A spirit of welcoming hospitality is the key ingredient, and Calgary provides a model with its white hat traditions — making guests feel like part of the community from the moment they arrive to their last farewell.
A bucket-list city might seem like a popular choice for an event destination, but tourist-trap attractions no longer carry the appeal they once had. According to multiple interview sources who contributed to Skift Meetings’ latest trend report, what attendees crave most from an event destination is the experience of an authentic connection to the local culture and community.
This news may be a relief to those who want to impress without making attendees commit to a long-haul flight. But on the other hand, it raises an important question: What is it that makes a destination feel authentic? It may help to choose a region known for its unique lifestyle and outlook, but a meaningful sense of connection requires that attendees feel truly welcome. The ultimate host city is one that actively makes excellence in hospitality part of its core identity.
Long priding itself on the special brand of hospitality that Western Canada is known for, Calgary has its own innovative solution to making visitors feel invited into the community. You’ve heard of white-glove service, but have you heard of the “white hat” experience? In Calgary, white cowboy hats have come to symbolize the city’s friendly spirit — with locals donning the hat to show they are ready to help, and gifting it to visitors so they can truly feel a sense of belonging. This tradition forms the basis of four local programs that all serve to make guests feel at home.
The Beginnings of a Thriving Tradition
A welcoming gift can serve as a bridge to the local culture if it is chosen with intention and an understanding of the local history, and Calgary’s white hat is a prime example of this principle in action.
In 1946, Maurice Schumiatcher, founder of Smithbilt Hats, created a cowboy hat of pure white felt with a red band to reflect the brand colors of the Calgary Stampede. Many of the first hats produced were debuted in the Stampede Parade of 1947.
When the Calgary Stampeders faced off against Ottawa for the Grey Cup (Canada’s equivalent of the Super Bowl) in 1948, a trainload of Calgarian football fans headed East to watch the finals — and show off their white hats. As legend tells it, part of their festivities included impromptu barbecues and pancake breakfasts on the steps of Toronto’s City Hall. Thanks to their celebratory spirit and on-the-road hospitality, their trademark white hats became both a hot-selling item and a nationally-recognized emblem of Calgary culture.
Providing a Tangible Connection to the Local Culture: The White Hat Ceremony
Helping to reinforce this association, Calgarians have been presenting white hats to distinguished visitors since 1950 with a ceremony that celebrates friendship and coming together. It’s a way of offering the city’s guests an active and intentional invitation not just to enjoy the local culture, but to become a part of it.
Participants take an oath to spread the welcoming spirit of Calgary wherever they go, and then don their own personal white hat as a symbol of their status as honorary members of the community. As former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi explains, the ceremony is “deeply meaningful.” He says, “It’s not relevant where you come from or what you look like or how you worship or whom you love. What really matters is you are welcome here and belong here, and you’ve come to a place where you can be your best.”
A White Hat ceremony is a unique and meaningful way to bring your attendees together while tangibly connecting them to a unique local culture and community. Tourism Calgary can connect you with a local supplier to order hats for your ceremony and provide a representative to perform the ceremony at the time and place of your choosing. In the spirit of welcome and inclusivity, the white hat can become a head covering of your choice.
Offering a Warm Welcome Right at the Airport: White Hat Volunteers
This welcoming spirit begins as soon as visitors set foot on Calgary soil thanks to the White Hat Volunteers at the Calgary International Airport (YYC), who once again act as ambassadors for the city’s unique brand of hospitality. Airports often provide a guest’s first impression of a destination, so it’s vital for event organizers to think about this experience.
As their name suggests, the YYC White Hatters wear white hats and red vests to signal that they are there to help travelers. They’ll greet your attendees as they arrive with a warm welcome and a ready smile, happy to answer their questions or lend a helping hand.
The YYC White Hatters take great pride in making visitors feel welcome, with many having once been newcomers themselves.
For Tas, a White Hatter for the past nine years, “the white hat symbolizes hospitality,” which means going the extra step to help travelers feel like they’re being looked after. He remembers once assisting a Congolese woman who was struggling to find her way. When he offered to help, he realized she couldn’t understand English. After asking where she was from, he was able to speak to her in a shared language — Swahili — while guiding her to the right gate. He recalls, “She was so happy she started giving me prayers and blessed me!”
Carissa, a full-time realtor and fellow YYC volunteer, is motivated by the sense of community and goodwill that White Hatters create for travelers from all over the world. She says, “This program provides a proactive sense of kindness [for those who] think they’ve landed in a foreign city. We are the channel to open people up when they first arrive in Calgary, to encourage them to be themselves.”
Training Hospitality Staff in the Art of a Warm Welcome
Once attendees settle into their hotels, it’s often the local hospitality workers who will play the biggest role in giving them an authentic sense of connection to the community.
For the past 60 years, Calgary has been investing in programs that inspire frontline and hospitality professionals to go the extra mile. Initiatives like the White Hat Academy support the city’s special brand of hospitality by providing training and resources for those on the front lines. That means your attendees’ hosts will be up to date on where to go, what to eat, and everything else they won’t want to miss — like exciting tours and unique festivals. Since 2019, over 1,600 hospitality staff across the sector have taken part in this program to become on-the spot resources able to offer suggestions to visitors looking to experience everything Calgary has to offer.
Tourism Calgary recognizes that providing real support for excellence in hospitality work is a major aspect of their mandate. “Being ultimate hosts is not a fad, and it’s not something that can be done once and forgotten about,” says Cindy Ady, CEO, Tourism Calgary. “It’s an endless commitment to being the best and ensuring that each guest feels important and valued.”
Acknowledging Those Who Make the Magic Happen: The White Hat Awards
The ultimate hospitality destination is one where everyone feels valued — including those behind the hospitality itself. It’s no secret that hospitality workers are in high demand across the globe. Respect and recognition are needed more than ever; a little appreciation not only boosts morale, but it can be a great motivator. As meeting planners seek destinations where they can count on a hospitality sector that takes pride in its work, Calgary’s recognition and celebration of hospitality workers stands out.
Since 1962, the White Hat Awards have celebrated Calgary’s welcoming spirit and the industry professionals and volunteers who go above and beyond to create great experiences for their guests. The annual gala showcases how Calgary’s culture of hospitality makes the white hat a meaningful symbol of the city’s identity and not just a branding exercise.
A Meeting Place to Remember
Located where the Bow and Elbow Rivers meet, Calgary has thousands of years of history as a place where folks from across cultures and nations cross paths and come together. And that spirit continues to this day.
Attendees craving an authentic and tangible cultural connection can take part in that experience even after traveling home with their very own hat — a symbol that they’ve become an honorary ambassador of Calgary’s unique tradition of welcoming hospitality.
To learn about the world-class venues, amenities, and attractions that Calgary has to offer, visit the Tourism Calgary website.
This content was created collaboratively by Tourism Calgary and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.