Friday, March 12, 2010

Alberta at the Olympics

Amidst the legions of patriotic groups wandering around downtownVancouver last week, there was one province cheering as loud as therest of them. That was Alberta.

The province of Alberta, along with their creative agency brand.LIVEand arms-length organization Travel Alberta, hosted a series oftargeted events around the city of Vancouver and in Whistler. The efforts cost the province over $6 million dollars this year alone, in addition to $14 million which has been spent over the past three years.

The ‘Alberta Station’ was once a rarely-used train station in arun-down part of town, but it has good bones. The marketing team transformed it into an open, loft-like space where enormous windows afforded cocktail party views of the entire downtown and the high ceiling allowed spotlights to fall upon a dance floor. A giant glowing sign with Alberta’s brand on it was visible from the streets aroundand the skytrain above, where thousands of visitors and locals weretravelling every day.

It was there, in Alberta Station, that a reception for “Sports Heroes” and Jean-Grande Maitre took place last Sunday night. Grand-Maitre, artistic director of Alberta Ballet, wasin town as the official choreographer for the opening and closingceremonies, as well as the nightly victory ceremonies where medalswere awarded daily.

Inside Alberta Station hung larger-than-life paintings of Canadian athletes, commissioned by the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary. At the‘sport hero’ reception were Lindsay Blackett, provincial Minister of Culture and Community Spirit, Maelle Ricker, the first Canadian womanto win a gold medal in the 2010 Olympics, fashion designer Paul Hardy and supermodel Heather Marks, president of Calgary Arts Development Dr. Terry Rock and his family, former chair of the Calgary Chamber ofCommerce Lois Mitchell and her husband - who is the former commissioner of the CFL - Doug Mitchell, Patrick Jarvic of VANOC and many others.

Alberta didn’t stop at the station; another outreach vehicle was thetrain itself. The Rocky Mountaineer luxury train has four passengercars, several dining cars, and two bar cars. On it, at 5:00 am everyday, were members of the Alberta government, representatives from Travel Alberta and The Calgary Stampede, assorted industry partnerslike Karo Group, the creative branding company taking over TravelAlberta outreach activities this Spring, and other members of the media and various industries. That included everyone from United Kingdom tour groups, who bring visitors to Alberta each year, to Tokyo television producers, to the president of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

The Alberta train took a three hour journey, parallel to the highway and the coast, from Vancouver to Whistler. On board, guests were treated to Alberta cuisine, local music and white cowboy hats. Once at Whistler, ski events were not far away. The Whistler Golf Club was also transformed into the ‘Alberta Hospitality Centre’ where guests were treated to Edmonton popcorn, Banff sponge toffee, Calgary chocolate and Calgary Stampede – branded trail mix. On the return journey, guests enjoyed a host bar, champagne toast to the athletes, samples of Alberta cuisine including beef skewers and lamb burger sliders.

There are approximately 70 seats available on each car; general tickets were sold to industry leaders for $500 per person.

Back in Vancouver, Alberta had some prime real estate for its outreach activity. Each province and each country had a ‘house’ at the Olympics. Soci House, for example, which hosts the Russian athletes, government and industry officials, is normally the Vancouver ScienceWorld. Today, there are five to six hour line-ups to enter the domed structure. Alberta House is on the corner of Robson and Beatty, acrossthe street from BC Place where thousands of spectators pour out every evening. The street front of Alberta House is an outdoor heated patio where Alberta artists from jazz to hip-hop performed.

According to Blackett, this is not the Alberta most people would expect to see represented on the world’s stage. Indeed, while Alberta band RezOfficial played on Monday night – following a big win by Team Canada against Germany, and cheers for Calgary Flame Iginla – one spectator asked, “They have hip hop in Alberta? I thought it was going to be all twang guitar.” Another reveller on the plaza seemed unsure of which house he was actually in.

So is all this marketing activity working? Perhaps the best answer is from that of a Swedish man on Alberta’s plaza. When asked what he thought or knew of Alberta, the man replied ‘Spirit to achieve. Freedom to create' - Alberta's official tagline.

Published in National Post, February 27 2010

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