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Lethbridge & District Exhibition is the fourth oldest agriculture society in Alberta. The inaugural fair was hosted in 1897 and the venue has held countless events since. Over more than a century, Exhibition Park has become Southern Alberta’s events venue for agriculture, tradeshows, midways, rodeos, sporting events, weddings, catered conference meetings, and other special events. But the COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges for event venues. We asked Mike Warkentin, CEO at Lethbridge & District Exhibition to explain how Exhibition Park adapted during the pandemic and how they plan to grow and improve in the future.

How did your business evolve during the pandemic? What changes or new aspects to your business will you take with you moving forward?

During the pandemic we continued to host events at Exhibition Park. We even became a vaccination centre for the community. We strictly followed all guidelines set out by the province by reducing the number of participants, enforcing social distancing, and creating safe outdoor events. Cleaning protocols were also enhanced and will continue to be used in the future. Additionally, the pandemic gave us the opportunity to restructure the organization to better serve the needs of the tourism economy for the next five, 10, and 15 years.

We know that health and safety is top of mind for everyone right now. How is your business offering visitors peace of mind?

We will continue to use enhanced cleaning protocols throughout our facility, and we will encourage social distancing at our events. Like many organizations, we took the opportunity to re-evaluate cleaning and sanitizing practices. We’ve committed to becoming Global Biorosk Advisory Council (GBAC) certified as an international standard in cleanliness and biohazard control. GBAC certified facilities are able to demonstrate that correct work practices, procedures and systems are in place to prepare, respond, and recover from outbreaks and pandemics.

We know that Albertans are playing a key role in the initial economic recovery of our local tourism industry. What would you say to encourage Albertans to continue exploring their own backyard, even now that it’s possible to travel elsewhere again?

We all tend to take for granted what is in our own backyard. Alberta is so fortunate to have world-class experiences in amazing and diverse landscapes that are available for every budget. These same experiences are on bucket lists of travellers from around the world. Now is the time to safely revisit and rediscover the many gems in our own backyard.

What are your hopes for the future of Alberta’s tourism industry? How will your business play a role in that?

Alberta’s tourism industry future is bright. My hope is that Albertans will continue to explore our fantastic and diverse backyard and support local businesses including restaurants, hotels, retail, and attractions. I am also hopeful that new experiences will be developed across the province that offer meaningful connections to community and the people that call Alberta home.

Here at Exhibition Park, we have broken ground for the new $70.6 million Agri-food Hub and Trade Centre, the biggest redevelopment project in the 124-year history of Lethbridge & District Exhibition. Once the facility opens in 2023, we will double our hosting capacity and add to Alberta’s tourism economy by attracting new and exciting events and conferences.

How can industry work together to recover and build even stronger post-pandemic?

Now is the time for collaboration. We need to build unique itineraries as well as showcase and highlight events and activities in our communities. We need to begin brainstorming with new and non-traditional partners to develop one-of-a-kind visitor experiences that will excite and inspire consumers. If we do that, we will tell the world that together we are stronger.

What is the most valuable part of Alberta’s tourism industry?

The most valuable part of Alberta’s tourism industry is the team of Albertans who provide the varied and unique experiences to visitors. Back-of-house staff, customer service agents and every role in-between are at the heart and soul of Alberta’s diverse tourism industry.

What do you wish the rest of the world knew about tourism in Alberta?

Alberta tourism is as diverse as our landscapes. From UNESCO World Heritage sites, world-class museums, authentic Indigenous experiences, and everything in-between, Alberta is full of opportunities to connect with nature and with each other.

What is your favourite “hidden gem” in Alberta?

One of the more unique and cultural hidden gems is the Thanksgiving Ranch near Waterton Lakes National Park. A working ranch, it’s the perfect blend of a getaway, traditional western culture, and majestic mountain views.

What is your favourite memory of travelling in Alberta?

As a young guy growing up in Southern Alberta, I had the opportunity to travel to a lot of the truly unique locations throughout Alberta, whether it be with school or with our family. In Lethbridge, we are fortunate to have Waterton, Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai'pi and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump right in our backyard. I’m huge on historical tours and capturing views. Wherever I go, my favourite memories are watching other people experience everything we have to offer for the first time.

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