Flashback to your senior year of high school: summer break is looming, your next adventure is your biggest  priority, and the possibilities for what comes next feel exciting and there for the taking. Sure, you had no real idea about how often everything from mortgages to children to jobs were all going to keep you up at night but hey, that’s the beauty of youth. Through our collaboration with our good friends at Calgary Stampede, each year we get to help thousands of young people say goodbye to their high school days, and the whole thing comes with more unexpected plot twists than an episode of Riverdale. To give you a sense of the scope, take a look at some fun stats that we and Stampede have on the books for the Grad 2018 season so far:

As you can probably imagine, putting together massive grad ceremonies and banquets is a big deal – and a lot of work – for staff at high schools around the city. Calgary Stampede offers a pretty genius solution that has grown from its beginnings in the early 1990s, and takes a lot of the pressure of off schools.

“We provide an inclusive package that has one price per person and includes everything, so all the schools have to do is confirm their numbers and show up,” says Tara Sweeney, CSEP, who is Manager, Event Management at Stampede. “We typically work with a designated teacher from each school, and we handle everything for them – meal, décor, staffing, etc..”

That comes together in a low-stress, high-impact approach to grad for school staff – you can see why so many opt-in.

Our team, led by Project Manager Jennifer Thacker, works closely with Tara’s team to handle all of the décor and logistic aspects for grad from concept and product to install and strike. The process starts in January, when we get up to speed on the number of grads for the year and all of the other necessary details, then the OneWest design team sits down together to dream up this year’s grad season design direction. One of the design challenges for grad is the vast guest demographic – while grads make up a sizable part of the guest list, their parents are in attendance as well. The theme needs to appeal to both groups, and celebrate the transition from school years with a fun and youthful but still suitably grown-up aesthetic.

This year’s theme was “Midnight” and our design team aimed to create the effect of an outdoor courtyard under the stars. The theme brought to mind the fairytales we grow up with, and how the stroke of midnight can symbolize a transformative and magical moment. We captured this sense of excitement, wonder, and possibility by filling the hall with candle-lit lanterns, through a clever use of shadows, and with our custom-printed pattern of bright, modern florals against a black as deep as the night sky.

The vast space and 35-foot ceilings inside the Stampede venues used for grad means that one of the first parts of the creative process is always coming up with ways to design for and fill the space for maximum impact, starting with an entrance focal point. This year, that challenge was filled – both figuratively and literally – with several 96-foot custom-built sofas upholstered in custom-printed fabric, and placed in front of a giant 3D “2018.” Above the sofa, a multitude of perfectly placed lanterns were suspended from a truss covered in the same custom fabric. Together, the sofas, lanterns, and numbers created a dramatic entrance that was hugely popular each night as a photo opp. Sometimes, success can come with a few drawbacks – the evening-long line-ups created by the resounding popularity of the design was a good reminder to us to remember traffic flow when creating a space where guests want to linger.

Once the focal point is established, we carry the design through the rest of the space, working closely with all the various departments and teams at Stampede to create an immersive and seamless experience.

There are a whole lot of moving parts to the puzzle that is 20 grads in 21 days, and at the helm of it all here is Jen, who sincerely loves a challenge – the more complex, the better. At the outset of the project, Jen receives a full event plan from Stampede covering every aspect of the grad effort. She condenses this master schedule into a breakdown of the items affecting our team, and includes detailed notes for our operations crew telling them only what they need to know, and when they need to know it. We also create a detailed site plan to establish exactly how we’ll use the space.

One of the key challenges this year came in the form of busy venues. Three large events immediately before or after grads meant very tight flips, overnight labour, and a lot of logistical planning. Venues ended up getting shifted, and our tireless crew flipped one of the 50,000 square-foot halls four times in 21 days, including three time-sensitive overnight flips. We can’t say enough about the cheerful and hardworking team that pulls this kind of effort off time and time again.

In the end, what makes it work is – as usual – working together. The complex logistics of multiple halls, overnight flips, tight timing, limited storage space, and a million other important details means that it is absolutely crucial that our team and the various Stampede departments are constantly communicating, troubleshooting, providing support and expertise, and working side by side. It requires a close partnership, and a high level of trust.

“It’s our partnership and relationship with Stampede that allows us to overcome the challenges. We have the same goals, and we just make it work and happen,” Jen shares. “It really is about leaning on your teams.”

If overcoming challenges, solving problems, and leaning into our partnerships is what makes the whole process so fulfilling, it’s that final result that makes it all worthwhile.

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Photo credit: Leblond Studio