To speak to Cindy Good about her work as steward of Tourism Calgary’s White Hat Awards is to find yourself unavoidably charmed by her sincere enthusiasm for this city, and even more so, for the people who work day in and day out to present the very best of our hometown to visitors, tourists, and travelers. The expression hits differently these days, thanks to a certain virus, but it has to be said: Cindy’s enthusiasm is nothing short of infectious.
2020 was the White Hat Awards’ 58th year honouring the very best working in Calgary’s tourism industry, and Cindy, Manager, Events with Tourism Calgary, has been at the helm of the program for the past 10. Each year, custom white Smithbilt cowboy hats are awarded to just 20 stand-out individuals; in 2020, the White Hat Awards received 700 nominations and interviewed 543 of those before narrowing down to the ultimate winners.
“We’re looking for those individuals for whom customer service is in their DNA. It’s their lifesblood, that going above and beyond and making sure that every person they come in contact with, which is for the most part tourists to the city, that their experience is off-the-charts exceptional. That’s who we’re looking for – those individuals who provide that next level, over-the-summit customer service.”
If you truly want to understand the passion and dedication that goes into selecting the winners each year, you need only to understand the passion and dedication that Cindy herself feels about the program, and her role within it.
“I am immensely proud of being a part of this great big thing that has lasted for 58 years, honouring individuals who do things not for themselves, but because they want someone else to experience something exceptional,” Cindy says. “I love Western hospitality; it’s a thing, it’s not just words on paper. We are hospitable, we are pleasant, we want to know the people who come to visit our city. We want to share the great spirit of Calgary.”
“Lots of people say they’re not defined by their jobs, but certainly, to an extent, I am.”
Given this level of passion and commitment to the program and everything it represents, it stands to reason that when the interviews were completed and the award recipients decided on, the limitations imposed by in-person gathering limits couldn’t be allowed to take away from everything that receiving a White Hat Award normally means.
“I can’t tell you how loud it is,” Cindy says about the traditional 1,500-person gala where the Awards are normally given out. “If you’ve never attended, you’ll think I made it up. It’s like college football; like the Raptors winning the Championship!”
“When we had to cancel the gala, it really did take all the wind out of the event. It really is about the event and the people in the room.”
So with the importance of not just receiving the Award, but the industry recognition and support that typically comes along with that in mind, Cindy and the rest of the Tourism Calgary team set out find a new way to make sure that every single Award recipient in the Year of the Virus still got that same experience that would have come along with any other year – suffice to say that sending a hat in the mail was way, way out of the question.
So what would a true Western go-getter do? If she can’t throw a gala, she’ll bring the spirit of the gala to each and every winner, of course.
Tourism Calgary made the decision to bring the presentation ceremony to each winner, at their place of employment, and to make the presentation of each White Hat as meaningful and celebratory as it would have been had that person heard their name called and walked across the stage to accept their hat in front of 1,500 of their peers. True to form, Cindy and the team gave their 2020 award presentation plan the wonderful name of “Surprise and Delight”, and got right down to the work of making it happen. Ongoing restrictions and extenuating circumstances – consider widespread layoffs in the industry – meant that even something as seemingly “simple” as showing up at each winner’s place of employment was anything but.
“I had to call all of the employers to find out when they were open, confirm that the winner still worked there, and inform the employers, in a highly confidential manner, that that person had been selected as the winner in their category. And then we had to find a time that was convenient for us to come by,” Cindy shares.
Winners were not informed ahead of time and had no idea when they came in to work that day that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen. The employers, eager to contribute to the celebratory and meaningful effect of the presentation, gathered other employees and management in a safe space – sometimes a large lobby, perhaps a closed portion of a museum – and summoned the winner to that space at the appropriate time. Upon the employee’s arrival, everyone gathered began to applaud and cheer.
“It really created that exceptional, over-the-top surprise moment that they would have gotten at the Jubilee,” says Cindy.
Every effort was made to replicate the rewarding experience of the large, in-person gala. After Cindy delivered a short spiel on the White Hat Awards and the unique situation of 2020, Shelley Zucht-Shorter, Vice President, In-Destination and Event Services at Tourism Calgary, stepped up to the non-existent podium to read out the category and announce the winner’s name, just as it would’ve been done any other year. Winners stepped up to receive their award feeling the same level of recognition and support as they would have in a more traditional award ceremony setting.
“There wasn’t one person who wasn’t touched by the fact that it happened in person, and that we were able to bring what would’ve happened at the Jubilee to them,” says Cindy.
This year more than ever, it truly mattered to Cindy and the team at Tourism Calgary that the efforts of those working in our tourism industry did not go unnoticed, and that the most exceptional among these did not receive a sub-par recognition for the dedication and resilience they have shown.
When asked why the show must go on, Cindy said simply, “It’s about the spirit of the Awards, and what they represent and celebrate.”
“It wasn’t about the need to get that hat into somebody’s hands, it was the need to recognize the communities. The layoffs, people losing their purpose, their focus, and their jobs, have been so astronomical in the tourism industry. It was important for us to share a moment with these individuals that was bright, that was a celebration, that was good news. That’s what makes the program good, that’s what keeps the program going – it’s the commitment that Tourism Calgary has to what we do, and that for me is so heartwarming.”
Remember what we said off the top about Cindy’s enthusiasm being infectious? If you’re not feeling it by now, we honestly don’t know how. If anything is clear, this all goes way beyond a job.
“I’m also a volunteer to ‘white hat’ guests to the city,” Cindy shares.
That means she’s part of Tourism Calgary’s initiative of giving out white hats to visitors to Calgary, to welcome them to our city and extend that spirit of western hospitality. While some visitors to Calgary who get “white hatted” are more famous than others (looking at you, Will and Kate), the sentiment and the end result is the same, regardless of media fanfare.
“It’s a gas, I love doing it,” she says. “When I present guests with a white hat, I don’t care who they are, they get excited. At that moment, they know that we are excited they’re here.”
In a year like this one, the heartfelt and unwavering commitment that Cindy, Shelley, everyone else at Tourism Calgary, as well as the employers and employees at each of the 20 businesses that were visited, have demonstrated to everything the Awards represent, is pretty inspiring. At the heart of it, these are the same reasons that all of us in the tourism and live events industries are still here, still fighting, and finding new ways to do what we do. As usual, maybe Cindy says it best.
“I don’t necessarily have to worry about too many self-help books – I spend time with 500 people who jump out of bed every day excited and elated about the possibility of going to work.”
See a full list of each of the 2020 Calgary White Hat Award Winners here.