Spruce Meadows is hosting its Masters tournament, one of the premier events of the global show-jumping circuit. The Southern family, which has operated the lush equestrian facility since building it in the 1970s, has sought to widen the appeal of the sport. In recent years, use of the venue has expanded beyond its major events, as Calgary's expansion has crept up to its gates. Linda Southern-Heathcott speaks with Jeffrey Jones about Spruce Meadows' unique place in the community.
Show jumping has long been viewed as an elite sport. How have you tried to dispel that notion?
Ever since we started Spruce Meadows, the venue itself has been open to the public and to families. I actually feel that is our fan base. If you walk around the grounds on the weekend, you see three generations, typically, of families putting blankets on the grass to watch – children, adults and grandparents. In the equestrian world, each venue has its own goals and ambitions. Spruce Meadows has always been one of the philanthropic gifts our family has wanted to provide to Calgarians and Canadians and people from around the world, and we've always focused on that. During the week, you see moms who come out with their children just to wander around the grounds and see the horses. We have people walking their dogs – they don't have anything to do with Spruce Meadows, but they look after it. It's just great.
How do you connect with a younger audience faced with a lot of distractions?
One of the initiatives we've undertaken is to expose them to Spruce Meadows. This year, we had the Rocky Mountain Symphony Orchestra play on Canada Day. Every Wednesday, all summer long, we had movies on the meadows. One day, we had 2,000 people and another we had 3,000. It was a completely different demographic – all younger people. I don't think it's necessary for people to come just for the tournaments.
Our social-media campaign is very good and we have a number of young people involved in it. We have a run series, which has brought a new group of people to Spruce Meadows for five and 10K runs. We have dog shows, which, again, draw another demographic. This morning, we had a citizen ceremony, where we welcomed 50 new families to Canada and to Spruce Meadows, so that was really neat as well.
Not long ago, Spruce Meadows was in a rural location, but now the city is on your doorstep. How has that affected things?
I would say it's been good and bad. The traffic is much worse. But it has also brought people closer to Spruce Meadows – we see a lot of the dog walkers and the families. I believe they are coming from quite close. We're fortunate, as well, because we have roadways on three sides, so we don't really see an increase in vandalism or anything like that. We're still open all the time. Over all, it's been good because the amenities are here. Our riders can stay in the south end of town, rather than downtown, so it's much easier to get back and forth.
Will Spruce Meadows always be a family business?
Oh, I would say so. But our family is quite large. The people who work with me are part of the family. Some of them have been here almost 40 years – some actually right from the beginning. It's a neat venture and some of the people helped build it. It's been a great journey.
What do most people not know about the facility?
I think the biggest unknown fact is that so many people still don't know about Spruce Meadows. We're open year-round for families to come. You mentioned the perception that it's an elite sport, but it's $5 to come to Spruce Meadows with your family, and where else can you do anything for $5? So the fact that it is accessible and enjoyable is a little bit of a secret to many people in Calgary and Canada and the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.