A Stampeding Success

Penny Lane Entertainment Group

Just as a devastating fire leaves behind ashes which provide fertilizer for new growth, adversity in business can help lay the groundwork for new opportunities. Penny Lane Entertainment and its president Paul Vickers have had to deal with this kind of adversity, but from the ashes of destruction, renewal and prosperity have taken its place.
Presently, PLE runs everything from cafés and restaurants like Belgo Brasserie, to bars like the world famous Cowboys Dance Hall, to a fishing lodge, Harrison’s Cove Lodge, on Vancouver’s west coast in the Barkley Sound. We spoke with Paul about past, present, and future challenges, and the possibility for his company’s expansion.

Cowboys Dance Hall currently resides in Cowboys Casino, presently one of Canada’s largest entertainment centres, but it wasn’t always that way. The venue got its start on the site of a WWII hospital in downtown Calgary. When that was torn down, the Penny Lane Mall went up in its place, and this is where the first Cowboys was established and the popularity of the bar grew to legendary proportions. It was eventually torn down in 2007 and replaced with two skyscrapers, so Paul moved shop to another area in town. Due to urban development in the area, however, the second Cowboys was torn down to accommodate a roadway/underpass in 2009. Once again, Paul had some work to do, and eventually moved, with permission, to the Calgary Stampede where the bar presently resides.

“Imagine as an entrepreneur, in one single day they took away $35,000,000 of my business when they closed down Cowboys in 2007! I had a lease, but it had a demolition clause included, so I was not compensated. I also had another bar called Coyotes worth $10,000,000 – gone for the same land development, so I had to rebuild all of that,” explains Paul. At the time, the economy was at its peak, so the opportunity cost of lost business was significant. Belgo was also impacted due to construction. The sidewalks surrounding the restaurant were closed, and Paul estimates that 40 percent of that restaurant’s business was lost. “So, how do you rebuild? How do you survive that?”

Somehow, Paul did, and Cowboys is now hitting it out of the park, Belgo’s sales are way up, and the construction is over. With the new office towers almost completed, new records are sure to be broken again. “Adversity – if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger,” says Paul.

Recently the Calgary Stampede celebrated its 100th anniversary. This has always been a boost to the Calgary economy, but with its centenary, records were broken all over the city. Market research indicates that the first year following a major anniversary brings even more records and revenue as evidenced in places like Disney, Busch Gardens and other major theme parks. “Our expectation is that 101 is going to be even bigger,” says Paul. “Last year we sold out every day, and the entire city was overwhelmed. Even restaurants and pubs in suburbia were full of people, and that makes me happy, because you would hate to be the only guy that’s busy in the whole city. The entire city broke all records for food and beer sales. That economic impact on our city is tremendously important.” In fact, the Calgary Stampede is the biggest event for beer in all of Canada.

Cowboys certainly is the place to be in Calgary. Recently the venue held a Smashing Pumpkins after-party and a few members of the band came out to enjoy the atmosphere and visit with fans. So, the bar caters to all kinds of music, and should not be pigeonholed as a ‘country’ venue. It is symbolic of the city itself. “Cowboys has hit that vein – it’s Calgary, a bit of a cowboy town, but it’s progressive and appeals to everyone. We also like dance and rock. Snoop Dog has played here, as well as Rihanna and Shania Twain.” Capacity is at about 2,000, which provides for an intimate yet energetic standing room-only feel. About 20,000 people come every day to Cowboys during the Stampede.

Also included within the casino site is the Melrose Café and Bar, and coming soon will be the Zen 8 Grill. But PLE is not all about bars, casinos, restaurants and cafés. The full package of entertainment also includes a fishing lodge in B.C. As Paul Vickers was certainly no stranger to rebirth and restoration, he figured, why not try his hand at a rundown fishing lodge? “I was a customer for over 10 years,” he explains. “The owner had a stroke and called me asking if I wanted to buy. I bought a place that was sinking – it was old, at 30 years, and rundown. I brought a large corporate structure with me and we rebuilt 56,000 square feet of fishing heaven.”

For its first five years of operation the Harrison’s Cove Lodge lost money due to the much-needed renovations and the economic downturn. But things soon turned around and this past year, a profit was realized. “We have a good management team that is local and that is important. Bob and Bonnie do a super job, and it’s been our best year ever.”

Many patrons of the lodge come from the oil and gas industry as well as from the U.S., which has kept PLE busy. Location is key to success, and the west coast of Canada has some of the best scenery and fishing in the world. Being in Barkley Sound has been advantageous because the government has made sure not to give out too many business fishing licenses. The site is a floating lodge that sits in the middle of the mountains and the ocean at the same time, which is a rare treat for anyone who comes.

“You can fly in by float plane, or you can drive after flying in from Comox for an hour to the edge of the shore called Salmon Bay. We send a boat over to get you which then is only a five minute boat ride. So, it’s very secluded, beautiful and safe, but the part that separates us from other places along the coast is how accessible we are.” With a lot of Queen Charlotte destinations, the fishing may be great, but travel can be difficult. Within an hour of Vancouver anyone can be sitting at the Harrison’s Cove dock. It is still considered to be secluded, and the fishing is as good as anywhere in the world. Now people are coming from all over the world, and Harrison’s Cove Lodge is developing a stellar reputation.

So, where does PLE go from here? Everything seems to be in place, and no further development impediments are getting in the way. The Cowboys Casino concept seems to have gained popularity outside the confines of Calgary. Presently, the possibility of expanding to other markets such as Toronto or Vancouver is being looked into. The concept is somewhat new to Canada; the casino in Niagara is very impressive, but it is not driven by promotion or marketing. It is simply the only casino in a tourist spot. Conversely, Paul explains, “The number one thing that drives people to casinos in Las Vegas is nightclubs. The number one casino in town also happens to have the number one nightclub (Marquis). Cowboys Casino is no different, as we have the number one nightclub in town. Most people would agree that we are one of the top 10 Megabars in North America, and based on current sales, make that top three. It’s just crazy how big we have gotten.”

Recently Paul even got a call from a Las Vegas company that wanted to incorporate Cowboys into the main strip, but he turned down the opportunity. That does not, however, mean that it won’t be considered in the future. When Las Vegas is calling – you know you’re doing something right!

As for other areas of expansion, PLE also operates a substantial convention business. At the casino is a convention center that has been used with permission of the Calgary Stampede, and PLE is currently building its own convention hall within the casino. The Group will be able to cater to small groups and accommodate up to 2,000 people when completed. There is a lot of construction involved, but Paul wants it to ultimately comprise a large part of his business enterprise.

Like any good corporate entity, PLE aims to give back to the community in which it operates. Paul and his company are very conscious of the importance of supporting the broader community, and explains, “A lot of people and organizations call us for prizes and charities, and we will donate to anyone that is in need. That’s almost 200 appeals in total. We will give out passes, concert tickets and gift certificates to our restaurants, as well as make donations. We are pretty fond of the Salmon Foundation, the Children’s Wish Foundation, and causes supporting Breast Cancer research.”

The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and PLE Group has garnered a host of industry accolades worthy of mention and indicative of success. “We have won downtown development awards,” shares Paul – “Top Night Club, Country Bar of the Year, Best Light Show and Sound System, Best Restaurant, Best Steakhouse, Best Sushi, Best New Restaurant, etc.” PLE invests wisely its staff, training them to become young entrepreneurs themselves. “A lot of the big owners and operators in Calgary used to work for us,” Paul says. “They are our competitors, but run some great businesses and shows, and we are very proud to have developed and supported them in the beginning. We have such high standards for our staff, and we have a great mentorship program.” Paul knows that having good people is the recipe for success, and the team’s awards can be seen as a direct result of that competence. In closing, he invites everyone to come and see him at the 101st Calgary Stampede!

April 23, 2018, 1:09 PM EDT