Anyone who studied journalism at Ottawa’s Carleton University in the mid-1970s remembers Mel Thistle, a first-year professor who used two acronyms to deliver a basic message about perception and reality. WIGO stood for What Is Going On. WIMTH meant What It Means to Humans.
I thought of Thistle last week when I saw the National Hockey League’s bloodless reaction to the outpouring of fan euphoria on news that the Atlanta Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
I’ve never been a die-hard hockey fan—my team was and always will be the mighty Montreal Expos. But I grew up in a hockey culture, lived through the arrival of a new team in Ottawa, and I understand what’s happening in Winnipeg. When the deal was sealed, spontaneous street parties broke out. The story led the national news. Canada’s prime minister sent a congratulatory note. It took NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to throw a damper on the celebrations.
“It isn't going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night,” said Bettman, referring to the new 15,000-seat arena in Winnipeg, a city of about 750,000 in a province with about 1.25 million residents.
WIMTH, meet WIGO. In Winnipeg, What It Means to Humans is the glory of NHL hockey after an absence of nearly 25 years. What Is Going On is a community entering voluntary servitude to the bloated economics of professional sports.
Now, freeze that frame and put it beside your next conference. Think of your audience as Winnipeg fans and our industry as the NHL. Participants have any number of reasons to commit time and money and endure travel headaches to get on site, and if you’ve been doing your job, you know those reasons as well as they do. But just like the NHL, our revenue plan and success measures are usually some distance from the things that matter most to our audiences.
The NHL offers the excitement of the most glorious sport on ice, with the eventual, distant hope of winning Lord Stanley’s coveted cup (soon to be brought home to Canada by the Vancouver Canucks, much to the chagrin of my Boston–based editor). The business of hockey depends on sky-high ticket prices, unreal charges for parking and food, and often arena subsidies from cash-strapped governments.
Meetings offer state-of-the-art knowledge, professional networking, valuable business contacts, and lasting motivation. But our business model measures success in room nights, head counts, and sponsorship dollars, with only the rare link back to the value customers take away from their experience on site.
Hockey fans love to hate Gary Bettman as the voice and the face of the business side of their sport. The meetings economy is not as visible to participants as the NHL is to fans. But if it were, would participants understand the very large difference between what they think they’re looking for onsite and what many of us think we deliver?
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.