Winnipeg is poised to score big dividends from the international exposure the Jets’ Stanley Cup playoff run has brought to the city and province.
“I couldn’t pay with my entire year’s budget for what we’ve got in the past few weeks,” said Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg.
“The way our Jets have been able to put Winnipeg on the map is great and the way our community has come together outside that arena is speaking volumes across the continent.”
The Jets have been a ratings jackpot for broadcasters, so there have been millions of sets of eyes on Winnipeg and its massive whiteout crowds in and outside the arena.
More than one-third of Canadians — 13.7 million — watched the Jets–Predators series in Round 2 of the NHL post-season, according to numbers provided by Sportsnet and reported by the Globe and Mail.
And NBC Sports has reported that nearly two million people have tuned in to each of the first two games of the Jets-Golden Knights series, making it the most-watched Western Conference final since 2015.
The numbers are 70 per cent better than the Nashville-Anaheim Western Conference final last year, according to Forbes.com.
“The Jets have put a light on Winnipeg and on Manitoba that is really exceptional,” said Colin Ferguson, president and CEO of Travel Manitoba.
That publicity, combined with Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry saying “incredibly positive things about this community” is changing how people view this Prairie province and its capital city, he said.
Our exposure is at levels we never have and we’re going to make the most of that for sure.– Dayna Spiring
“I really do believe their opinion has been dramatically enhanced as a result. Anywhere you go on social media they’re talking about Winnipeg and Manitoba very positively and I think that will result in further investment, more tourists and meetings and conventions,” said Ferguson.
“There’s nothing to lose here, from that perspective.”
‘A passionate community’
Whenever NBC cuts to Winnipeg’s street party before a commercial break, viewers are getting “a sense of how vibrant our city is,” said Spiring, whose organization oversees Tourism Winnipeg.
“They’re seeing a cosmopolitan city. They’re seeing a lively downtown. They’re seeing a passionate community.”
And for EDW, whose idea it was to block off downtown streets and host a party with giant screens broadcasting the playoff games, those images are gold.
“Whenever Economic Development Winnipeg tries to attract special events or encourage a business to move to the city, the first part of the conversation is always the same: ‘Why Winnipeg? Where’s Winnipeg?'” Spiring said.
“Well, this [playoff exposure] is doing that for me. This is answering question No. 1: because you want to be a part of that excitement. You want to be part of a community that comes together like we have across this playoff run.”
That, in turn, throws opens the door to the second part of the sales pitch, which focuses on more detailed specifics about the city and what it can offer through incentives, leadership, skills, diversity and so on, she said.
“Our exposure is at levels we never have and we’re going to make the most of that for sure. The fact that we can now point to that is going to pay huge dividends for a long time to come.”
Stolen from Nashville
In creating the whiteout street party, EDW studied what other cities did and Spiring makes no bones about the fact the idea was stolen from Nashville.
“Up until this year, Nashville was the gold standard on how to do this. But Winnipeg has blown that out of the water,” she said.
“I was in Nashville for one of the playoff games and there might have been 100 people on the street. Most of them were tourists. It wasn’t a community activity.
“Winnipeg is completely different in that regard — everyone wants to be together and it’s one of our selling features.”
That sense of community and connection is part of what convinced video game giant Ubisoft to set up shop in the city.
The France-based company announced in April that it plans to open a Winnipeg office this fall, investing $35 million in Manitoba and creating 100 new jobs over the next five years.
Capitalizing on the hype
Video footage and photos from the street party have been collected by EDW, which will meet to talk about how best to use those images.
“We’ll use the images in a number of places but tourism is just one part of it. We’ll also use it when we’re trying to attract businesses or helping those that are already here to recruit talent to our city,” Spiring said.
“We’re going to use them probably very liberally in the next few months but we’ll continue to use them in some ways for a long time to come.”
Ferguson said Travel Manitoba will also be “amping up” the level of advertising to capitalize on the hype, as well as studying other opportunities.
“It’s an opportunity that we are leveraging and taking advantage of, for sure.”
He’s also doing his part to spread the word. Ferguson was in Halifax last week as part of a Manitoba contingent at Rendez-vous Canada, an annual event where Canadian tourism providers make pitches to an international audience.
“The world was there. It was really exciting,” said Ferguson. “And we exposed them to what a whiteout was really like.”
The Manitoba crew brought Jets whiteout towels and got the crowd waving them and chanting “go Jets go.”
“For some, they probably didn’t know a whole lot about the Winnipeg Jets or hockey in general, but I’ll tell you, all 1,800 of them were on their feet doing it, and it was really fun.”
‘You can’t script this’
When he started at Tourism Manitoba about eight years ago, research showed people either had a low opinion or no opinion of the province as a travel destination.
The Canada’s Heart Beats ad campaign, launched in 2013, has helped change that opinion. Tourism expenditure is up $100 million in the past year over year.
But what’s happening on TV and social media right now, with those images emanating out of Winnipeg and other Manitoba communities embracing the playoff run, is something that has a greater impact than any polished and staged marketing campaign.
It’s real, and people recognize that, said Ferguson.
“What you are seeing is an outpouring of pride and emotion for this hockey team. You can’t script this,” he said.
“Sure, they set up the environment [for the street party] but they had no idea whether 5,000 people or 25,000 were going to come. Obviously it’s been the latter.
“Winnipeg and Manitoba have shown their true colours. This is who we are. We are a province of friendly people, of rich, diverse cultures, of tremendous history but boy, when we stand behind something, we’re tough to beat,” he said.
“I just don’t see the same kind of passion in the other [NHL] communities.”