THE INTERVIEW: Cheryl Finn

THE INTERVIEW April 2016: Tourism London Director of Sports Tourism Cheryl Finn

As Director of Sports Tourism with Tourism London, Cheryl Finn is constantly under the microscope. Considering she ultimately answers to the bureaucracy and red tape of municipal politics while her office relies on City coffers, Finn has escaped unscathed from the sometimes negativity and cynical ways of that community. She is, in fact, one of the most beloved members of the local government and sports communities – as down to earth as they come.

cfinn A native of Elliot Lake, Ontario, Finn took her current post in June 2007. An all-around athlete, Finn began working for the YMCA upon graduation from university. There, she learned the intricacies of the not-for-profit business, worked on recruitment, training, sustaining a strong volunteer core, and helped develop YBC (an inclusive basketball program for youth).  She volunteered on numerous boards and organizations that helped feed her love and deep belief in community involvement. Finn moved to London in 1993 and quickly became involved in the community sport movement.  She was the Executive Director of the London Sports Council, where she was successful in building on a strong business model and implemented many new and innovative ideas. Finn has volunteered and been a part of the host organizing committees of the 2001 Canada Summer Games, 2004 Ontario Summer Games, 2005 Memorial Cup, 2006 Ontario Summer Parasport Championships, 2006 CN Canadian Women’s Open, 2008 World Under 17 Hockey Championships, 2009 Euro-Can Cup International Hockey Tournament, 2010 BMO Canadian Figure Skating Championships and the 2010 Special Olympics National Summer Games and the 2011 Tim Horton’s Brier. London also hosted the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships, which was the largest event ever hosted by our community. In addition to her local post, Finn currently serves as Chair of the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance, after having served as a member of the Board of Directors since 2013.
Finn recently visited with LondonOntarioSports.com editor Jeffrey Reed at the downtown-headquartered Tourism London offices. Here’s that interview.

Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioSports.com: Cheryl, let’s start by talking about your sports background.
Chery Finn, Director of Sports Tourism, Tourism London: I did play a lot of sports growing up in Elliot Lake, and I give all the credit to my parents. I was jack of all trades, master of none (laughing). My dad was vice-principal of the only high school in our very small town.
Reed:  In 2012, you spearheaded an effort to outfit Elliot Lake pupils and students with new backpacks, following a mall collapse that killed two women and injured dozens. To help the community rally back, you got involved when you learned that families needed backpacks and school supplies for their 1,300 pupils and students. You truly care about your hometown.
SONY DSCFinn: Yes, I love my hometown. I go back as often as I can. I give a lot of credit to Elliot Lake for who I am today. We had great teams, great community spirit.  I played every sport. I remember my first day of Grade 9 – and I was a very involved student athlete. We skied, we waterskied, we skated. I swam competitively. I did synchronized swimming competitively. I played basketball, volleyball, track and field, cross country. But my dad sat us down, and as the oldest of five siblings he gave me a list and said, ‘Here’s when all the tryouts are. Here, try out for a play. And here’s information on student government.’ I told him, dad, come on, I’m going to be exhausted. And he said, ‘My view is always, one, if my children aren’t engaged in their school and in their community, how can I expect others to be? And two, if I can’t take care of my own kids, how is this community going to expect me to take care of theirs?’
Reed: He was teaching you life’s lessons.
Finn: Totally! He was teaching me time management. We all talk about the skills and values that we learned from being part of a team. No one can undersell that. Even when I’m hiring, I look at people that have played team sports. There’s a culture in sports. Every business, I think, has its own culture and it’s the same with sports. And sport people are a different culture. You know that. I know that. You have to be able to speak the language, and you have to be able to relate to build those relationships.

“I love my hometown. I go back as often as I can. I give a lot of credit to Elliot Lake for who I am today.” – Finn

Reed: Cheryl, I want to let readers know about the depth of your office’s daily endeavours. That is, we all know about the ‘sexy’ events your office assists in attracting – the World Figure Skating Championships, Memorial Cup, CP Women’s Open golf tournament and now the Freedom 55 Financial Championship. Those are the cream of the crop. But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it? Because the grassroots level really is your core.
Finn:  Yes. And there’s no such thing as an average day here. Basically, our strategy changes every four years with a new City council, with new budgets, and so on. We have to be really flexible to change with the times – change with the community, change with what’s trending. So, the approach that we’re taking lately is, nurturing our partnerships and our relationships with our local sports stakeholders. Those are our bread and butter events – the tournaments that bring in hundreds of teams over a period of time, fill our hotels – heads in beds. That’s who we want to really cater to. The big events – the ‘sexy’ events – those take more time, more resources, more human resources and definitely a broader partnership base. There are larger gaps between the big ones. We always have to kind of recover a bit financially. But we have a phenomenal volunteer base.
SONY DSCReed: And that volunteer base is really a legacy of the London-hosted 2001 Canada Summer Games. It established a template – and a strong resource from which to draw for future events, like the World Figure Skating Championships.
Finn:  Correct. It’s something that we’re very proud of, and I know other communities are very jealous, because we have never had an issue in garnering volunteer support for any our events. I think that speaks to the value that our volunteers – our community – see in hosting these types of events. They’re getting something out of it. And we are ending up with this phenomenally experienced and trained volunteer core that we can draw on.
Reed: So, it’s a bit of a juggling task for you, really, with these larger events that the entire world watches unfold on TV. And then there are the scores of minor hockey tournaments, for example. Break it down into a percentage of each, if you would – grassroots versus big events.
Finn:  It changes, depending on the bid cycle. In fact, it’s very dependent on the bid cycle. Those larger events have a circuit that they move around. For example, the Canada Games are starting the process for 2022 for their Summer Games. The last time it was held in Ontario was in 2001, in London. So, when people ask me, ‘Why aren’t we bidding for the Canada Games?’ I tell them that politically and realistically, they’re not going to be come back to London. So in terms of being strategic and fiscally responsible, we’re not going to put a lot of resources towards a bid like that. We know that there are other sports that are targeting this area of the country, so that’s what we’ll focus on.
Reed: Which events Cheryl?
Finn: (Laughing) I can’t say. I wish I could. I really wish I could. It will come out soon enough.
Reed: (Laughing) I had to ask.
Finn: (Laughing) Yes, But we have to be so cognizant and respectful of those relationships.
Reed: I understand. There’s a protocol to follow.
Finn: We’re only as good as our name. We’re only as strong as our last event. And when you think of an event stakeholder handing over their biggest property to a community, there’s a lot, there’s a lot of work that goes into developing that trust and building that relationship.
Reed: When you’re pursuing these events, and bidding on them, how much of that effort stems from Cheryl Finn, and how much of it is a team effort?
SONY DSCFinn: It’s never Cheryl Finn – never Cheryl Finn. It’s Tourism London as a conduit and as a team builder. Every event requires a different team. We will definitely sometimes head the bid process so that we oversee the RFP – request for proposal. We will review the RFP and determine whether or not it’s a good fit for our community, what the benefits to the community would be, what’s the cost and what’s the economic impact back to the community. So our team changes, depending on the event. Tourism London takes the lead on a lot of these, but it’s generally one of our sport partners will say, for example, ‘I’ve been contacted by my national sport organization. They’re looking, they’re fishing. What do you think? OK great, then let’s put a team together and let’s get started.’

“We’re only as good as our name. We’re only as strong as our last event.” – Finn

Reed: And hence the importance of you and your team to be 100 per cent connected to all of our local sports groups, from kids soccer to world-class competitors.
Finn: Precisely.
Reed: They are your bird dog scouts, in a sense. And they are your partners.
Finn: Exactly. And it’s always changing, so we have to keep on top of things through our local partners, and through their provincial, and national and international sporting organizations.
Reed: I can’t help but to pick up on your earlier comment in regards to working with an elected City council who change every four years. How political does it get for you? Do you play that game? I’m guessing you have no choice in the matter.
Finn:  Not too much. They’ve always respected us as leaders in our industry, and as the professionals in our industry. That’s never been the issue. It’s that education piece, where we’re educating a new council about what we do here, and the process, plus how we must work with the City
Reed: That’s politics. And with a new council, you’re starting almost from scratch, depending on the votes, in regards to the education process.
Finn: Totally. But you know, I think our portfolio and our resume speak for themselves. We’re highly respected in our industry, because of the work that we’ve done and continue to do moving forward.
Reed: Can you give me an example of perhaps one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your time here with Tourism London? Was there an event that perhaps saw some large behind-the-scene issues that no one outside of the organizers knew about – maybe figure skating that looked great on TV, but saw all sorts of chaos when the red light wasn’t on?
SONY DSCFinn: Yes, there’s always a wide range of emotions. It’s like a 12-step program that you go through in hosting. You know, there’s denial, and there’s acceptance …
Reed: (Laughing) Good analogy.
Finn: One event that really challenged me personally was the World Under 17 Hockey Challenge in 2008. I came in at mid-stream. I was hired when that event had already been awarded to London. This was my rookie attempt at an event, and it was challenging. There were a number of factors related to that event that challenged it. Number one was building awareness about who exactly was participating in the tournament. Number two was that tournament back then was traditionally right up against the World Junior Hockey in terms of timing.
Reed: That would be an enormous challenge – and we can see why they’ve moved the dates further apart for those two tournaments.
Finn: My gosh, yes. I’m wearing my sports fan hat right now: you must put time aside to watch World Junior games! That’s part of your Christmas holiday celebration, and it always will be. It’s become such a Canadian tradition. But in 2008, there were other challenges, too – the cost of bringing the teams in, ticket sales were a bit sluggish. There were all these challenges. But at one point in the hosting of that event, it was like the sky opened up and the stars aligned. So, for me it’s about taking a negative and turning it into a positive. And at that tournament, the Slovakian team come in with no equipment.

“There’s always a wide range of emotions. It’s like a 12-step program that you go through in hosting.” – Finn

Reed: I remember the story well. The community came to the rescue.
Finn: Yes. The team was a lower-seated team, and they were playing very early on in the tournament, and didn’t have a lot of turnaround time. They had no equipment. I remember people saying, ‘Cheryl, this is a scam. These countries, they come in and it’s a scam. They pull at your heartstrings.’ But I said, no, this is a Hockey Canada event. These are strong junior players, that can’t be it. So I called Colin Harper at Source For Sports. I said, Colin, you’ve got to help me out. He said, ‘What do you need, Cheryl? I’ll help with anything you need.’ And he was fantastic. He provided skates, he provided equipment, he said, ‘Have them come in and get it.’ And we had to do it quickly. They were about to play. I had to outfit the entire team. Yet what happened was a parent volunteer just didn’t get the equipment bags to the right airport gate. And the equipment was coming in later on, but we didn’t know that. But Colin was amazing, and the team was so thankful. They returned every single thing they were given, including the tape they used, rolled up into big balls. It was the next day when their equipment arrived, and all turned out well.
Reed: Baptism by fire for you as director of sports tourism.
Finn: And it turned out to be a feel-good story. This was turning a potential negative into a positive, and it showed that our community was supporting this tournament. It also so happened that Team Canada was winning. We’d beat Team Russia, beat Team USA and the stars aligned so that the Gold Medal game was Team Canada versus Team USA, which just so happened to be the same game that was nearing in the World Juniors. In fact, our statistics were showing that we were outselling our tournament compared to the World Junior tournament at that time. It ended up with us setting an attendance record for the Gold Medal game for this tournament. We had amazing volunteers. We had amazing support through the London Knights and Budweiser Gardens – John Labatt Centre at that time. We had a really strong chair in Joe O’Neil. Everybody put their nose to the grindstone and just made it work. And events like this are so dependent on attendance numbers and ticket sales. So, if we didn’t have a Canadian team in the Gold Medal Game …
Reed: Then attendance would have suffered big-time. Team Canada ended up beating Team USA 3-0 in that final. So all turned out well.SONY DSC
Finn: Yes. But it’s such a risk business in terms of all of these pieces aligning. And I’ve said it before: you’re only as successful as your last event.
Reed: On that note, many were under the opinion that the 2014 CP Women’s Open at London Hunt did not live up to its billing, despite the strong efforts from the LPGA Tour, Golf Canada, the host club and the community. Attendance was down. There wasn’t much buzz surrounding this event. Maybe London is becoming too big for its britches? But last year we saw the Freedom 55 Financial Championship rebound big-time at Highland Country Club – still lots of work to do, though. Golf is a tough sell in this city anymore. In regards to the Mackenzie Tour PGA Tour Canada event at Highland, do we need to work harder to educate people about who these golfers are, and how close they are to the PGA Tour – just as you did with the Under 17 hockey players?
Finn: Yes, definitely. Definitely. This can’t be a one-off. It has to build. That’s who we are as Londoners: ‘Convince me! You’ve got to sell me!’
Reed: So all stakeholders need to work harder to make the Freedom 55 Financial Championship a success?
Finn: The Knights have done it, the Lightning have done it, varsity sports have done it. They’ve convinced us. Success breeds success. If you start to see a rise, then you start to educate people. I think we’re at that point now where people are saying, ‘You know what? I heard there was a really great golf event at Highland. I’m going to make sure that I catch it next year.’ Golf Canada has invested in us. We’ve got great partners. And we’re a great help for them in terms of the logistics of the tournament. And once again, the volunteers that are dedicated to this event are very passionate about not only their city, but their club and their golf course.
Reed: And most importantly, about golf.
Finn: Yes, about the sport. In the end, it’s all about community and the sport.

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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office http://www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989. Publisher/Editor of this website and https://londonontariogolf.com.

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