Monday, November 26, 2007

My Product is a Memory

The President of a Chamber of Commerce once said to me, “my product is a memory.” We were in a roundtable discussion of leaders of various cultural organizations. The leaders were thinking together about what “tourism” means in terms of a few specific kinds of visitors. Our facilitator had conjured up three sets of imaginary travelers and had divided us into three teams to consider their interests and needs.

We imagined those visitors and sought answers to a short list of questions. Why are they traveling? How did they decide to come to this place and not some place else? What time of the week are they coming and for how long? What month or season are they coming? What will they hope to experience while in this place? You might imagine this hypothetical exercise is useless, but it was amazing to see what the group realized about their town as they tried to imagine it as an outsider. They realized, for example, that some of the key businesses that weekend travelers would seek out are closed on Saturdays.

Tourism is a buzzword. “Readiness” is the soft underbelly of that word. To make an organization ready is one thing; but to make a town ready is a whole other ball game, and it’s a hard game to win.

“My product is a memory” sounded like an excellent theme statement for someone at the head of the Chamber of Commerce. A less thoughtful person might have said, “my product is a 50% increase in membership by year’s end,” or “my product is a measurable leap in public awareness of our town as an attraction by year’s end.” But she got right to the heart of why people come back: they remember having a good time. They found their way easily to whatever brought them here; they found parking without getting lost; they found an interesting place to eat near an interesting place to shop; they found the Church Directory they needed; they found things to do with their children; they found who-knows-what and they were happy they found it.

The President of the Chamber of Commerce was on target with her word choice. She would have missed if she had said, “my product is a favorable memory.” It isn’t always favorable, after all. If the Chamber’s members do nothing attentive to visitors, their product will be an array of bad memories. The Chamber has to do something within that community of members to turn their attention to shaping visitor experiences toward favorable memories.

Here is a quasi-hellish memory of mine from a recent stay at the Hospitality House in Williamsburg, Virginia. I stopped in for lunch one afternoon around 2 and decided on quick service at the pasta bar. I asked the server to prepare some sausage and spinach to mix with penne and a marinara sauce, which he did in a cordial way. The flavor of the first bite was totally distinctive, like no Italian pasta dish I had ever tasted, an alien, surprising, un-right combination of herb, tomato, and….what, exactly? What’s that sweetness? Then I realized that the restaurant had passed off unused maple-flavored breakfast links as “Italian sausage” at the pasta bar.

The food was by no means spoiled, but the experience was one of shock rather than satisfaction, and I resolved to go there no more during a four-day stay. Even worse for them, the experience gave me a 24-karat conversation item with the convention-goers I was there with. Bad news has a way of multiplying faster than good news, which is why smart managers try to get it right on the first try.

“My product is a memory” turns out to apply to a variety of venues. Over the weekend as I raked a mountain of leaves into the street, my neighbor was doing the same with his two young boys. My neighbor seems like such a gifted and resourceful dad. He made the work of gathering leaves a memorable and fun social experience. He and his wife seem to have a knack for creating great memories while getting work done. No household chore is done without child participation with Mom or Dad. Dad involves the kids in thinking about what sort of care the deck will need in the spring. Naturally, they will scrub the deck together; they will brush on the sealer together, some with large brushes and some with small ones.

My college choral director learned from one of his mentors that “every rehearsal must be a musical experience.” That means that no rehearsal is devoted simply to learning diction, rhythms, or pitches. The group has to sing whole passages in a musical way at some point, and that experience has to be memorable. The consequences of it not being memorable are (1) having to do the same work over again, and (2) a decline in morale. I think this applies to all forms of instruction. Whether we are talented or not, when we are in the role of teacher, our product is memory of some kind. We have to do something to shape it.

Why leave out friendships? Our product is a memory. If we neglect those we associate with, at any level of the love continuum, we are negatively investing in memories. Those are the ones that begin to ache.

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