France: Approaching the finish line

London faces stiff competition in its bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Steve Hemsley assesses the French proposal.

A giant water wall-clock has been erected in the old French port of La Rochelle, counting down the days to the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) final decision as to which city will host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Water will cascade between the two ancient towers at the entrance to the port until 6 July, when the French hope to celebrate with something much stronger. Indeed, if Paris beats New York, Madrid, Moscow and, of course, London to the biggest prize in the global sporting calendar, you can expect plenty of champagne to be flowing throughout the country.

Around 85% of the population support the bid and Paris has been considered a frontrunner. The city's transport and venue infrastructure is certainly impressive, having successfully staged the Fifa World Cup in 1998 and the World Athletics Championships in August 2003.

The head of the 13-strong IOC evaluation committee, former Moroccan 400-metre hurdles gold medallist Nawal El Moutawakel, could not help mentioning the quality of the Paris dossier before she left France at the end of the IOC's four-day inspection visit in March.

She also dismissed suggestions by mischief-making rivals that the general strike to defend France's 35-hour week, which unfortunately took place during the visit, was a threat to the city's chances.

Despite Paris' position as a 2/5 hot favourite with some bookmakers, the bid team is taking nothing for granted before July's full IOC meeting in Singapore. Paris hosted the Games in 1900 and 1924, but its failed bids for the 1992 and the 2008 Games still hurt. It was therefore a somewhat nervy French sports minister, Jean-Francois Lamour - a former Olympic fencing champion - and city mayor Bertrand Delanoe who met El Moutawakel and her colleagues at Charles de Gaulle airport on 8 March.

Remaining neutral

The delegation was met by thousands of online skaters cruising down the Champs-Elysees wearing Paris 2012 T-shirts. However, the IOC will never be swayed by pomp and ceremony or enthusiastic crowds, and much of its visit was spent behind closed doors analysing the Paris Bid Book, submitted last November.

One reason why the city's position is so strong is because it will not require a massive building programme that would cost the country many billions of euros. The total budget for a 2012 Games in Paris is an estimated EUR4.1bn (£2.8bn), of which EUR2.2bn (£1.5bn) would come from ticket sales, merchandise and sponsorship. The remainder would be shared between private business, Paris local government, the regions and national funding.

The French business community is getting behind the bid through the Paris 2012 Corporate Club, which has 17 major international French company members including Accenture, Airbus, Air France, France Telecom, Publicis and Renault. This level of support illustrates how the corporate sector views the economic and social opportunities for Paris and the whole of France.

Research by the Boston Consulting Group suggests 42,000 new jobs and EUR35bn (£28.8bn) of additional revenue would be generated across France by a Paris Games.

"In the past ten years Paris has organised 26 world championships across different sports, from football to table tennis. Our slogan is 'L'Amour des Jeux' or 'Love of the Games' and that extends to a love of organising games," says deputy CEO of the Paris 2012 bid team Essar Gabriel, who worked with the Australian organising committee on the 2000 Games.

Nevertheless, the IOC has to be convinced that Paris can host something on such a massive scale as a modern-day Olympic Games, and the delegation insisted on visiting existing venues along with the site of proposed developments.

The Paris concept is 'One Village, Two Clusters' and the IOC travelled by bus between the north and the west of the capital. The bid team is adamant only a small number of new venues will be needed, which will avoid the problem of any stadiums becoming white elephants once the Games has finished.

The two most conspicuous permanent new builds would be the 20,000-capacity Aquatic Centre in the northern cluster at Aubervilliers for the swimming events, and a 22,000-seater Superdome five kilometres from the Olympic village for gymnastics and various Paralympic sports.

First stop for the IOC was a disused railway yard in a 111-acre area of the Batignolles district of north west Paris, where the Olympic village will be built. This will be within a ten-minute drive of 18 of the 30 proposed venues.

The delegation was then driven to the impressive Stade de France, which is also in the northern cluster. This 80,000-capacity stadium hosted the 1998 World Cup final and would be the flagship venue for the 2012 Games.

It has been renamed Stade de France Paris 2012 to support the bid, and would be used for the opening and closing ceremonies, track and field events and football.

After taking lunch with French sportsmen and women, the IOC travelled to the western cluster. The committee visited venues such as the 14,000-capacity Roland-Garros stadium and the Croix Catelan - site of the Olympic Games in 1900 - which will take the form of an additional temporary 3,000-seat venue to host the modern pentathlon.

Last stop was the Eiffel Tower, where from the second floor the inspectors could overlook the northern and western clusters. Beach volleyball would take place beneath the tower.

The third day of the tour included presentations from leading politicians on subjects such as anti-doping and security. The itinerary included a working lunch with Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and the country's transport, finance and foreign affairs ministers. In the evening, the IOC committee descended on the Elysee Palace for dinner with President Jacques Chirac.

Knock-on effect

Should Paris manage to convince the IOC, the opportunities for the corporate event, hospitality and exhibition market from an Olympic Games will be huge. Gabriel notes that as the Games will take place in August, many venues and event organisers can only gain from such an occasion. "Look at how venues in Barcelona and Sydney exploited the Games before, during and after the event. It is up to the professional convention centres in France to leverage something like this and put together attractive offers for business," he says.

It is too early to confirm exactly how any corporate hospitality activity would work around the Games in 2012, but two concepts are being considered by the Paris bid team.

The first is the creation of Olympic Games hospitality villages with catering, entertainment and security features located close to the competition venues. These would be sited near the Stade de France in the northern cluster and the Roland-Garros stadium in the western cluster, for example.

The second concept, and a cheaper option for most UK businesses attending, would involve using facilities already in place inside the existing venues and within any new arenas, such as the Superdome and the Aquatic Centre.

"During the World Athletics Championships two years ago there was a large corporate response, with the largest contingent coming from the UK. What we noticed then and during the World Cup is there is a growing trend among companies to get their clients as close to the field of play as possible," says Gabriel.

Golden opportunity

The entire Parisian hotel industry will experience a one-off sales phenomenon should Paris secure the Games. Isabelle Quintard, director of business development at the Hilton Arc de Triomphe Paris, which only opened its doors in May last year and has 1,700sqm of event space, believes hotels would have to adapt their summer offer.

"Any backlash from winning the bid will come from the non-Olympics-related leisure sector, which will avoid Paris before and during the Games," she says. "So we may lose some repeat or high-yield business, but gain incentive travel, other corporate bookings and more leisure business once the Olympics is over."

Four city venues ready to exploit an Olympic Games on their doorstep are the Palais des Congres de Paris, the Parc d'Exposition et Centre de Conventions de Paris-Nord Villepinte, the Parc d'Exposition de Paris-Le Bourget and the Palais Des Congres de Versailles. They have already formed a business alliance to produce customised packages for corporate clients, and should Paris' bid be accepted by the IOC they will work even more closely during the next seven years and beyond.

Venues located away from the capital would also benefit from a Paris win. Facilities in cities such as La Rochelle, Marseille, Lyon, Nantes and Lens will all host some Olympic events. La Beaujoire Stadium in Nantes and the Velodrome Stadium in Marseille would accommodate the football tournament, for example, while Les Minimes Port at La Rochelle will be home to the sailing.

The Provence region is increasing in popularity, as is the South of France.

The Hotel Martinez in Cannes and the Palais de la Mediterranee in Nice could be two convention centres that benefit from a significant rise in corporate visitors during an Olympic Games in August, a month when the tourists usually dominate.

"It is really hard to say what effect a Paris Olympics would have on the South of France because the last Games in the country was such a long time ago," says Rachel David, international sales manager for both venues. "To be honest, as we are not sure yet whether Paris will be given the Games, we have not really spent much time considering what the impact will be on our corporate business, but we are excited by the possibilities."

Yet there is a word of warning from some experts that corporate venues throughout France must avoid the mistakes made by Greece for the 2004 Games, where prices were hiked up to such an extent that businesses were deterred from visiting during and, importantly, after the Games.

Sylvain Bouteiller, managing director of venue-finding business Conference Portfolio, says corporate clients are becoming more wary of profiteering.

"We went to Greece eight months before the last Olympics on behalf of clients, and despite being a regular customer for many of the hotels and venues we found prices for bedrooms and meeting rooms rising by more than 100 times," he says.

"The result was that many venues remained empty and since the Games corporate organisers have reacted to what they saw as greed by going elsewhere. A similar thing happened in Portugal after the European Football Championships," adds Bouteiller.

As for Gabriel, he is experienced enough not to predict the outcome of the IOC ballot in July, or to name the city that he feels is Paris' main rival for the 2012 Games. Yet he remains quietly confident.

"I compare the whole bid process to running the 400 metres," he says.

"We are on the last straight and when you are running in your line corridor you do not focus on things you have no control over - the wind, the crowd and your competitors. You only focus on what you can control, and that is getting over the finishing line first."

LYON CONVENTION CENTRE

Executives at the Lyon Convention Centre are excited by the possibility of the Olympic Games coming to France in 2012. Spokeswoman Lucie Kaderabek says studies have shown there is always a huge economic impact on corporate venues across the length and breadth of the host country.

"Paris would be entirely dedicated to the Games and might not be able to host some major events at that time of year. The Lyon Convention Centre is perfectly equipped to take on any international conference or exhibition," she says.

The venue is managed by the GL Events group, which has a network of conference and exhibition sites across France. It has supplied temporary fittings and other equipment for many international sporting occasions throughout the country.

The Lyon Convention Centre hosted 327 business events last year and currently has 15,000sqm of floor space. Its position as a key corporate venue away from Paris will be strengthened from next year with the opening of a 3,000-seater amphitheatre and 4,500sqm of additional exhibition space.

"If prices rise in Paris event planners will look elsewhere for other venues that can be flexible to their needs during such a busy time," says Kaderabek.

The Lyon Convention Centre is only one hour and 55 minutes from Paris by TGV high-speed train and is close to the Lyon-Saint Exupery Airport, which serves 40 international destinations.

Lyon would also be affected by the Games in other ways, as its Gerland stadium is scheduled to host football matches.

DISNEYLAND RESORT PARIS

The Eurodisney site is not new to hosting corporate events, and its location on the outskirts of the east side of Paris could mean a profitable time during an Olympic Games.

August is a peak tourist month for the resort, yet its director of business solutions, Peter Verhoeven, says there would be opportunities for Disneyland to boost its corporate business before, during and after any Games.

"We are getting behind the bid by demonstrating how the main Olympic sponsors could use our facilities to mix business with pleasure," he says.

"I also imagine that many other companies would like to take their clients to an Olympic event on one day and to Disneyland Paris on another. We would provide flexible packages and install temporary facilities to cope with the rise in demand."

Disneyland Resort Paris has two convention centres covering 17,500sqm and 13 hotels with a massive 7,600 rooms. Its two theme parks can organise events for between 50 and 25,000 people. It is unclear, however, how much hotel capacity would be allocated to the corporate market during such a busy month for holidaymakers.

Verhoeven disputes any suggestion that venues around Paris - and elsewhere in France for that matter - would attempt to cash in on the Olympics by raising prices significantly. He says his venue would lose credibility if it changed its positioning simply because of the Olympics.

"We have been in the event business for a long time and get more than 4,500 requests from organisers every year," says Verhoeven. "To succeed as a venue over the long-term we know it is important to build healthy relationships with clients in an industry where everyone knows everybody else. The Olympics would provide a one-off business opportunity, but you have to nurture your loyal customers."

Should Paris be successful in its bid to stage the 2012 Olympic Games, Verhoeven expects enquiries about corporate bookings, particularly from big brand sponsors, to begin within weeks of the IOC announcing its decision.


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