London Venues: On the starting blocks

Almost 60 years after London last staged the Olympics, the capital is once again in the running and everyone can play their part, says Stuart Derrick

When London hosted the 1948 Olympic games, the planning was fairly minimal. The so-called austerity games were put together at the last minute in a post-war spirit of everyone pulling together.

Today, with the Olympics worth billions to their hosts, cities fight tooth and nail to stage them. And London's venue's are at the forefront of the fight for the 2012 event. Or at least they should be.

At the International Special Events Society (ISES) UK conference in March, a staggering three-quarters of delegates said London was not doing enough on the international stage (Event, April).

Mike Power, chief operating officer of London 2012, the organisation running the Olympic campaign, says it is important that everyone gets behind the bid. "We want the event industry behind us so we can present a united front to the world. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) wants to see total commitment across the spectrum," he states.

Alexandra Palace has been earmarked to host the fencing competition if the 2012 bid is successful. Chris Gothard, head of sales and marketing at the north London venue, agrees that facilities will need to work together if they are to make the most of all the global attention.

Global awareness

"The Olympic bid could force the hand of venues to work in a more collaborative manner. The effect on London in general is a given. It will be the most significant event of its type for generations. People involved in hosting some of the activities will be highlighted and will achieve global awareness," he remarks. "But how we as a city and as individual venues translate that into an ongoing success story requires a shift in the way we promote ourselves."

Charlotte Reeves, head of corporate and private events at Somerset House behind the Strand in central London, says there is a pent-up desire from venues to get involved. "This is a complete one-off and requires everybody to think in different ways, but there doesn't seem to be anybody pulling venues together," she says. "When other cities do it there seems to be a sense of civic pride. The question is whether we are being brought together in the same way."

Dominic Jones, managing director of north London's Business Design Centre, suggests this could be achieved through an Olympic venue forum. "We should come together and talk as one voice to help raise the profile of venues in London. This could be done through existing trade associations such as the Association of Exhibition Venues," he says.

Reeves, together with Royal Horticultural Halls (RHH) sales and marketing director Maugie Lyons, agree that a successful bid would be a shot in the arm for the capital's venues, even its non-sporting ones, with a host of spin-off events such as receptions and dinners.

But Lyons believes that the rewards go well beyond this. "The true benefit of London hosting the Olympics would be that the city's infrastructure would get a boost, which would be good for event business afterwards," she remarks.

Lyons goes on to argue that RHH's membership of marketing consortiums such as the Westminster Collection and Unique Venues of London (UVL) will be of enormous benefit to the venue.

Showcasing the capital

UVL chairman Ian Lovat Fraser says: "As an organisation that champions the diversity of London's venues, we are in an ideal position to promote the capital as a whole, which in turn is beneficial to all London venues." And he is optimistic about what the bid means for venues in the capital.

"Every event we put on and every venue that launches will have a responsibility to showcase London in the best possible light," he enthuses. "The capital offers some of the finest venues in the world, all of which are able to support and strengthen the Olympic bid."

Will Broome, managing director of venue marketing firm Londonlaunch.com, agrees that the bid is a fantastic platform for venues. "The Olympic effect is already under way and international companies are calling us with questions about what London can offer."

However, London 2012's Power says that although declarations of support are welcome, there isn't a huge amount that venues can do at this stage.

"The ways that venues can express support at the moment are limited," he admits. "They cannot use the Olympic logo or rings and with Athens just around the corner that is where the focus is. The London bid is still a bit of a sideshow."

No guarantees

David Hornby, commercial director at tourism body Visit London, also downplays the extent to which venues can benefit from the formal bid process.

"For the minute it's about the public showing support and creating awareness rather than there being a great deal of activity," he says. "There is nothing guaranteed and nothing to put in the diary."

Such a statement may seem a bit of a wet blanket, but Hornby has no doubts about the value of a winning bid. "From our perspective the Olympic bid touches all sectors. Business tourism in Sydney grew after its Olympics and that has been sustained," he says. "The bid process itself is a good tool to promote London."

But Hornby adds that it is crucial that all areas of the UK show support for the bid as this is one of the criteria that the IOC uses to assess candidate cities.

Wembley sales and marketing director Peter Tudor says: "Even if we do not win it is a great opportunity to get London out there and raise the profile of the city. It's time to revise the sometimes outdated opinion people have of London."

Wembley Arena, which hosted the swimming at the 1948 games, has been ruled out of the running as a sporting venue because of its location in the north of the city; Olympic facilities have to be within an hour of the proposed stadium in Stratford, east London. Despite the disappointment, Tudor hopes the Arena will become a focus for some of the entertainment that will surround the games.

One venue in the capital that has long proclaimed its support for the Olympic bid is Docklands venue Excel. The venue's east London location plays in its favour and it has been short-listed to host the boxing, judo, tae kwon do, weightlifting and wrestling.

Excel is working on joint banners and flags with the London Borough of Newham and London City Airport to create a sense of arrival and welcome for visitors to the potential host borough of the 2012 Olympic Games.

Venue staff distributed "Bring on the Games" car stickers, which featured both the Excel and London 2012 logos, at the Schroder's London International Boat Show in January. The complex is also running a "Bring on the Games" campaign to raise money for local school sports equipment.

Excel chief executive Jamie Buchan is also on the board of Visit London.

He says: "We are using the Olympics in all our brochures, sales information and promotional material as we fully support the bid. It offers many opportunities to show the benefits of hosting events, conferences and exhibitions in east London."

Eyes on the east

With the focus on the east, venues in this undersold part of the city have most to gain from the bid process. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets marketing manager Pat Holmes helps to promote 50 venues in the East End.

These range from big players, such as Excel and Cabot Hall, to smaller, more quirky venues including Wiltons Music Hall, the 291 Gallery and Bar, and Wapping Food, a restaurant in a converted power station.

Holmes has been promoting the area as an event location for the past three years and says growing interest in the bid at home and abroad has given momentum to that objective. "The future of London is in the east and we are ready to show off what is here," she says. This means more familiarisation trips and updating the borough's venue guide to include potential Olympic venues.

Prime opportunity

Another east London venue hoping to capitalise on increased interest in the area is the Docklands Museum. Corporate relationship manager David Young says the bid is a prime opportunity to raise the profile of the year-old attraction. "There is still some stigma attached to museums as event venues as people wrongly assume they are boring and stuffy," he says. "We are looking for any opportunity to prove that isn't the case."

The Grade I-listed building features a 145-seat auditorium, galleries that can be used for receptions, and trendy urban bar 1802, which was short-listed for the Evening Standard 2004 Bar of the Year.

Young also represents the Museum of London and says the east London venue can provide an appropriate link with the past. "The museum houses the Olympic torch from the 1948 games. I have written to London 2012 to let them know they can use it as part of the marketing campaign to kick things off," he says.

With venues keen to join in it's no surprise that they are feeling frustrated at not being able to play a more active role, but London 2012's Power says that is the nature of the bid at present.

However, there are two big opportunities for the event industry just around the corner. One is next month when - hopefully - the UK will celebrate making the Olympic short-list. The other is next July when the winner will be announced. "That will be a real opportunity to show what the UK events industry can offer, in the way that Vancouver did when it won the 2010 Winter Olympics. It should be a truly national event and a real focus for the events industry," concludes Power.

For now, the best London can do is to make the most of the limelight and hope it is just a warm-up for the main event.

CASE STUDY: ONE AMAZING WEEK

Visit London teamed up with PR agency Freud to boost the profile of the capital and make people aware of its rich cultural heritage. The result was One Amazing Week, a week-long series of events at some of London's most prestigious venues highlighting London's cutting-edge culture.

The Royal Opera House hosted the first event on 22 February when rock act Motorhead - the loudest band in the world - played in the Vilar Floral Hall. Tate Modern on the South Bank sanctioned four giant painting-by-numbers canvasses that the public could fill in at places such as Heathrow Airport and Greenwich Maritime Museum. London theatres took centre stage when model-turned-actress Jerry Hall set a world record by appearing in six plays in a single night. Trafalgar Square was the setting for the unveiling of London buses that had been decorated by fashion designers, and international footballers had a "jumpers for goalposts" kick-about at Regent's Park.

Visit London had won extra funding from the London Mayor's Office to stage the events as well as the support of the mayor, Ken Livingstone. The aim was to create publicity for the capital in periodicals and newspapers other than the standard travel magazines and supplements.

"It was about showcasing London and some of the things that you can only do in this city," says Visit London commercial director David Hornby. "It was a very innovative campaign and created huge awareness around the world. It showed London as a city that always surprises and never disappoints."


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