Britain Goes for the Gold
By James Ruggia
August 13, 2012 11:45 PM
The London Olympic Games, which ended this past Sunday, were great for American sport. U.S. athletes won the medal derby with 104, including 46 gold medals, a new record for any U.S. Olympic team performing outside of the United States. At the same time the games are already instigating a big discussion in the U.K. tourism trade as to whether or not they were worth it. Did Great Britain take home some tourism gold from the Games?
Arrival figures and occupancy rates won’t come in until September, but already UKinbound, an association of British tour operators, has decided to not take Eric Idles’s advice in the closing ceremony to “always look on the bright side of life.” A survey of UKinbound’s members found that 88 percent said their business was down when compared to the same period last year, anywhere from 10 to 30 percent down, depending on the business. The thing is, no one ever claimed the period of the Games themselves would be a gold mine.
Since 2005, when London won the right to hold the Games, VisitBritain has maintained that it is the long-term impact of the Games that matter, not the Olympic period. Every year Britain takes in about £18 billion ($28.2 billion) from tourists, twice the cost of staging the Games. London, with its steady mid-80s occupancy rates and its 1.5 million average number of tourists in August, really didn’t need an arrivals boost.
London and Partners predicted lower visitor numbers this summer, stressing that it was more important to focus on the long-term effect the Olympics can have in bringing in potential visitors. Since 2005, VisitBritain has been working closely with international broadcasters to get more and better peripheral coverage of Britain as the backdrop to the Games. Images of the countryside, heritage, food, arts and the music scene were there as segues between the events and commercials. The extra attention between the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics In the first six months of this year has already generated around £3.3 billion ($5.17 billion) worth of positive coverage of Britain in TV and print media according to VisitBritain.
VisitBritain claims that international “coverage during the Games has boosted Britain’s image around the world -- especially in terms of fun and friendliness, aspects which are crucial when people are deciding where to go on holiday.” Travel trade reports and feedback from VisitBritain’s overseas offices indicate that the Games are also having a particularly positive impact on perceptions of a British welcome, while perceptions about food, heritage and culture, arts, creativity, diversity and music have also all benefited enormously.
“The Olympics were run really well despite what those dire predictions claimed,” says Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations. “The quality of the destination shined through. This summer we saw a predictable avoidance of London with France being the biggest beneficiary and we did okay with the rest of the U.K., especially York, Bath and Scotland, but London will benefit in coming years just as Athens and Barcelona have.”
Even European Tour Operators Association President Tom Jenkins, a consistent critic of the Games since 2005, conceded that while the Olympics had not won him over, the London Games were “exceeding expectations.” He says the 60,000 nightly foreign guests in London “looks good when compared to 25,000 foreign visitors per night in Sydney, 13,000 in Athens and 27,000 in Beijing.” VisitBritain noted that its digital and social media, where its digital content is normally viewed by more than 250 million people, has seen its Games-time activities lead to a five-fold increase in its engagement levels. During the opening ceremony alone more than 100,000 people liked, shared or commented on VisitBritain’s LoveUK Facebook site.
“I think it actually helped us diversify our U.K. business,” says Caroleen Leverrier, product development manager for Eurobound.“London was off but we saw a real increase in other British destinations. Many parts of the U.K. were given exposure that people didn’t really know about before.”
Even as the Olympic games end and the Paralympics begin, VisitBritain is continuing with its biggest-ever marketing program. “In an 18 month period we will have invested around £35 million ($55 million) promoting Britain in our priority markets,” says Sandie Dawe, VisitBritain’s chief executive. She also promises a major campaign directly after the Games, supported by airlines, hotels and tour operators. VisitBritain and British Airways will launch £5 million ($7.8 million) worth of post-Olympics promotions in the U.S. and other international markets immediately after the Sept. 9 closing ceremony for the London Paralympics. Promotions aimed at the U.S. market will include the 50th anniversary of both James Bond and the “British Invasion” led by the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
According to NBC, some 31.1 million people per night watched these Olympics, up 12 percent on Beijing, which attracted some 4.7 billion international viewers in total. And that’s only TV. When Usain Bolt won the gold this time, 80,000 tweets per minute went out after the event. That can’t hurt British marketing. Then there’s the fact that the city of London, which had its East End center utterly destroyed in World War II, now has a brand new center in the Docklands area with its shiny new Canary Wharf financial district along for the ride. Finally, these Olympics were sandwiched between the Diamond Jubilee and the Paralympics, as well as the Cultural Olympiad. All of this should help prevent the kind of spiking visitation that the Olympic detractors warned of. In the end, it appears the brighter side of life for tourism does indeed begin after the torch goes out.
James Ruggia is executive editor covering Europe and Pacific Asia for TravelPulse.com.