Some advice for the government on their new tourism policy Pt. 3 – it’s time to get over the Olympics and kick-start innovation

Posted on February 15, 2011

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When I started at the University of Greenwich in late 2005, I was asked a question in my interview about the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games: “How do you think we should engage with 2012?”  Now, just 18 months before the opening ceremony, I’m asked the same question at meetings and events by university management, other academics, the private sector and local authority officers.  I’ve slowly refined and simplified my answer to the point where I now tend to say something like “You can’t, it’s too late.”  If you’re not already on the inside track in terms of consultancy, procurement or training, then the opportunity to get involved has probably passed you by.  Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t get involved in other ways.  The excellent #media2012 project, for example, is developing new forms of social and citizen interaction with the Games and the Business Network portal still offers opportunities for the private sector to get into the 2012 procurement game.  But, if you haven’t yet worked out how to lever the immediate impacts of 2012 for your university, business or research then you’re probably not going to.

The reason for this is that the Games, like all mega-events, has a life-span that far exceeds the event  itself.  The pre-games period, of bidding, winning and preparing for the Games is hurtling to a close.  This is the period in which to build capacity, market incessantly and to plan.  The event period itself will be over in a flash.  In 2007, the manager of a branch of a major hotel chain told me how two floors of his hotel in East London had already been booked up by an American news network for their staff to use during 2012.    Many of the immediate opportunities presented by the presence of the event itself have already been monopolised by large companies who had access to the capital needed to invest in anticipation of the Games, and let’s not forget the licensing arrangements of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG), which means that opportunities to profit directly through providing services, merchandising or human resources are tightly policed.  Admittedly, I’m taking quite a narrow focus here.  It is possible that the cities and regions with their own Olympics strategies will benefit from increased tourism during the Games.   Outside of the South-East of England however, how many areas have a coherent and well-resourced policy for leveraging the benefits of this mega-event outside of the capital?  How many tourists will really want to extend their stay beyond the Games period outside of London and will any want to base themselves outside of the boundaries of high-speed rail and commute to the celebrations?

The period in which meaningful policy development can still have an impact and businesses, government and universities can still engage is in the post-games period and into the legacy phase.  The defining feature of London’s winning bid to host the 2012 Games was its concentration on the long-term benefits of hosting the event on infrastructure, social regeneration, education and sports participation.    I make no claims to an understanding of the relationship between elite sports, event hosting and increasing sports participation in the general public other than to say that the evidence for any linkages seems mixed, at best.  For the most authoritative views on this subject, check out Professor Mike Weed’s blog

 Disaster recovery

In many ways, the immediate post games period is going to feel like the aftermath of a disaster in London.  There will be a dramatic drop in visitor numbers to the city and the Olympic park and its surroundings will become inhabited once again by security guards and construction workers.  The parks and streets will feel less like “the world’s greatest party” and more like the opening scene from 28 days later:

Click on this image to watch the opening sequence from the film

Navigating successfully out of this disaster without creating a legacy of disappointment as the adrenaline of the games goes sour in East London’s system will depend on a number of factors; I’m going to concentrate on two here: creating meaningful opportunities for volunteers, and innovations in the local tourism industry. 

For many of the army of volunteers being recruited to help deliver the Games, this will be an opportunity to gain work experience, network, and to work towards qualifications.  Can we create meaningful opportunities for these volunteers to continue to develop their skills and to meet their raised aspirations?  Creating a reserve army of labour for the big society won’t support meaningful economic development in the deprived areas of East London that the Games are supposed to help, and may produce a downward pressure on local wages, encouraging out-migration and worklessness.    During the pre-event period of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, unemployment in the city halved, mainly thanks to the creation of 59,382 jobs directly connected to the games.  Immediately after the games, unemployment rose again by 21,000, before falling again in 1995 (Brunet 2009).   The employer concords that have already been put in place for the construction work connected to 2012 should be extended to align volunteering opportunities during the games with meaningful post-games opportunities, for those who want them, to take part in mentoring programmes, internships and education and training.  This is an opportunity to upskill the entry levels of the tourism, events and leisure sectors in East London and to make sure that continuous improvements in tourism product quality can take place in the post-games period, helping to re-position East London as an innovative tourism brand.

Innovative tourism developments are going to be fundamental to avoid the serious over-capacity issues that have plagued Beijing and Athens in the post-games period.  Between 2005 and 2008, Beijing’s hotel sector grew by 227% and the number of available rooms rose from 6,452 to 37,360.  This over-supply has led to downward pressures on room rates and drops in confidence in the accommodation sector, accompanied by staff reductions and hotel closures.   In the same way that Barcelona is always used as an example of a ‘successful’ Games, Athens has become a by-word for redundant stadia and rotting facilities. 

Athen's Olympic Stadium: Hopefully West Ham FC will do a better job....

But innovation in tourism does not happen over-night. The Government’s new tourism policy should be seeking to support an innovation infrastructure for tourism right now.  This will mean encouraging partnerships between higher education, the private sector and social enterprise, with the public sector holding the ring.  Small pots of money to support entrepreneurial activity, knowledge transfer and product development should replace top-down destination management schemes and local authority controlled tourism networks.  Government can do this through designating tourism enterprise zones, with tax breaks and incentives to attract new businesses and to stimulate existing business to take on new staff and develop new products.  Moving Shoreditch’s Silicon roundabout to the Olympic Park won’t produce new forms of tourism that create opportunities for Olympic volunteers, or make full use of the excellent transport infrastructure that will connect East London to the tourism hotspots of the city.

 It is time to move tourism policy beyond a blind faith in the positive impacts of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games and to start concentrating on what come next.  Supporting innovation now will mean that the investment in trained and motivated volunteers won’t result in a de-motivated bulge in the local labour market post-2012.  Creating exciting new tourism experiences for a post-2012 tourism market can’t be done by decree, but a supportive innovation infrastructure could create an environment in which creative tourism entrepreneurs can flourish, creating the products that make use of the accommodation, transport and services that are being put in place for 2012.

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