Olympic ‘halo’ set to get tills ringing

The success of the London 2012 Olympics is a springboard for the UK’s business events industry, writes Virginia Matthews

Changed perceptions abroad, significant improvements among people at home, new iconic places for foreign visitors and a healthy pipeline of prestigious bookings.

No wonder the UK events industry is talking excitedly about the “four Ps” – perceptions, people, places and pipeline – as the Olympic “bounce” is felt on the country’s £36.1-billion event tourism sector.

In many ways, the Games-inspired uplift to Britain’s reputation as a flagship destination began seven years ago, when news of London’s successful bid attracted an onslaught of global attention.

Yet in the view of Tracy Halliwell, director of business tourism and major events at London & Partners, who are the official promotional organisation for the capital, the true “halo” effect of London being seen, and admired, by a global TV audience of 4.7 billion people is still to come.

“London has always been viewed as a great destination because of our unique historic legacy, but it is also seen by organisers as a complicated city to move around, particularly when an event involves many different venues,” she says.

“By hosting such an incredibly smooth Games, we have shown the rest of the world that the UK has the creativity, skill and infrastructure to be a superb host to anything from sports and health conferences to major, city-wide congresses, and our confidence is at an all-time high.”

With the organisation Britain for Events estimating that some 20 per cent of the post-Olympics springboard will come from additional business visits expenditure – likely to be worth as much as £433 million – the spotlight is inevitably turning to the sound of ringing cash-tills.

London’s successful handling of what ranks as the biggest extravaganza on Earth has already attracted an impressive list of blue-chip sporting events

To Ms Halliwell though, the polishing up of London’s image, seen by some as a worthy but rather passé events destination, is far more critical in the long term.

“The vague feeling that London has already ‘been done’ has been replaced by the belief that its mix of friendly people, upgraded transport and talented events staging industry makes it the ideal location for a fantastic show. All that and more has been achieved by London 2012,” she says.

A good example of how a single well-managed event can transform a country’s standing comes from South Africa, where the successful hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup has been vital in breathing new life into its burgeoning international meetings market.

Of the 310,000 foreign tourists, who arrived in South Africa specifically for the football, some 59 per cent were first-time visitors. Yet crucially, 72 per cent rated their experience as extremely good and more than 90 per cent said their experience of the country “was better than they had expected”.

Since the World Cup, the country has successfully bid for a number of prestigious events, such as this year’s International Small Business Congress, and the World Congress of Paediatric and Cardiac Surgery next year, while foreign tourism for the year to May 2012 is up by 18 per cent overall.

Thulani Nzima, chief executive of South African Tourism, says: “Big event and business event hosting is becoming an increasingly important and valuable component of the overall arrivals mix to South Africa.

“Growth may be attributed to numerous factors, but chief among these is elevated awareness of the destination’s capability around big event hosting, driven largely by the unfettered success of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.”

While London’s successful handling of what ranks as the biggest extravaganza on Earth has already attracted an impressive list of blue-chip sporting events – the 2013 Ride London event, 2015 European Hockey Championships, 2015 Canoe Slalom World Championships and 2017 IAAF Athletics meeting, for example – sport  is not the only beneficiary.

The five-day EASL conference, being staged by one of Europe’s leading medical research associations at the ExCel Exhibition Centre in 2014, may not have the high profile of the Olympics. But the £25-million revenue, expected to be generated by the 10,000 doctors and medical professionals who will attend, makes it precisely the sort of prize that the UK is keen to claim.

“We currently have a pipeline of some 13 to 15 events that we are either in the process of bidding for or have already had confirmed, and they include big trade meetings and cultural events as well as sporting fixtures,” says Ms Halliwell. “It’s our job now to make sure the legacy of London 2012 isn’t squandered.”