Even when big events scare away a chunk of travelers, visitors' spending can more than make up for that loss. It's attracting visitors after the buzz of an event wears off that remains the challenge.
Almost a year after the London 2012 Olympics, newly released information on London visitor numbers and average spend reveals the Games’ economic impact.
It’s almost 12 months since the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games took place. The miles of bunting and vibrant pink branding are long gone. The city-wide volunteers, in their magenta shirts and straw trilby hats, have been absorbed back into the city and, away from Stratford at least, there is very little visually left to remind anyone that an event of such magnitude came and went in a matter of weeks. There were winners and losers on the field of play and winners and losers in the tourism industry. A year on, have the losers recouped their loses and did the forecasts come true?
Prior to the Olympics, London and Britain were anticipating a decrease in visitor numbers during Games time. This is caused by the phenomenon of ‘displacement’ where visitors stay away from a major event’s host city due to fears of disruption, expense and overcrowding.
Data reveals that this forecast was correct. Britain saw a 5 per cent year-on-year decrease in visitor numbers during August 2012. Regular tourists stayed away and were replaced by Olympic ticket-holding visitors, mainly from the UK, who spent most of their time at the Games venues watching Olympic and Paralympic action. However, these ‘Olympic-motivated visitors’ spent more and Britain saw a 9 per cent increase in overseas-visitor spending during this period.
During the first week of the Olympic Games, media around the world reported that London was a “ghost town” reflecting the absence of regular tourists in hot spots such as the West End and at popular tourist attractions. Locals were encouraged to stay off the transport system and dutifully did so. West End footfall plummeted and attractions experienced decreases of up to 50 per cent in visitor numbers.
Many attractions were badly hit during the Games, but spare a thought for those that became Olympic venues and had to close altogether. One such attraction, the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, had to close due to the venue being used for Olympic tennis. Obviously the attraction took a hit during the Games, but bounced back in September and in the first five months of this year is more than 7 per cent up on the same period in 2012.
Year on year, both Britain and London predicted flat growth for 2012, knowing that some international visitors would be deterred from visiting while domestic visitors, who made up about 90 per cent of ticket holders, would pour into the city at Games time. Data from the Office of National Statistics’ International Passenger Survey (IPS) marry with the prediction showing 31 million overseas visitors to Britain during that time, up just 1 per cent, but with domestic visits to London up 9.5 per cent. In total, domestic visitors spent 16 per cent more in 2012 than 2011.
But has Britain had its moment of glory and is it all downhill from here? Not so, says VisitBritain, who through its ‘GREAT’ campaign is continuing to promote Britain off the back of the hugely refreshed profile created by the Games. “We’re well known for our rich heritage and cultural offer, but now people around the world are more aware of things like our beautiful countryside, vibrant music scene, excellent shopping experience and the warmth of our welcome” said VisitBritain’s CEO Sandie Dawe. They predict an increase of 1million visitors this year. An optimistic prediction considering that most of Britain’s competitors are outspending VisitBritain in all of its key markets. By 2020, they hope Britain will welcome 40m visitors annually – a 3 per cent year-on-year rise.
London has plenty more to reveal. There are a host of “new” physical legacy projects that were created as a result of the Games. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park will host two events to mark the anniversary of the Games – Open East Festival and the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games – as well as the music festivals Hard Rock Calling and Wireless. Ride London, a new mass participation cycling event, The Orbit, cultural events and other sporting events such as the 2015 Rugby World Cup and World Athletics Championships in 2017 will continue to give visitors further reasons to visit the area.
TFL invested £6.5bn in upgrading the transport infrastructure and concentrated on ensuring ticket holders got to their venues. During the Games, the Tube carried over 101 million passengers – up by 28 per cent on normal levels – including the most ever carried on a single day, 4.52m. Post-Games, the Tube continues to run more reliably and transports more Londoners and visitors than at any time in its history.
The spotlight still seems to be shining on London and Britain, but I predict this window will start to shrink. Complacency can’t be allowed to creep in and budgets should be increased, not reduced. Ufi Ibrahim, Chief Executive of the British Hospitality Association said: “…Post 2012 the sector is fairing well, but our huge potential for growth is being hampered by Government neglect of the sector”. The spectacle of Brazil is also waiting in the wings. With the World Cup in 2014 and the OIympics in 2016, the world’s attention will soon head to the southern hemisphere.
Can Britain and London withstand the emergence of a new megastar when it comes to securing global attention? “It’s natural and inevitable that the spotlight switches” commented Mike Lee, chairman of Vero Communications, who was communications director for the London 2012 bid and who provided strategic advice to Rio 2016, “but it won’t be to the detriment of London, it won’t diminish the affection and pride people have for London.”
The nation’s shock absorbers may be tested to the limit, but, as ever, I think this tiny island’s international tourism economy will survive. It might not have a lot of sun, sand and samba, but that’s not its offer and never has been. As I was once reminded by an American visitor “it’s Britain – we always take an umbrella”.
Martine Ainsworth Wells was the marketing and communications director for London & Partners before and during the Games period. She is now the director of agency Ainsworth & Wells, which advises on and implements promotional activities and strategies for international and domestic destinations.
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Photo credit: The London Olympic Games' opening ceremony. Maykal / Flickr