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April 18 was a landmark day for London. The English capital marked the 100-day countdown to the 2012 Olympic Games in celebratory — albeit rain-affected — style. The centerpiece unveiling was an Olympic Rings flower installation at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The 164-foot-long rings comprise 20,000 plants and are visible from the Heathrow flight path.
On the same day, the 2012 Games were promoted in New York’s Times Square, where the Road to London Celebration featured 70 Team USA athletes.
“One hundred days out is ‘go time.’ You start realizing the enormity of the Olympic Games,” said gold-medal-winning former gymnast Shannon Miller.
London is embracing the enormity of what VisitBritain describes as “the largest spectacle on earth.” Olympic-themed ads are posted citywide, and buses, trains and taxis sport colorful London 2012 banners. Premier tourism attractions, such as the Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, the British Museum and Harrods of Knightsbridge, are preparing for a summer bonanza.
Britain’s destination marketing efforts are ramping up as well.
“We have launched the Great Britain campaign, which will be seen across 14 major cities — including Los Angeles and New York — in nine key inbound markets by an audience of 90 million people,” said Kathleen O’Connell of VisitBritain in New York. “This $41 million campaign will add to the $162 million match-funded tactical campaign already under way. The campaigns will deliver a marketing push on a magnitude never seen before in VisitBritain’s history. The aim is to drive 4.6 million visitors to the U.K. over the next four years.”
VisitBritain has also launched the BritAgent travel agent training program, featuring a designated module on what clients can see and do in Britain during 2012.
Location, Location, LocationThe Olympic Games take place from July 27 to Aug. 12. The marquee venue is Olympic Park — featuring the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, home to the opening and closing ceremonies and athletics events; the Velodrome; and the wave-like Aquatics Center, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid, which occupies a redeveloped industrial site in Stratford, East London.
In the center of the Olympic Park is the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a 375-foot-tall red tower designed by Anish Kapoor, which will be illuminated by a nightly light show. Sustainability is also a key theme. A riverside London 2012 garden stretches for half a mile between the Aquatics Center and Olympic Stadium, featuring plants from across the world, arranged by temperate regions.
“Excellent transport links will make it easy for visitors staying in central London to get to the venues,” said Kathleen O’Connell of VisitBritain. “A new high-speed rail service, called the Javelin, will run from St. Pancras International Station to Stratford International in just seven minutes.”
An estimated 80 percent of visitors to Olympic Park will arrive by subway. Stratford Regional Station — one of three gateway stations, along with Stratford International and West Ham — usually transports around 37,000 people daily, but could facilitate 120,000 people each day during the Games. Ten different rail routes serve Stratford Regional Station, making it London’s most connected station after King’s Cross St. Pancras.
Sporting events will also take place across London. The historic Horse Guards Parade will host beach volleyball, tennis will be at Wimbledon and Lord’s Cricket Ground will host archery. Road cycling time trials will take place in Hampton Court Palace.
Spectators with an Olympic event or ceremony ticket in London will receive a one-day Games Travelcard for that day. In addition, the Greenwich Park, North Greenwich Arena, the Royal Artillery Barracks, Horse Guards Parade and Eton Dorney venues will be accessible by a special river bus service.
Beyond London, several other places will host Olympic events as well. Rowing and canoe will take place at Eton College and the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Center on the south coast will be home to sailing. In addition to world-famous Wembley Stadium in London, the soccer tournament will take place in five regional locations: Millennium Stadium (Cardiff), St. James Park (Newcastle), City of Coventry Stadium, Old Trafford (Manchester) and Hampden Park (Glasgow).
Wherever clients are headed to watch sports, the London 2012 Organizing Committee (LOCOG) advises arriving early, as “airport-style security screening” will be deployed at all Olympic venues.
AccommodationsClients traveling to the U.K. this summer will need to carefully research accommodations as London is a high-rate, high-occupancy city. Data released in April by PKF Hotel Consulting revealed London’s average daily room rate in March 2012 — usually a quiet tourism month — was $213, with occupancy at just under 80 percent.
“The London hotel sector is shaping up for a strong year and is ideally positioned to benefit from what could become a golden summer,” said Robert Barnard, partner for PKF Hotel Consultancy Services in London. “There is a lot of new hotel supply in the market, but London hoteliers don’t need the Olympics to be full. If you exclude Friday and Sunday nights and the low-season months of January and February, London is about 99 percent full every night of the year.”
London’s 40,000 most exclusive hotel rooms were reserved by organizers to accommodate Olympic dignitaries, but in January 8,000 rooms were back on public sale. Rumors abound that more “reserved” rooms may also become available before July.
“We have a limited number of rooms still available to book at selected hotels through the period of the Olympic Games,” said Parveen Johal, a spokesperson for Hilton Worldwide, which has more than 30 hotels across London. “Examples of London room rates during the Olympics include Hilton London Metropole from $370 per night and Hilton London Kensington from $451 per night.”
For cost-conscious clients, alternative options are worth considering.
“Many of London’s new hotel developments are at the three-star level, making London more affordable,” said Kathleen O’Connell. “Halls of residence and other student accommodations will provide an additional 30,000 beds for visitors on a budget.”
Clients can also choose to stay in Britain’s other great cities that are less than an hour from London.
“Places such as Brighton, Cambridge and Oxford are great choices,” said O’Connell.
“We are very busy for the opening weekend but have good availability for the reminder of the two weeks,” said a spokesperson for Exclusive Hotels, which has a portfolio of heritage hotels countrywide. “The booking pattern is following the trend of being very last minute.”
Exclusive Hotels also expects a post-Olympic push, particularly for the last two weeks of August, and a trickle of bookings up to a year after the event.
TicketsLike most global sporting events, ticketing procedures have attracted criticism, both in the U.K. and overseas. Strong demand on the first day of ticket sales last year caused the official website to crash. The sale of remaining unallocated tickets and the official resale market for returned tickets are scheduled for this month, although the date is unconfirmed as of press time.
Officially, 75 percent of the 8.8 million Olympic tickets were designated for sale in Britain, with 12.5 percent allocated through national Olympic associations and their chosen resellers. For U.S. citizens, the authorized ticket agent is CoSport, located in Far Hills, N.J.
“There may be small amounts of tickets available at box offices in the run up to the Games, but the best chance for U.S. citizens is to go through CoSport,” said Adrian Bassett, spokesman for LOCOG.
General admission tickets for Olympic Park will also be available, enabling access to watch live events on large screens, without entrance to the stadiums. This approach has proved popular with fans at the annual Wimbledon tennis championships.
London 2012 Festivals“Whether a visitor is coming for the Games or not, there are plenty of ways to be part of the Games — even without a ticket,” said O’Connell. “A large number of cultural offerings will be available, with music, arts and performance. Visitors can also attend a non-ticketed event, such as the Olympic marathon at Hyde Park, cycling at Hampton Court Palace or sailing at Weymouth and Portland.”
One of this summer’s top cultural attractions will be the London 2012 Festival. Coinciding with the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be 94 art, theater and music events ranging from a Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum to a free music festival featuring acts such as Jay-Z, Rihanna, Florence + the Machine, Jack White and Plan B.
London Live 2012 also promises high-profile stars. The U.K.’s biggest free summer celebration will take place July 27 to Aug. 12 at Hyde Park, Victoria Park and Trafalgar Square. Large screens and “concert-quality sound systems” are promised for broadcasting sports events, plus live music, outdoor arts and opportunities to try Olympic sports. Two Celebration Concerts in Hyde Park will coincide with the Opening and Closing ceremonies.
Arrivals and DeparturesA key message for clients is to avoid arriving in or departing the U.K. on the busiest pre- and post-Olympic dates. A recent House of Commons report questioned the ability of Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, to cope with unusually high passenger flows this summer. A huge influx of arrivals on key dates could lead to long immigration lines forcing planes to sit on runways, block gates or circle for extended periods before landing, the report commented.
Heathrow handles a daily average of 190,000 passengers. In March 2012, it saw 5.7 million passengers, for a total of 70 million passengers over a 12-month period for the first time. Some 80 percent of Olympic-related arrivals are expected to use Heathrow, with Monday Aug. 13 — the day after the closing ceremony — predicted to be its busiest day ever, beating the record of 233,561 passengers on July 31, 2011.
In addition to airport congestion, travelers must pay the U.K.’s new Air Passenger Duty, which came into effect on April 1. The 8 percent tax rise on flight tickets will be followed by further increases before 2016.
Perhaps a small, if annoying, price to pay for what may very well may be the largest spectacle on earth.
Olympic Games website:www.london2012.com
Olympic Tickets (from the U.S.):
Olympic Travel Advisory:www.getaheadofthegames.com