By Clare Ogilvie
A just-released government report is raising concerns over just how many tourism dollars can be garnered by B.C. in hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Previously the government had stated that it expected the event to bring in at least $4 billion in economic benefits. Recently the estimate has been upped to $10 billion by non-governmental organizations.
But in a report released last week Acting Auditor General Arn van Iersel states the benefits may be less.
“We notice, however, that the marketing effort to date has been delayed and uncoordinated, with no central agency taking the lead,” stated van Iersel.
“Also, given the (International Olympic Committee’s) restriction around the timing of marketing the Games, the Province’s main Games-related marketing efforts cannot begin until after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, six years later than the start date proposed in the economic impact study.”
Colin Hansen, Minister of Economic development and the minister responsible for the Games, while welcoming the AG’s warning, disputes some of the findings of the report.
He takes issue with the idea that the marketing effort is not coordinated and should be in the hands of Tourism B.C.
“The coordination is being driven by the (Province’s) Olympic Secretariat,” said Hansen.
“Obviously marketing tourism is a big part of this, but that is not all of it. We see the Olympics as an opportunity to market investment attraction, business attraction, immigration, temporary worker programs and tourism. We are already working closely with Tourism B.C. and they have lots of initiatives under way, but that is only one part of what it is to market the province.”
Hansen admits more work needs to be done in fine-tuning the role and work of the Secretariat.
But, he added: “Three and a half years out from the Games I believe they are well on track to deliver what needs to be delivered. We still have lots of work ahead of us to capitalize on this.”
When questioned about why the province’s economic impact study used a model that did not take into account the fact that international marketing could not begin until after 2008 Hansen said at the time the study was produced host nations were allowed to market overseas.
“…The IOC has been changing the rules as we have been progressing,” said Hansen.
“I think the fact that we can’t use the Olympics rings in our international marketing until after 2008… makes it more of a challenge, but what we are trying to do is find innovative ways of doing that which still capitalizes on the fact that we are an Olympic jurisdiction without violating the IOC rules.”
He pointed to the log B.C. Canada Place House in Torino during the 2006 Games as an example. Over 100,000 people came through it and it became one of the most popular destinations for Games visitors.
“When you went into that pavilion in Torino there were no Olympic rings in there, no Olympic logos and yet we still accomplished what we needed to accomplish,” said Hansen.
“We tracked the international media coverage that we got out of that and what we were able to track quantifies out to about $30 million.”
Plans are under way now to construct a similar venue at the Beijing Games, considered one of the main marketing events to be undertaken in the next two years.
It has been frustrating for the province to be unable to use the Olympic marks generally thanks to rules which govern how sponsors can use logos. The province, despite funding the Games and guaranteeing any cost overruns, is not considered a sponsor.
But, said Hansen, VANOC and the government are close to reaching an agreement on the issue.
Tourism Whistler President Barrett Fisher agrees that marketing within the IOC guidelines can be challenging but she believes the message is getting out there.
“We have, ever since we won the bid, seen an exponential growth in our international media exposure,” said Fisher.
Tourism Whistler has used Olympic related events, such as anniversaries, and Celebration 2010 events, to host media and event planners and others in the resort to get Whistler’s message out there.
She pointed to an article in a UK publication that shamelessly admitted they were writing about Whistler again because it was now an Olympic host resort.
“There is a natural correlation between greater awareness on the world wide stage, which creates greater interest in coming, which in turn creates more visitation, so I think there is absolutely a direct correlation,” said Fisher.
More visits, of course, mean more tourist dollars flowing into B.C.
Fisher said Tourism Whistler took advantage of B.C. Canada Place House during the 2006 Torino Games and plans to have a strong presence in Beijing in 2008.
It is also actively hosting media, planners and others to keep Whistler in the spotlight.
“It is all about awareness, trial, and repeat (visitation),” said Fisher.
“That is the formula…. (The Games are) helping build the awareness piece, it is our job to push the trial piece and when we give them wonderful service and an amazing experience that is the piece of the equation which turns them into repeat visitors.”
The AG’s report made headlines last week, even sparking a call for the firing of VANOC CEO John Furlong, after it stated that the Games would cost taxpayers $2.5 billion, suggested the possibility of more construction delays, more cost escalation, and criticized a decision not to hedge U.S. dollar revenues for the Games. That decision may have cost taxpayers $150 million US thanks to the greenback’s fall against the Canadian dollar.
Part of the increase in the Games’ cost comes form the AG’s decision to include the cost of upgrades to the Sea To Sky Highway and other roads in the accounting, as well as the budget of the province’s Olympic Secretariat, the Live Sites program, Own the Podium and several other factors.
Furlong admits he found this discouraging.
“One of the frustrations for us is that quite a lot of stuff gets grouped in with what we are doing and really our job is to communicate what we are responsible for,” he said.
“We have absolutely no problem being held accountable for the work that we are doing, we welcome it, we want people to know what we are doing.
“My job is to deliver the Games and to be focused absolutely on two key things, one is to build these venues for the budget that we have… (and) the second thing is to manage the operations of the Games and that is to basically make the preparations to stage the Games. These are the only things that VANOC has in its mandate.”
Both the federal and provincial governments have expressed confidence in Furlong and the VANOC team.
A Mustel Group poll this week found that most British Columbians (78 per cent) expect the Games to go over budget, but many (55 per cent) would rather see the government spend more money to cover escalating costs instead of cutting back on venues.