M+IT travelled to the London 2012 Games to talk to Olympic-based incentive planners in the trenches and bring back some key takeaways for planners here at home.
By Christine Otsuka
It’s not every day you’re invited to an Olympic-based incentive program. It’s an invitation that’s hard to turn down. But some do. And rather than mark it down as a “will not attend” and move on to Plan B, the guest managers at Sportsworld (the U.K.’s leading sports hospitality management company) call. They ask questions. They try to understand why the guest said no—was it the time of year, their schedule, prior commitments, simply uninterested, not supported corporately?—whatever the case may be, and they use this information to improve the chances of that guest attending in the future. They also see it as a brand experience opportunity. And they don’t waste a single opportunity.
London 2012 is Sportsworld’s 15th Olympic Games and one of their largest hospitality programs yet. They provide ticketing, guest accommodation, transportation, food and beverage and a whole host of services for 12 corporate hospitality programs, as well as National Olympic Committee supporter partner programs. The latter provides these same services for athletes, their families and friends. When you count up all the delegates, including those who purchased tickets domestically, this year, Sportsworld saw 35,000 people over 17 days.
So when I caught up with Sportsworld chief executive Chad Lion-Cachet and Michelle Kelly, a former Torontonian running one of the corporate hospitality programs, I was blown away by their calm demeanour. Having arrived in London just two days prior, with my suitcase back in Toronto, remarkably, I think I was more stressed than either of them. We chatted about planning Olympic-based programs and some of the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
LESSON 1: PLAN EARLY, BUT BE FLEXIBLE
>> OLYMPIC SCENARIO: Planning begins years before a program takes place, in part, because of the Olympic schedule. For instance, ticket orders for any of the official Olympic events—think Opening Ceremonies, races, basketball games, etc.—are due 19 months prior to the Games. However, that early in the process, Olympic venues have yet to be built, hotels have yet to be selected, guests have been invited, but your guest makeup is likely to change. So how do you move forward with ticket orders and hotel selections? “You look at the guest makeup at the time and take a best guess,” says Kelly. It doesn’t always turn out as planned. In her case, she opted to forgo securing tickets for handball, a sport Dutch athletes typically excel at, based on an early breakdown of the guest makeup that showed very few participants from Holland. “Fast-forward a year and do we ever need handball tickets,” she says with a laugh, adding that’s when strong relationships with organizers come in handy.
Similarly, when the time came for Kelly to pick a location for her program, she chose the West End because she wanted to be close to Heathrow Airport (as opposed to the Olympic Park, in the East End). At hotel selection time, there was a lot of turnaround in her program, as opposed to long static waves, and the West End seemed like her best choice to ensure quick, smooth transfers. “Fast-forward a year and now we have longer waves with less turnaround,” says Kelly, who never lets these kinds of things deter her, because “it’s par for the course…. You do what you can with the information you have now, and fill in the rest as you go.”
>> UNIVERSAL LESSON: Flexibility is a necessity, and those that excel learn the art of “change management.” Learn to roll with the punches and give in to the idea that you won’t know every detail at decision-making time.
LESSON 2: MANAGE EXPECTATIONS OF VIP CLIENTS
>> OLYMPIC SCENARIO: The London 2012 Games drew 100,000 foreign visitors to the city, on top of the 8-million people who reside there, which can only mean one thing—crammed subways, streets and sidewalks. The city did much to ease the congestion, dedicating specific lanes to Olympic vehicles. However, door-to-door service wasn’t always an option, even for VIPs, because the Games has its own regulatory environment and security checkpoints. “We can’t manage an Olympic venue. There’s zero we can do to help them there, except educate them on what they will be up against,” says Kelly. “For instance, when you get to the park, you’ll clear security, and then you’ll have a 35-minute walk to the basketball arena. But what we can manage is their experience back at the hotel.”
So what about those guests who are used to getting the royal treatment? “Guests, by and large, accept that I can’t get a helicopter to the Olympic Park for you unless you’re the Queen and you’re dropping into the Opening Ceremony,” says Lion-Cachet. “The reality is, that’s not possible. Have we had those requests? Yes. And that’s part of it. It involves education both ways.”
>> UNIVERSAL LESSON: Sometimes, no matter what you do, there are pieces of the guest experience you can’t control. Make sure to educate VIPs on what to expect, and go above and beyond with the pieces you can control.
>> OLYMPIC SCENARIO: During the London 2012 Games, the coach depot received a bomb threat 60 minutes before 22 coaches were set to depart to pick up guests for their daily program. Vehicles were halted, back-up plans were soon to be initiated, but luckily it was a false alarm, and everything went off without a hitch. Guests were none the wiser.
With events of any size, you can almost guarantee that something will go wrong. There will be that car that doesn’t show up, the driver that’s late, the guest that RSVPs for himself but brings his family, unbeknownst to organizers. “If you’ve planned for it, then you can handle it,” says Lion-Cachet. “We take staff training very seriously. We do a full week of training before guests even arrive—a full seven days—and we’re running scenarios from how to handle irate guests, to HR and finance, ensuring we get everyone’s heads around what they’re going to be up against over the next 17 days.”
They do their best to ensure every member of their team feels comfortable with every situation they can think of, so when they push them out in front of their guests, they’re prepared. “It’s all very calm and relaxed until they get back-of-house and shut the door,” says Lion-Cachet with a laugh.
>> UNIVERSAL LESSON: Taken straight from the Boy Scouts handbook, “Be prepared.” There will always be a problem, but whether it’s a catastrophe or a minor glitch, it is largely in the hands of your team. Give them the tools they need to handle any situation and trust that they will make the right decisions. Oh, and soundproof your war room.
LESSON 4: COMMUNICATE IN REAL TIME
>> OLYMPIC SCENARIO: Sportsworld and their technology partner Exposoft Solutions launched a mobile app across all of Sportsworld’s programs at the 2012 Olympic Games. The app was designed to give full access to the event-management system from anywhere, so if a senior manager had to leave their desk for any reason, they could take an iPad with them and have access to all the guest services, reporting and business elements. Since all data were kept on the cloud, reports could be accessed in real time. “What that means is, I don’t need to pick up the phone and call you to say, ‘this person has arrived, or they need to change their T-shirt size from medium to large,’” says Bassel Annab, president of Exposoft Solutions, who has partnered with Sportsworld for the past six years. “You can simply put it into the system and the person responsible for that particular area just pulls up the real-time report.”
In addition, each coach host was given an iPad with a full itinerary and guest information. So for each individual guest, the coach could select their name, pull up their image and greet them personally as they were getting on and off the bus. “It’s about creating that one-to-one experience and looking for ways where we can leverage technology to do that,” says Annab.
>> UNIVERSAL LESSON: Put down the printed reports, and start operating in real-time. Work off the cloud, where possible, to ensure you’re always working with the most accurate data, and don’t make employee buy-in an option. The system works best when everyone’s on board.
LESSON 5: MAKE BETTER USE OF THE BADGE
>> OLYMPIC SCENARIO: Sportsworld’s Olympic programs ranged in size and scope from one-day to five-day programs. To ensure the safety of their guests, this year, Sportsworld and Exposoft used radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology on some of their longer, more complex programs. Each guest was given a badge with a special code. As the guest entered a venue, a Sportsworld staff member scanned their badge with a short-range distance scanner, and the information was transmitted through WiFi to the EMS system, so all guest-service managers could see when the guest had arrived. Headcounts were generated automatically, and tied to the tablet app, so if a guest wasn’t accounted for, it was flagged, and the coach host could see the missing person’s photo and information, which helped them locate guests faster.
>> UNIVERSAL LESSON: Are there pieces of your program that could do double-duty? Tracking features on name badges aren’t necessary for all programs, but finding ways to incorporate added elements into existing features makes good planning sense, so long as the operational value is there.
>> OLYMPIC SCENARIO: Lion-Cachet makes it known that he’s pretty hands-off when it comes to building the team. The company keeps a core staff of about 40 people and swells to around 400 at the time of the Games. The bulk of that extra staff is brought on during the two months leading up to the Opening Ceremony and is selected from a database of Sportsworld-trained, experienced event professionals. Each program is run by its own manager—like Michelle Kelly—who hand picks her team primarily from the database, often incorporating some fresh blood into the mix, to add perspective and in some cases, native language skills. That was the case in Beijing, where Sportsworld had to double-up. “For almost every person we had, or every two or three roles, we had a Chinese speaker,” says Lion-Cachet. They also ran lessons in Beijing for any of the staff that wanted to learn the language. Even now, they have team members who are taking Portuguese lessons for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janiero. Lion-Cachet says he believes that providing his account managers with autonomy to choose their own food and beverage managers, accommodations managers and the like, is key to their success. “So much is about trust, and you need to be able to trust your soldiers in the field,” he says.
>> UNIVERSAL LESSON: Give autonomy to those running each program. Trust is essential for smooth operations. Micromanaging won’t help in programs this large. Keep good people in your database and call on them again and again. Use multi-year contracts and don’t waste time re-training.
Michelle Kelly graduated from the Public Relations program at Humber College, in Toronto, and thought maybe she’d be a journalist or work in PR, but she connected with a friend in school who was a lollipop girl for Formula 1, and wanted to get involved in some way. She started out as an event coordinator and worked her way up to managing hospitality programs across the globe. Four years ago, she left Formula 1 to join Sportsworld—she was hired to work on the Eros in Switzerland and Austria—and hasn’t left. Now, she plans large incentive programs all over the world. In the words of her boss, Chad Lion-Cachet, “she’s a rising superstar on the international stage.”
Games-time by the Numbers
- 20-million spectator journeys made in London, 3-million on the busiest day
- 800,000 ticketed spectators used public transport on the busiest day
- 600,000 pieces of luggage were handled during the Games at Heathrow Airport, 203,000 on the busiest day (Aug. 13)—35 per cent more than on a normal day
- 14-million meals served at the Games; Olympic
- Village served 45,000 meals a day
- 1-million sq. ft. of warehouse space for logistics
- 15,000 deliveries by 300-truck fleet
What I learned about events from attending the London 2012 Olympic Games
Colour Matters: The Games had an entire colour palette that was repeated on logos and merchandise, but electric pink was used repeatedly for signage. And boy, was there a lot of it. Neon pink was easily identifiable and helped to ensure no one got lost in, around or travelling to a venue.
Hire for Attitude: The volunteers MADE this event. They were upbeat, friendly, helpful and EVERYWHERE! You couldn’t pull out a map anywhere in the city without someone offering to help. And en route through security to enter an Olympic venue, they did all that they could to make you laugh, smile, sing, dance or simply get to where you were going just a little bit faster.
Lead by Example: After a light lunch it was difficult to find a “trash” bin. Why? All of the food/drinks packaging was biodegradable. As organizers, taking the first step to mandate all 800 concessions stands abide by this rule has a trickle-down effect to attendees that we witnessed firsthand. As a result, the grounds were cleaner and for the first time, zero waste from this area was delivered to the landfill.
Sportsworld Olympic Programs by the Numbers
+ 35,000 guests
+ 20 programs
+ 12 corporate hospitality programs
+ 98,000 event tickets including
52,000 food and beverage tickets
+ 600 packages
+ 10,000 reservations and
Source: Exposoft Solutions