Olympic challenge

25 Nov 2011 by BusinessTraveller
Transport may grind to a halt during the Games – but business must go on. Tom Otley reports on what travellers in the capital may face, and the help available. It’s fair to say that for those of us living or working in London, the prospect of the 2012 Olympics is a daunting one. Depending on who you talk to, or which newspaper you read, it is either going to be a wonderful festival lasting many weeks longer than the actual Games (both the Olympics and Paralympics), or is going to cause an infrastructure meltdown with weeks of traffic snarl-ups and road closures. The London 2012 Olympic Games will take place between July 27 and August 12, and the Paralympic Games between August 29 and September 9. It will be Britain’s largest peacetime logistical exercise, equivalent to 26 simultaneous world championships, with nine million spectators for the Olympics, 1.5 million spectators for the Paralympics – all walking, cycling or taking public transport – and almost 300,000 athletes and officials. As the Transport for London (TfL) website puts it: “For businesses, these events are a huge opportunity – and also a major challenge.” Others might simply yell, “Don’t panic,” while booking at least a fortnight’s holiday on the other side of the world. There’s no doubt that during the Games, the capital’s transport systems will be much busier than usual, especially during peak hours. Bodies such as the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and TfL have spent years planning, and one of the results of that is the extremely useful information on their websites – london2012.com and tfl.gov.ukwhich will be invaluable for businesses operating in London or people planning to visit, if only to pass through on the way to the airport. For all the talk of £1,000 parking fines, trunk roads downgraded to country lanes and 90-minute queues to board trains, there are also optimistic forecasts of how the rest of us will continue to operate, if not thrive, during this period. For those people who live and work in London, the experience of the capital’s overstrained transport infrastructure leads to few doubts that the extra strain will cause problems, but TfL points out that a £6.5 billion investment in capacity enhancements has been made with all major projects now complete, in operation and delivering an early “legacy”. Highlights include the Jubilee line signalling upgrade – new carriages will add 33 per cent more capacity by the time the Games begin – the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) three-car operation adding 50 per cent capacity, the DLR extension from Canning Town to Stratford International, and the London Overground upgrade from Richmond to Stratford. Then there are King’s Cross St Pancras and Stratford Regional tube stations, which have been effectively rebuilt and expanded. Nevertheless, it’s clear that there are going to be crunch points on certain days, and what businesses and corporate travellers are being promised is specific information over the next few months to help them with planning. Clare Springett, head of travel demand management at TfL, says: “There will be different days at different times and in different locations that will be busier than usual. For instance, the road events will take place in south-west London and Surrey over the first weekend of the Games, so that will have an effect on those areas, whereas on the first Friday of the Games, the swimming events are finishing and the athletic events are commencing at the Olympic Park in Stratford. At the end of November we will [have published] some quite granular detail about that for businesses so they can make plans for a particular day, and that will be available through the TfL and London 2012 websites.” So far, so good – but what about the roads? As everyone has heard by now, the Olympic Route Network (ORN) means certain roads will be as good as closed, supposedly so officials can travel effortlessly around the capital while the rest of us are forced to walk. Transport for London points out that every host city since Sydney 2000 has had Olympic and Paralympic Route Networks to transport athletes, officials and media efficiently and safely. It also aims to puncture what it terms “myths” such as “the ORN will be full of VIPs travelling in limousines” by saying: “Any vehicle can use the vast majority of the ORN. In London it covers 175km, or just 1 per cent of the road network – and only one-third of that is ‘Games Lanes’ for Games traffic only. Games Lanes are only implemented where more than one lane is available. Most users will be media, athletes, officials and workers, and only after that, sponsors and IOC members; 80 per cent of Games family travel will be in buses and coaches.” Springett says: “The ORN will always be available to general traffic. There will be road closures on some days, but that’s for events such as the marathon.” What about roadworks? Springett says the Clearway programme is endeavouring to make sure there are none planned during the Games, although emergency works would still take place. As for the Olympics Route Network, she says it is “a designated, not dedicated, network”. Springett adds that she and other planners have learned from previous events. “We’ve had people over from Sydney, Beijing and Vancouver to give us advice. We have [conducted] research, particularly in Vancouver, to find out how business coped and how people travelled during the Games.” (See panel, facing page.) In the meantime, there is a lot of advice already out there. David Pitty, head of client business management in the UK and Europe for Wings Travel Management, says: “It’s clear there is going to be a major impact on public transport. Our clients make extensive use of the infrastructure when in London, and the numbers – three million extra travellers on the busiest days, lane closures, and so on – have frightened people. “It makes sense if you don’t need to be in town to make alternative arrangements, and our advice is that London meetings can be rescheduled or done via video-conferencing.” For clients of travel specialists such as Wings, there are advantages such as alerts being sent out via SMS. “The systems allow us to pull out on a daily basis where our people are and send specific people to give them advice and tell them to plan alternative routes to the airports or to London,” Pitty says. If you are thinking of staying in the capital over the period, there are options, although they will be more expensive than normal. LOCOG has taken some 40,000 of London’s 120,000 room stock, so will it be impossible to get a room? Michael Wale is Starwood’s senior vice-president for Northern Europe, responsible for hotels as diverse as the new Aloft at London’s Excel, the W London Leicester Square, the Sheraton Park Lane and Le Méridien Piccadilly. He points out that the six-week period of the Olympics is during a traditionally quieter time for London, when business travel tails off, and will follow on from Wimbledon and the Farnborough Air Show. “We’re pricing at the same level as if it was Farnborough, so it’s a high demand period, but if the demand doesn’t materialise, we will lower prices,” he says. One hotel – Aloft – is within the Olympic security zone and has been contracted for all six weeks, but of the others, some 60 per cent of the inventory has been allocated to LOCOG and the rest is available, Wale reports. Pitty says many corporate clients have secured accommodation during this period at reasonable rates, although it often depended on the relationship between the company and the hotel supplier. “For our clients who did their contracting [of hotel rooms] last year for 2012, there have been mixed responses from hoteliers,” he says. “Good client relationships tend to be better accommodated.” Wale reveals there have been examples of £200 rooms going for £1,000, but warns: “If you look back at the experiences of previous large events, there was quite a lot of late room availability.” What about if you want to use the hotels for a meeting or event? Transport aside, Wale says all of the Starwood hotels – bar the Aloft – have meeting room availability, particularly since this would normally be a quiet time for corporate travel. What’s a constant from all those involved in transport and hospitality is a determination that the Games will be a success, for businesses and for London as a whole. TfL’s Springett says: “In general, you get a positive reaction to the Games. Businesses are concerned about being able to continue their operations, so we want to provide them with the information to plan. Commuters understand the issues associated with the Games and are looking at what they are going to do. “The Games are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – London will be alive and buzzing in a way it’s never been before, and people are looking forward to the party atmosphere.”

Advice from TfL

Different solutions will be appropriate for different organisations and their customers and visitors. You may want to consider:
  • Changing hours of operation to allow customers to access your premises at less busy times
  • Bringing forward appointments to avoid busy times
  • Offering alternatives to face-to-face visits (such as online or telephone) or offer alternative locations
  • Making customers and visitors aware of the transport challenges they may face and communicating any changes to your operations to customers.

london2012.com’s frequently asked questions

Will visitors stay away? “It is far more likely more people will want to visit the UK as it is close to the European mainland and North America. Beijing and Sydney were long-haul flights for many visitors, but for many neighbouring countries, London is not far to travel. The interest in ticket purchases confirms this.”
  • Since the Games are taking place during the summer, won’t London be quiet with so many residents on holiday?
“There are still 3.4 million users on rail and London Underground services, and 5.8 million bus users each day in August. With an extra 855,000 people making Games-related trips on the busiest days, any additional capacity will be taken up. Added to this, the number of cultural events taking place each day and the Paralympic Games, which occur after the holiday season is over, will make significant contributions to travel demand.”    
  • The big spectator events such as the athletics finals will be in the evening anyway, so won’t they have limited impact on businesses?
        “In London, the competition schedule is a mixture of morning, afternoon and evening sessions at venues across the capital. Whether heats or finals, it is expected that venues will be near, or at full, capacity. In addition, there will be instances when events at different venues coincide and those travelling to and from these locations will have a cumulative impact on the transport system. At events outside London, all businesses are advised to check the time of the competitions and details of any cultural events taking place.”
  • What experiences have previous host cities had with reducing travel?
“In 2000, Sydney provided one-to-one advice to businesses. As a result, 27 per cent of the city’s residents took annual leave, 24 per cent changed the number of hours they worked, and 22 per cent worked remotely during the Games. In 2010, Vancouver aimed to reduce car journeys in key areas by 30 per cent and provided advice to businesses. The target was exceeded with an average 35 per cent reduction during morning peak time.”
  • What help and information is available to businesses?
London 2012 is hosting free workshops to help businesses develop a strategy for during the Games. Companies can email [email protected] to sign up. For SMEs, there are workshops on various dates from December 6-16. Visit london2012.com/get-involved/business-network/travel-advice-for-business
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