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Perfect partners: How London is bidding to retain its reputation as a world-class host

Since the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the British capital has welcomed an array of major sporting competitions and built out a packed annual event calendar. London & Partners’ Georgina Warren, reveals the city's plans for the future.

by Sam Carp
Perfect partners: How London is bidding to retain its reputation as a world-class host

Of all the iconic images to emerge from the British sporting summer of 2012, perhaps the most enduring was that of Mo Farah bursting across the finish line to secure his second gold medal of the Olympic Games. Arms outstretched and eyes wide with disbelief, the then 29-year-old had become a symbol of the warm feel-good factor that had been sweeping across the host nation for several weeks.

Beneath the surface, though, Farah had also come to embody the diversity of a city. Born in Somalia before moving to Britain aged eight, his journey was one that resonated with many of London’s eight million plus inhabitants – and indeed several other members of Team GB. As it happened, according to research carried out by think tank British Future, more than a third of Britain’s Olympic medal winners in 2012 were born abroad, or had a foreign parent or grandparent.

And for all the packed-out stadiums, well-oiled infrastructure and commercial backing that London can boast, those involved in staging major events in the city say that it is its diversity – from both a human and experiential perspective - that makes the British capital such a unique host.

Mo Farah's second gold medal win gave birth to one of the iconic London 2012 images

“Like lots of other cities we talk about our connectivity, we talk about our experience, our scale and our vision, but for me I think it’s our culture and diversity that really sets us apart,” asserts Georgina Warren, head of city events and experience at London & Partners, the Mayor of London’s official promotional company.

“I do think that every visitor and athlete becomes a Londoner while they’re in London. There’s the benefit – given our diversity – of always having home from home crowds in this city. We’ve got 233 languages spoken in the city and that reflects how diverse our communities are, so I think that feeling of home away from home is something quite unique to London.

“Then we’ve got an amazingly diverse offering outside of the sporting arena that make it a hugely exciting destination as a host, whether you’re the rights owner, an athlete, a sponsor or a broadcaster, and what we try and really think about is how our creative energy and the breadth of our offering can extend the enjoyment of fans and families.”

Looking back to 2012, Warren says that the Games are “naturally a case study” for highlighting London’s hosting credentials. But, she adds, the conversation has now shifted to “talking about what people can look forward to against the backdrop of our legacy of hosting big events in the city.”

“The greatest feeling coming out of 2012 was everyone’s vision,” Warren continues. “I think as a city we now consider things that we might not have before because we were able to come together to collaborate, to find ways to make amazing things happen, and develop partnerships and mechanisms to support those. So I think we’re an ever-evolving city and we’re an exciting and changing destination.”

Already, seven years on from the Games, London has staged world championships in each of the 2012 permanent venues, including a record-breaking London 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships and World Para Athletics Championships at the London Stadium, which has regularly hosted sporting events since originally being constructed for the Games, and also now serves as the permanent home of Premier League club West Ham United.

We want to do everything we can to attract even more world-class events to the capital

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan

With the legacy of the Games seemingly secure, the fond memories of London 2012 are fading further into the distance as the city continues to look ahead to the future. The next step in that new era came at the end of last year, as the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan published the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) sports strategy, which outlined an ambitious aim of making London the ‘undisputed sporting capital of the world’.    

Attracting major events will largely determine whether that goal is reached, and Warren says that London & Partners will work “very closely” with the GLA in terms of how to “bid for, account manage and support events that are coming to London”. What that means, she explains, is examining events with regards to what economic benefit they can bring to the city, what reach they would drive through media exposure, and the benefits they can bring to Londoners.

“From a London perspective,” Warren says, “major events offer opportunities to engage Londoners and generate pride and activate engagement, but they also have a huge role to play in enhancing our global reputation, because of the prestige of hosting, because of the exposure you get as a city through broadcasts of these events. So for us it’s really a multi-dimensional approach to why we bid and host them.”

Another key strand of the GLA’s long-term vision is to make London the most active and socially integrated city in the world. That particular objective is supported by the Mayor’s new UK£8.8 million Sport Unites community programme, which aims to provide common experiences through sport, build bridges between communities and unify Londoners from a wide variety of backgrounds.

While Warren admits that London & Partners does not get directly involved in grassroots sports or funding elements of the Mayor’s strategy, she asserts that the company will always partner with the GLA who see major sporting events as a way to engage people to be more active in their daily lives.

“We would see ourselves as a partner in the strategies around the major events aspect,” begins Warren. “The thinking is that major sporting events enable Londoners’ involvement and engagement in sport. It is a way for us to engage the next generation, uncover sporting talent, keep Londoners fit and build links between communities.”

As well as recognising the advantages of hosting major events, Warren acknowledges that London is not the only city vying to be crowned the world’s sporting capital. Tokyo, for one, will stage Rugby World Cup matches and the Olympics before the end of next year, while both Paris and Los Angeles can point to a slate of upcoming events that they have lined up to support their own hosting of the Games in 2024 and 2028, respectively.

Warren, however, believes that competition between cities for hosting is healthy, and that sometimes even a collaborative approach between potential destinations can prove especially fruitful.

“Events play a huge role in attracting people and investment into the city, and I think they provide the ultimate vehicle for us to tell London’s story overseas,” says Warren. “They contribute to visitor consideration and build our brand reputation, but London isn’t the only city that recognises the power of events.

“Clearly you have to look at Paris, which has got an enormous number of events coming into town. What’s interesting when I think about Paris is that firstly, I think the market is buoyant enough for us all to succeed, and secondly, we’ve been working with Paris to really push Paris and London as one destination for long-haul visitors.

“So in many ways we actually collaborate with a number of tier one cities rather than seeing them as competition. We know that both our cities are on the bucket list for our target audiences, so really it’s about how we can pool our strengths and resources to deliver in this instance a giant tourism campaign.”

With that in mind, London & Partners has already planted flags in various corners of the world. The company recently opened a new office in Berlin, adding to bases in other core markets such as North America, France, China and India.

“For us it’s critical for London to have a local presence in our key markets because it means we essentially have boots on the ground so we can influence audiences to choose London straight away,” explains Warren. “But also, we can understand that market from the market, rather than being led by considerations in London, to understand those audiences and their barriers and their interests.”

When it comes to standing out, London can already lay claim to a busy annual slate of high-profile events that few other cities can rival. It turned the week-long Nitto ATP Finals at the O2 Arena, for example, into one of men’s tennis’ biggest money-spinner outside of the sport’s four Grand Slams. On top of that, yearly National Football League (NFL) games have routinely sold out Wembley Stadium and Twickenham Stadium since the league brought its first regular season fixture to the city in 2007, while this summer, London welcomed another US major league with fierce rivals the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox playing out a two-game set at the London Stadium in the first ever Major League Baseball (MLB) regular season fixtures staged in Europe.

MLB might not yet be blessed with the same core UK fanbase as its football and basketball counterparts, but London & Partners has previous experience when it comes to supporting new events. For the NFL, the company provided marketing and social media campaigns targeting UK, German and US audiences via its Visit London channels, while it also continues to help operate additional fan experience events such as Kickoff rallies at iconic central London locations with as many as 250,000 attendees.

Now, for MLB, London & Partners has supported the league by marketing the event to both domestic and international audiences. Tickets to the games sold out within 24 hours. For Warren, it is both an indication that Londoners are always open to new events, and that they “immerse themselves in live experiences like no one else”.

“What’s also true is that Londoners love events,” she adds. “They love coming together and sharing moments, and so does the rest of the UK. If the content is right, audiences vote with their feet. Any major or mega event is always going to have a majority domestic audience, so that is something that London can be really proud of.

“I’m thankful to our US colleagues for choosing London, and I hope that we always remain open to new ideas and to their growth objectives. I think what’s very interesting when we look at overseas markets is how we continue to evolve. So we’ve also got SLS (Street League Skateboarding) at the Copper Box Arena in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and that’s an event that we’ll grow year on year and hope to host as an Olympic qualifier.”

Londoners love events. They love coming together and sharing moments, and so does the rest of the UK

Georgina Warren, head of city events and experience at London & Partners

In line with the theme of evolution, London’s annual event calendar is becoming increasingly infiltrated by esports competitions. Last year saw the city host its biggest competitive gaming tournament to date when it welcomed the FACEIT Major to the SSE Arena, while it was selected by Fifa to stage April’s inaugural eNations Cup. Esports might remain a realm of uncertainty for some, but Warren believes that competitive gaming events represent an opportunity for London to connect with a younger, highly engaged audience.

“Like a lot of other cities we’re looking at this enormous audience and thinking about ways to have them feel that their passion is synonymous with our city, because that affects their consideration of London and whether they come here in the future as students or investors,” says Warren.

“What’s interesting with esports is it’s brought to the fore this conversation around the digital versus the analogue audience. The format’s similar, but the way fans engage in the content in terms of streaming is new. Cities know that they need to understand those audiences and understand how they engage in content, and how we make the city part of the narrative, because these are huge, huge communities, and we want to make them feel that London is part of the esports narrative.”

London is also hosting ten games during the ongoing ICC Cricket World Cup, before, further ahead, Wembley stages seven matches – including the semi-final and final – during the 2020 Uefa European Championship, which is being held in multiple cities across the continent to mark the 60th anniversary of the international soccer tournament.

Both of those competitions will be held over a timeframe of weeks rather than days, welcoming a vibrant mix of nationalities and cultures in the process. Lengthier tournaments naturally pose different challenges to a one-off event, but Warren points out that they also present an opportunity to create more meaningful storylines, as well as opening up a plethora of new ways to both showcase the city to an international audience and engage Londoners around the clock.

“Longer tournaments mean longer stays, so there’s more potential in terms of how we can extend visits, get people discovering new areas of the city and our hidden gems, but also a longer period to get Londoners involved and generate civic pride,” Warren says. “Sport is a religion and fans are passionate. I genuinely think there is nothing like live, and sharing those moments is key, and when you’ve got a tournament, you’ve got a real gift of time that people can get on the journey.

“If you look back at the [London 2012 Olympic] Games, it wasn’t until we got into the second week that fever really started to take hold. So when we look at these tournaments from a London & Partners perspective we work to enhance the spectator experience and consider the friends and families who travel with the ticket holders. What do they do while they’re here? What are the athletes doing out of training? You want them all to have the best experience of London because then they go away and tell our story to their fans, their audiences.

“Our role is to maximise visitors’ spend, so essentially that’s staying longer and exploring more, and obviously developing reach and London’s reputation, so we often support sponsors and rights owners in creating moments which create a global conversation outside of the venue.”

Despite all that London has to look forward to, there is nothing to suggest that the city’s ambition is on the wane. Indeed, the new year ushered in reports that UK Sport, the government agency responsible for investing in Olympic and Paralympic sport, is planning to bring the Olympics back to London as early as 2036.

Plans to host the Games for a fourth time – London also staged the quadrennial event in 1908 and 1948 – are purportedly part of a wider target to surpass the United States at the top of the Olympics medal table. Regardless of what comes of those reports, what is abundantly clear is that London is open for business.

“We recognise that attracting a sports fan or a major event goer is one of the ways in which we can introduce new audiences to the capital and encourage them to return again,” Warren reiterates. “They might come once as a young fan of football, but hopefully they’ll then so enjoy their stay that they come back as a student or as a tourist with their friends and family, or as a business owner or investor.

“It’s about building lifetime, long-term relationships with London, and the events that we have in our annual calendar alongside these spike moments help us to bang the drum that London is open.”