The countdown is on…
In less than six months time, Northern Ireland will be playing host to the World Police and Fire Games. This event has presented an exciting prospect, in particular for the local hospitality and accommodation sector. With many city centre hotels now reporting to be fully booked for the first two weeks in August, the demand for rooms is spreading out around the country. Louise Murphy spoke to Mary Jo McCanny from BCVB and John Tully, Chief Executive of 2013WPFG to hear how preparations are progressing.
Explaining a little about the history of the games and how Belfast came to be host city in 2013, John told me: “The World Police & Fire Games is effectively a franchise which is owned by an organisation called the World Police & Fire Games Federation. They have been awarding the honour of holding the games to a host city since around 1985. Back in 2007, Belfast bid for the games and were successful. We overcame some really stiff competition from cities that had held the games before.
“The bid was successful because of a number of reasons – they liked the passion and integrity of the team that was putting the bid forward. The whole value proposition of the Belfast games is that they would be the friendliest games ever – that has been the style of what we’ve been trying to do. We’ve a strong emphasis on things such as volunteering – the face of the games, the people who actually meet and greet the competitors and their friends and family – this will give a real sense of friendliness. I think Belfast and Northern Ireland has some fantastic opportunities to showcase what we have to offer and that friendliness is really, really important.”
Let the games begin
Looking at the preparations, John went on: “Effectively we now have an organising committee who are responsible for delivering the games. In effect we are an ‘arms length’ body of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. We’re busy getting ready for the beginning of the Games. They officially start on 1st August, but some of the sports, including ice hockey, will kick off around late July.
“From the games perspective, the whole thing really starts with an Opening Ceremony, parallel with that, there’s also a business conference which is being run by the services rather than the organising committee. In effect, that’s an opportunity from senior officials from law enforcement organisations to come to Belfast and get a better understanding of the city.
“The opening ceremony will kick-off the games and it will be an opportunity to showcase the culture and entertainment side of Northern Ireland. We’re working very hard to get the content of that firmed up.
“We then get in to the period of the games. We have around 42 sports and 57 sports locations associated with the games. There are the sports which you would see in any sporting competition like track and field, cycling etc but there’s also specialist sports which require some extra thought. Events like ’Toughest Competitor Alive’, ’The Ultimate Firefighter’, stair races – which are all about the athletes, particularly firefighters being fully kitted out for a variety of tasks which are physically very demanding. We’ll be using the Obel Building in Belfast for the stair races so that gives an idea of just how exhausting that is!
“On our busiest day, we have over 30 different sporting occasions active so it is a huge activity.”
Explaining the logistics of the event, John continued: “We’re expecting 10,000 athletes, 15,000 of their friends and family all coming to Northern Ireland for that ten day period. It’s a huge opportunity for businesses not just in Belfast, but right across Northern Ireland. In terms of registration, we’ve had 44 countries so far ranging from Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine, Slovakia, Pakistan, there’s a huge range of countries.
“Our sports are predominantly in the Belfast area but for example, there’s a hub of sports venues in South Down so places like Tullymore will be used and so we’ll see people choosing to stay close to those locations as well. We’re doing a lot of work with the councils to attract people, after they have competed in their sports, to visit other parts of Northern Ireland. For example, Fermanagh have put together their own ‘Blue Light’ challenge which is a sporting event in its own right, to attract athletes across to Fermanagh and get them to spend some time in that area to showcase what they have to offer.
“A lot of the councils are doing things like that as an ‘add on’ with the aim of all parts of Northern Ireland to benefit from the games.
“Midway through the two weeks, there’s a memorial service for World Services and at the back end of the two weeks there is the Closing Ceremony. That’s really an opportunity to celebrate the success of the athletes, thank the volunteers and hand over to Fairfax who is the next host city for 2015.
“So, this is a huge opportunity here, with lots of people keen to get involved. We’ve had a fantastic response from commercial sponsors for the games, including commercial partners such as Pubs of Ulster. We have big name sponsors including Diageo, Coca-Cola, Danske Bank and Fujitsu to name just a few. We’re hugely grateful for the support they have given us.
“The accommodation factor is critical to the success of the games and BCVB have given us fantastic support in terms of preparation.”
Beds for heads
Looking specifically at the accommodation preparations Mary Jo explained: “We’ve been involved with the preparation of the games since April 2011, we were involved in discussions before that in terms of being the accommodation booking partner. Our first task was to be ready to go out and start selling in New York in September 2011.
“Our main aim would be promoting the city and then looking after visitors when they are here. Our past experiences are very much geared round big conferences coming in. What we decided to use was our conference booking system for the games because it is very much about tracking where people are staying, making sure we have enough accommodation spaces and also capturing some revenue to go back towards the games. Our first port of call was with the Hotels Federation to talk about the approach that we needed to take.
“One of the big challenges was that this event is coming in August, which is a peak month, for a long stay. So from the start we talked to the hoteliers. We recognised that this is a busy time for them and a lot would have groups booked in during this time, especially given the group market has very much picked up. But we did put out a plea to get as many rooms as we could!
“We aimed for a 50% allocation of rooms from the hoteliers and that’s what we are sitting on at the moment. We’ve had a very good response from hotels; we currently have over 100 on the booking system. Whereas some have given us a lot more than 50% some have given us a little less, but it’s all balancing out. We’ve been taking bookings since our visit to New York towards the back end of the games there and it has been growing steadily since then. We’re currently sitting at 3,000 rooms booked, equating to just over 50,000 bed nights, that’s just over £2.4m worth of bookings.
“There has been a very positive growth in the number of bookings. We’re not just looking at hotels because that wouldn’t give us the capacity that we need, we’ve gone right across all sectors; we’ve got B&Bs, guesthouses, self-catering, hostels, caravan sites, motor homes. We’ve also talked to boarding schools who don’t offer boarding anymore. Everything that we do has to be registered and certified. So we’ve brought on about an extra 600 bed spaces from places like Rockport, Campbell College and Greenmount College. At the moment it is very much about getting as much capacity as possible.
“We’ve gone out to accommodation providers across Northern Ireland offering them the opportunity to get involved. A lot of the uptake is from Belfast and Greater Belfast but then we’ve had great uptake in the other areas where there are activities taking place for example the North Coast and North Down. So we are starting to see that spread.
“At the moment a lot of demand is for Belfast and we’re certainly filling up our allocations for the city centre hotels and looking to radiate out. There’s a lot of interest in the hotel sector first and foremost, but we also have some rooms in the campuses such as Queens, Stranmillis and University of Ulster at Jordanstown. They are also starting to fill, particularly the ones in the city centre.
“We’ve also seen a great demand for some of the self-catering facilities. I think literally as soon as we were announced as hosts, a lot of people were going on and booking up apartments.
“It’s going very well and with every month that passes, we are continuing to fill up. I think we’ve squeezed as much as we can out of the city centre hotels! We’ve been out around most of the council areas, with WPFG and NITB, talking to accommodation providers about the events, preparing them, letting them know the potential of these visitors who will be coming. We’ve found that if there has been anything related to the games in the news or the media, we get a fantastic response and uptake. It certainly is a much easier process now there is much more awareness out there about the events coming. The buzz of the Olympics was also a great help for us, there has been an enthusiastic response.”
Speaking about the potential for local accommodation providers, Mary Jo added: “I think people in the trade recognise the value of the bookings in that a lot of them are getting group bookings with good rates for B&B. There’s also the opportunity for them to add on lunch and dinner packages.
“From my experience of the games in New York, I know that people will be coming for their 10 days or two weeks, they’ll participate in their sport for maybe two or three days of that, the rest of the time is free time were they’ll either go and watch the games or they’ll go and do what they would normally do on holiday.
“When we were out in New York, golf and the Titanic Building were two things that were a big interest to the people we were speaking to. I think there’s a real excitement about Northern Ireland as a destination.
“Due to the way the games operate, there’s a huge demand for group bookings because people travel in their country teams or their sporting teams, so we do have two lots of teams specifically dealing with group bookings. That’s very much a case of identifying what their needs are, the type of accommodation they’re looking for, how long they want to stay, what’s their budget and giving some of them the option coming over and doing an inspection – pretty similar to a conference and then making the bookings. It’s a process that takes a little bit longer because some of the bookings have to go back and go before committees but it’s proving very successful.”
Bookings have been flooding in from around the world, as Mary Jo explains: “We’ve a wide-range of bookings from around 36 countries. In terms of the individuals booking, our biggest market so far has been U.S.A., followed by Canada, Australia, G.B., Hong Kong, Brazil, Norway and the Netherlands. In terms of groups the biggest would be the Germans with 12%, followed by Americans with 10%, Canada and Australia are again both high with 9%, Sweden 8%, Russia represent 5% of all our group bookings. So it very much represents the real international market, with many first time visitors to NI.
“From a tourist perspective, a lot of them will be first time visitors so for us, we really see it as a fantastic opportunity to profile what we have to offer here in Northern Ireland. We’re very much relying on the industry to come behind us and give a really good customer care and welcome.”
In January a group of competitors visited Belfast to get a taste of the city before the games and they were all hugely impressed. John explained: “NITB and Tourism Ireland brought over a group of five international competitors in January for a week. They spent the week staying in a range of different accommodation types, exploring the sporting and tourist type offerings. I met them the night before they went home for dinner and they could not believe all of the positive things Northern Ireland had to offer. They thought everything was absolutely fantastic from the activities on offer to the different accommodation venues. They were really, really positive.”
Mary Jo is keen for accommodation providers from all over to get involved and benefit from the games: “From an accommodation perspective, if any venue hasn’t got involved yet, we’re very keen to talk with them; we’re keen to work with anyone who wants to get involved. There’s a great opportunity there for everyone and what we’ve found by being out-and-about is that there is a real excitement among accommodation providers about the event. They want to be part of it because they know this is something which is going to be very positive and they will be very busy as a result of being involved. We’re here to feed out as much information as we can.”
John also stressed how great an opportunity this is for local businesses to get involved: “From my perspective, firstly, we’re very grateful for all the support we’ve got from all providers. This is the third largest sporting event in the world and I think there are still opportunities for anyone who wants to be involved with the games. There’s a huge opportunity for them to provide accommodation and be part of the overall event. We’re talking about an economic boost of over £21m for Northern Ireland and everyone can share in that, accommodation provider’s right across the country.”
He also praised the response received for volunteers. “Our timing was fantastic, we had the experience of London 2012, then when we launched our volunteer programme there was so much interest on the back of it. We had a target of around 4,500 applications; we got over 6,400 in the end. We’ve been going through the volunteer selection process since January that’s about matching volunteers to specific roles. The response to that has been fantastic, we’ve seen volunteers turn up to the selection events just full of enthusiasm and excitement. We’re very, very optimistic about the role the volunteers will play.”
Both Mary Jo and John also highlighted the opportunities for the hospitality sector as a whole. Mary Jo: “The core businesses can really benefit, not just in Belfast but also in feeder towns, in terms of attracting that extra business in. I know from previous games bars would do things such as adopt a country and have get-togethers, I think there’s huge potential for things like that for the bar, restaurant and retail trade.”
John concluded: “There’s a huge social element to the games a well. It isn’t just about sport; it’s about the entire hospitality trade benefiting.”