When 4 billion pairs of eyes turn toward London July 27 for the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, the United Kingdom government hopes they’ll see more than just spectacle and sport.
Of course, the unifying power of athletics played a central role in bringing the Games back to the British capital for the first time since 1948, but the event also gives business leaders a chance to reacquaint themselves with a global city that is once again on the rise, said Annabelle Malins, U.K. consul general for the Southeast in Atlanta.
“For us it’s an important moment to invite people to take a second look at our country and to see what we are today,” Ms. Malins said. “We are a very innovative, dynamic and multicultural society. We’ve got a lot to offer companies, particularly for visiting, working, investing and doing business.”
After a period of relative decline that began in the 1980s, London has reasserted itself as a financial and creative hub as well as a magnet for talent and investment from all over the world.
Its relationship with its hinterland has been tenuous at times, which is why Olympic planners have taken pains to ensure that the games benefit the entire country, Ms. Malins said.
It has been a fortuitous year for branding the U.K. The country has been holding massive celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II‘s Diamond Jubilee, her 60th year on the throne, even as it prepares to welcome athletes and visitors from nearly every country on earth.
“We’ll be trying to capture that moment,” she said, especially in the eyes of businesses.
On the eve of the opening ceremonies, Prime Minister David Cameron will hold a conference in London with leaders of top multinational corporations, presumably including Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. and United Parcel Service Inc., which are both perennial Olympic sponsors.
More relevant to smaller firms, the government has created a business “embassy” at the Olympics, a base for a full slate of events showcasing strategic economic sectors for the U.K. and other countries, Ms. Malins said.
There’s also the British Business Club, an online portal where companies from any country can sign up to learn about business opportunities around the Olympics and future sporting events. Creating a free online profile gives them a virtual presence among related companies looking to explore potential partnerships.
Some Atlanta-based firms have already gotten their piece of the billions being spent on the world’s largest sporting event.
Insignia Promotions, which markets items like t-shirts, uniforms and lanyards made from recycled plastic bottles, set up an office in London in 2010 to pitch to Olympic organizers.
Insignia won contracts to develop Olympic merchandise and to work with long-time partner Coca-Cola on recycling programs at festivals throughout the U.K. Participants in the “Swap for Swag” program traded plastic bottles for items like bags and shirts.
Think London (now rolled into another agency called London & Partners), an economic development agency that recruited companies to compete for Olympics-related contracts, rolled out the red carpet for Insignia, owner J.T. Marburger told GlobalAtlanta.
They made the case that although the city can be pricey, its advantages outweigh the costs, Mr. Marburger said.
“Speaking English and doing business in the U.K. has been no issue and the cost is not that relevant,” he said, noting that the London office will continue to pursue growth in Europe and beyond even after all the Olympic medals have been distributed.
Insignia’s next frontier is Brazil, which has a huge recycling industry and will host the 2016 summer Olympics. Through his manufacturing arm, Renew Merchandise, Mr. Marburger is having discussions with waste companies in the U.K. and about making shirts fo the Rio de Janeiro Olympics from trash collected during London 2012.
Helios Partners, an Atlanta-based sports marketing consultancy created and run by veterans of the 1996 Olympic movement, won contracts to craft messaging for Lloyd’s TSB, the first London-specific Olympic sponsor, and Deloitte, the American accounting firm.
Helios is also representing Sainsbury’s, a supermarket chain that became the first company to exclusively sponsor the Paralympic Games, said Lili Leung, who headed up Helios’ London efforts.
Like these companies, London is focused on making its Olympic investments pay off in the long run, especially after the financial crisis and recession that shook the world just after its bid prevailed in 2007, Ms. Malins said.
One of the major tenets was kick-starting a plan to regenerate East London, a deprived industrial quarter where unemployment is high and affordable housing is scarce.
The Olympic park quickly changed a large segment of the landscape, opening up a 250-acre green space where 200 buildings used to stand. In keeping with the goal of making London 2012 the “greenest games ever,” most of the rubble from the demolition was recycled, Ms. Malins said.
While pondering how to build a lasting legacy from the games, London looked at how previous host cities maximized their investments.
Despite implementation issues, but Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics are still held up as a shining example of how to use private money for sustainable public good. The athletes’ quarters were turned into student housing, the Olympic stadium became the Braves’ home at Turner Field and the aquatic center was incorporated into the Georgia Institute of Technology campus.
Those ideas weren’t lost on London, Ms. Malins said.
The Athletes’ Village will be turned into 2,800 affordable housing units, the first of thousands planned for the area. The 91,000-square-foot press center will become office space. The top tiers at the Olympic stadium will be removed to cut seats from 80,000 to 25,000, making the venue more attractive for smaller events. Much of the £6.5 billion (about $10 billion) spent on venues and infrastructure involved expanding rail links to the East End to connect it better with the rest of the city.
Already, the Shoreditch area has become an informal technology cluster, drawing giants such as Google and Intel as well as hundreds of smaller digital-media companies of varying sizes to an area now branded Tech City.
Beyond future impact, the games have immediately stoked national pride, a fact seen along the 70-day torch run that passed within 10 miles of 95 percent of the population, Ms. Malins said.
“Everywhere, rain or shine, along the route we’ve had communities coming out to welcome the torch relay through their communities. It’s been hugely successful, lots of smiling faces and flags waving like you’ve never seen before,” she said.
Home-field advantage should allow the U.K. to manage a better showing than it did in Atlanta, where it won only one gold medal, Ms. Malins added.
“We expect to top the medal charts, of course,” and “give the U.S. a run for its money,” she said. The U.K. ranked No. 4 in the medal table after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, behind the U.S., China and Russia, respectively.