SBJ/November 26 - December 2, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Prediction of Salt Lake visitor shortfall part of traditional countdown angst

The Olympic Games are supposed to magnify the virtues of fair play, dedication and multicultural harmony. Yet these are not always the focus when host cities are counting down the months and days.

A tradition of pre-Olympic angst was renewed in Salt Lake City earlier in the month when a University of Utah scholar warned that visitor traffic to the region for next year's Winter Games might fall as much as 20 percent below original projections of 200,000-plus.

The director of the school's bureau for economic and business research, Thayne Robson, cites heightened fear of terrorism and a weakened U.S. economy as obvious culprits.

Even in more peaceful, robust times, skepticism and the Games go hand in hand. Before the 1984 Los Angeles Games, word was that freeway congestion and smog would send visitors away disgusted. Before the Seoul Games in 1988, widespread student rioting and violence was predicted. Lillehammer's doomsayers in 1994 focused on hotel room shortages and long travel times to events. The 1996 Atlanta Games were expecting relentless heat and humidity.

In virtually every case, the predictions either never came true or were minor irritations.

Will Salt Lake prove Robson wrong? Like most Winter Games sites, Utah is a ski resort destination not unfamiliar with fluctuating tourism cycles. As such, the cachet of being an Olympic host is a double-edged sword — increased Olympic tourism and lighter ski tourism can be offsetting forces.

Jason Mathis of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau said a concern from the outset was that avid skiers might be discouraged from coming to Utah resorts around the period of the 2002 Games (Feb. 8-24), fearing crowds, security and off-limits areas would add up to hassles. In fact, Mathis said, only 2 percent of the area's ski terrain will be off-limits during the Games.

"On the backside of the mountains, you won't even know the Olympics are going on," he said.

Requests for hotel room reservations through the bureau (saltlake.org) remained steady until recently, Mathis said. "Obviously, things could change very rapidly."

As of this writing, Mathis said the bureau has booked 15,200 room nights during the Games period for people or groups not seeking packages coupled with Olympic event tickets. Package deals must go through the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

In early November, the SLOC announced that more than 80 percent of Olympic tickets are sold. As corporate sponsor groups and some non-U.S. Olympic committees are returning ticket blocks, a typical phenomenon, the public will continue to have ticket-buying opportunities across a wide price range.

Meanwhile, Mathis said Salt Lake is forecasting its strongest convention year ever in 2002. Software solutions provider Novell is bringing in a group of 8,000 for a convention beginning March 17, the day after Olympic organizers relinquish control of the convention center.

UNDER THE WIRE: The 2012 Olympic host candidacies of San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have secured required financial guarantees and plan to forward documentation to the U.S. Olympic Committee before Friday's deadline.

To enter the global race for 2012, a candidate must lock in a government or third-party guarantee to cover budget shortfalls. San Francisco's group plans to buy an insurance policy covering shortfalls up to $500 million. Washington's guarantee is an estimated $200 million joint assurance by the governments of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. The two other U.S. prospects for 2012, Houston and New York, submitted government-backed guarantees in October.

ATHENS REVISITED: Organizers of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens are under scrutiny again this week as a panel of International Olympic Committee members arrives for another progress report. Greek officials have pledged renewed cooperation among local political adversaries in an effort to stay on top of challenging venue construction deadlines. There is a possibility the IOC might be forced to place permanent inspectors in Athens to keep organizers from falling further behind.

MARATHON DECISION: Among agenda items during U.S. Track & Field's annual convention this week in Mobile, Ala., is a vote to select the host course for the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trial. The candidates are Birmingham, Ala., New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. All but New York propose staging the trial in spring 2004. A New York-based Olympic trial event would be run concurrent with the regularly scheduled November 2003 New York City Marathon.

Steve Woodward can be reached at SteveWoodwardHere@hotmail.com.

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