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Volume 24 No. 196

On The Ground: Winter Games

Pyeongchang 2018 organizers and its contractor, New Jersey-based hospitality firm Jet Set Sports, are trying something new in the Olympics this year at Gangneung Olympic Park: an on-site lounge available to any fan who pays for access, not merely sponsor guests.

The lounge is the centerpiece of the New Horizons Hospitality Program, designed to sell more tickets by giving the general public an experience usually enjoyed only by the “Olympic family,” the term of art for sponsors and other VIP guests of the International Olympic Committee and the organizing committee.

In the past, hospitality inside Olympic venues was given only to the “family.” And while Jet Set Sports has created its own hospitality venues and programs, those were off site and only available to ticket buyers in its authorized territories such as the United States. This program is open to ticket buyers worldwide, and is meeting a demand for value-added experiences, said Jet Set co-CEO Alan Dizdarevic.

“The needs of the spectators have changed over the years,” he said.

The roughly 5,000-square-foot club, built across from the main hockey arena and a North Face showcase, features a bar and a large buffet. Jet Set hired five chefs to spend short stints in the club during the Games, each representing either Korean cuisine or food from Japan, China and France, the next three Olympic hosts.

The program will not be profitable this year, chairman and co-CEO Sead Dizdarevic said.

“We have to be honest, this is an investment in the future,” he said.

Pricing varies widely depending on the specific event for sale and which of three tiers you buy — gold, silver or bronze. Currently, one “Gold package” ticket to the men’s ice hockey final on Feb. 25 and access to the New Horizons club that same day sells for $3,096. A “Silver package” ticket to an earlier hockey game on Feb. 20 and access to the club goes for $933.

A Pyeongchang 2018 spokesman said the program appears to be successful. Close to 90 percent of all tickets to the Games, or about 1 million, have been sold, albeit empty seats remain a big problem.

“The packages have given the spectators more options to choose from, so there really has been something for all preferences and price ranges,” a Pyeongchang 2018 spokesman said. “The feedback we have had so far has been positive and we hope that everyone taking advantage of the new service offering is having a great time here at Pyeongchang 2018.”

Aside from sweetening the deal for higher-end ticket buyers, the program has a secondary mission: decrease the number of empty seats in elite parts of the sports venues often seen on TV. A problem that has grown increasingly evident since the London Games, the IOC is working on several fronts to more efficiently distribute tickets.

The New Horizons packages include seats comparable to the elite sponsors and friends of the IOC who make up the “Olympic family.” The promotions for the tickets say they have never before been available to non-accredited personnel. “This was very carefully crafted to be sure nothing was taken away from the Olympic family,” Sead Dizdarevic said.

In the middle of the Pyeongchang Games, the U.S. Olympic Committee is heading west to Seoul for a major event at the Yongsan Garrison, home to nearly 6,200 active-duty military members and more than 10,000 family members.

Officially, the President’s Day festival is fashioned as the latest stop on the Team USA WinterFest Presented by Hershey’s, a 12-stop experiential tour that started in Times Square on Nov. 1. But it’s a level of magnitude more consequential in cost and symbolism, the first time the USOC and its sponsors have activated outside the United States. (If it weren’t on a military base, the program would encroach on Pyeongchang 2018’s turf.)

USOC CMO Lisa Baird said she first thought of the idea two years ago, while initially touring South Korea to prepare for the Pyeongchang trip. Then, she learned of the significance of Yongsan, one of the largest American installations in the world and headquarters of the U.S.-South Korean defense alliance.

“A lot of people want to try and thank the troops, and they do, and they show someone in Afghanistan, a garrison, watching the Super Bowl,” Baird said. “But we want to do it better. We’re here, we wanted to bring some Olympic spirit to the Yongsan Garrison.”

As title sponsor, Hershey’s will offer make-your-own-s’mores booths, decorating Hershey’s Kisses kiss jars and giveaways of its new Hershey’s Gold product. Other sponsors activating with the tour include Oreo (Mondelez) and Samsung.

The festival includes a comedy performance by Cedric the Entertainer, musical performances by pop singer Rachel Platten and an appearance by 2006 Olympic silver-medal figure-skater Sasha Cohen. Matt Mortensen, a member of the USA Luge team and a staff sergeant in the New York Army National Guard, will receive special recognition.

On Sunday, the USOC will host a reception at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, to be attended by about 100 people including General Vincent Brooks, the top U.S. military official in Korea, and Marc Knapper, the highest-ranking state department official (there is not a current ambassador). Officials from Olympic sponsors Adecco, Dow and GE also will attend.

The trip has the added benefit of bringing USOC leadership to Seoul, where some Olympic sponsors have chosen to base their Olympic operations in light of the sparse accommodations in rural Pyeongchang.

“There’s a lot of people staying in Seoul,” Baird said. “We have sponsors attending with us.”

If the project is successful, Baird said, the USOC will aim to re-create the program at U.S. military bases in Japan during the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Bridgestone is best known for selling tires, and its Olympic sponsorship has so far been used to move those tires in a conventional retail sense.

But 17 percent of the Bridgestone company is not tires, and it owns Olympic marketing rights in two other categories you can expect to hear more about once the calendar turns to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic cycle: seismic isolation bearings and self-propelled bicycles.

Phil Pacsi poses with Bridgestone's concept bicycle.
Photo: Ben Fischer

The first are as advanced and industrial as it comes: massive rubber cushions that are fitted under building foundations to protect against earthquakes. Bicycles, on the other hand, are early-19th century technology that children use.

Bridgestone is emphasizing both in a display at its Seoul hospitality headquarters for the Pyeongchang Winter Games, at the elite Shilla Hotel, anticipating two years from now.

Earthquake-prone Tokyo is an excellent market for the seismic isolation bearings, and Bridgestone hopes to provide bikes at the Tokyo Olympics, said Phil Pacsi, Bridgestone vice president of sports and events.

A display explaining seismic isolation bearing.
Photo: Ben Fischer

“We tried in Rio but it got to be really difficult,” Pacsi said. “I think it’s going to be a big play in Tokyo.”

I’m sure there are complicating factors I’m not considering, but at first glance, bicycles seem like an ideal addition to the Olympics. With security perimeters and parking lots designed to accommodate dozens of coaches and officials, the Games often involve distances that are a little too far to walk comfortably, but not far enough to justify a car or bus.

Bridgestone displayed a concept bike in its display, one that uses heavy-duty plastic spokes to support the rubber tire instead of air.

Bridgestone is entertaining about 140 customers and other guests over five waves, choosing to base its Pyeongchang program in Seoul. In an apparent coincidence, the Shilla Hotel hosted a major conference of Hyundai dealers on the opening weekend of the Olympics. (The Shilla itself is an interesting story, owned by a company whose CEO is Lee Boo-jin, daughter of Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee.

Michael Payne poses by the Swiss flag at the Alpine Cross-Country Skiing Centre.
Photo: Courtesy of Michael Payne

Longtime Olympic marketing consultant Michael Payne was a leading critic of the Pyeongchang 2018 organizing committee in recent years. But one week into the Games, he’s pleasantly surprised. Payne explains to SportsBusiness Journal Olympics writer Ben Fischer what’s going right in Korea while taking a break from the ladies’ slalom run Friday morning.

 

 

A bit more than a week ago, I wrote a glowing review of the Olympics’ specialized bus system here in Pyeongchang — reliable and always on time.

That’s still basically true, but a reporter’s life doesn’t necessarily revolve around the official side of the Games. Sometimes I need to get to a part of town that’s not on the bus route, like a restaurant or office, and that’s when the Pyeongchang experience breaks down in a hurry.

A man tries to determine where the shuttle bus is going at Pyeongchang Olympic Plaza.
Photo: Ben Fischer

Last Saturday night, I was returning from Seoul on the KTX high-speed train. I arrived at Pyeongchang station at 1:04 a.m. (precisely when promised) and found myself with eight other people, all needing cabs. There were none. There were only even a couple of local workers at the train station to help call cabs. Twenty minutes passed in the bitter cold.

I understand it’s the countryside, but A), 1 a.m. is not late at the Olympics, and B), we’re at the train station named for the host city!

After about 20 more minutes, I successfully hailed a cab on a Korean version of Uber called Kakao T. Not knowing when the next cab would come, I invited two Americans and two rather drunk Dutchmen to pile into the cab, clown-car style. We made it home, very illegally.

But most of my colleagues have not had any luck with these taxi-hailing apps. It’s not that they don’t work, it’s that there’s not enough cabs.

Non-credentialed fans have this same problem. There have been reports of fans skipping late-night sporting events they have tickets to because they can’t be sure about the transport system. Like the media buses, they can count on getting back to central depots — park-n-rides, train stations, etc. — via dedicated shuttles, but are often in the dark about that last-mile service to hotels.

It’s funny to compare Pyeongchang to Rio 2016. Pyeongchang has done so much right, and Rio did so much wrong. But the presence of a major city just helped so much. Say what you will about Rio 2016, I never waited more than five minutes for a car while there.

In a press conference today, a Pyeongchang 2018 representative said general spectators can call a hotline, 1330, created to give assistance in multiple languages. But as I experienced at the train station, they are helpful but can’t magically create taxi supply.