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Volume 22 No. 43
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Olympic vets give Games a B+ at midpoint

Roundtable participants in Rio were (top row, from left) the USOC’s Mitch Poll, BP’s George Bauernfeind, USA Basketball’s Jim Tooley and Hershey’s David Palmer; and (bottom row, from left) Visa’s Brice McKeever, GE’s Chris Katsuleres and GMR Marketing’s Adam Lippard
On the sixth day of the Rio Games, SportsBusiness Journal Olympics writer Ben Fischer convened a roundtable of Olympic business veterans to assess the scene on the ground at one of the most controversial Olympics in modern history. Over lunch at the Royal Tulip Rio hotel, 100 meters from Sao Conrado Beach, the executives assessed the Rio organizing committee’s performance, challenges to overcome and the marketing experience so far.

Participants were BP’s George Bauernfeind, GE’s Chris Katsuleres, GMR’s Adam Lippard, Visa’s Brice McKeever, Hershey’s David Palmer, Mitch Poll of the U.S. Olympic Committee and Jim Tooley of USA Basketball. They were selected to represent a cross-section of roles in the Olympic world.

After all the horror stories in the run-up, everybody wants to know how it’s going. Grade Rio 2016 so far.


The marketing executives who gathered in Rio for a mid-Games assessment

George Bauernfeind
Head of Olympics and Paralympics
BP (a USOC sponsor)

Chris Katsuleres
Director, Olympic & Sport Marketing
GE (an IOC sponsor)

Adam Lippard,
Head of Global Sports & Entertainment
GMR Marketing

Brice McKeever
Vice President, Global Sponsorship Marketing
Visa (an IOC sponsor)

David Palmer
Director, Partnership Marketing and Planning
Hershey (a USOC sponsor)

Mitch Poll
Managing Director of Partnership Marketing
U.S. Olympic Committee

Jim Tooley
CEO & Executive Director
USA Basketball

POLL: I’d give them at this point a B+, A‑. Considering when the Games where awarded seven years ago, the headline is that Rio has had a battle since then, and especially all the noise back home over the last year or so, it’s been pretty remarkable. I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t had a smile on their face and enjoyed it. There have certainly been some issues.

McKEEVER: I’m often asked what’s more complicated, the World Cup or the Olympics, and of course I’ve had an opportunity to spend 45 days here for the World Cup, and the Olympics is much more difficult. What Rio has done to date with all of the challenges they’ve had over the last few years, you know, I’ll give them easily a B+.

KATSULERES: As of today, definitely a solid B, but trending upwards. The organizing committee, the city, the volunteers — I think it’s all trending upwards. I think it hit the rhythm. From a guest and customer standpoint, they’re really seeing the flavor of Brazilian culture come through, and they’re really enjoying themselves.

TOOLEY: When we first got here, there wasn’t a lot of buzz, and you didn’t see a lot of the Olympics coming to life, but over the last several days (it) got more so. I would agree with B, B+. We’ve been really well received and the Olympic Boulevard area there is very festive.

BAUERNFEIND: Day 1 (of our hospitality program) on the 6th we were in Olympic Park. I bet you the organizing committee didn’t expect people to spend the whole day in the park. The concessions were quite busy and the mega store, too. … They really have done a good job then trying to fix those things. Sometimes you get to a Games and you don’t see that continuous improvement.

PALMER: The excitement in the city is really outstanding. I think all the concerns with traffic, I think those are true at certain times. I think you just have to deal with it, better planning in getting from spot to spot.

LIPPARD: I’ll give this Games an A. I think it’s all come together very smoothly against a lot of odds. … I think it’s exceeded all expectations and the negativity of a lot of the media in advance.

Exceeding expectations because expectations were so low? Is that an A in a vacuum or an A compared to expectations?

LIPPARD: It’s an A in a vacuum. Seven years ago when the Olympics were awarded to Brazil, “B” was the capital B in BRIC, and I don’t think anybody could have anticipated five years later the confluence of political, social and economic unrest. For this Games to have overcome that, I think, contributes to the fact that if you look at it comparatively, I’d give it a very high mark.

I think several of you mentioned the little things — long lines, long walks, running out of food, traffic headaches, and I would agree that individually those are little things. But if you have four or five little things in the span of a few hours, it can end up being a big thing. Has it gotten to that point?

TOOLEY: Our [team member family] guests were surprised. They didn’t really realize how far the walk would be from their drop point. The team buses have great access, but our guest buses have long walks. So after the first day, it was a lot of, “Oh, my goodness.” Second day they prepared for it, and it’s now kind of a camaraderie amongst our guests in that, “Hey, we’ve conquered this together.” The security lines at the door that were tough the first day have gotten better.

McKEEVER: We experienced challenges starting with the opening ceremony. From that moment forward we proactively started to communicate to the people that were there and folks that are not there yet. So the most important thing when you’re starting to see operational challenges at an Olympic Games or any global event is you have to manage expectations, and in some cases that’s lowering expectations. So under-promise, over-deliver.

POLL: We’ve started to send people up to the park earlier and say, listen, if you get through quickly, you’ll get a couple hours to enjoy the park, and at worst case you’ll have managed your time appropriately, so it’s just managing the time and the drive.

KATSULERES: One of the things that we’ve had to spend a lot of time on is a lot of contingency planning. Things do have challenges here. At least you’ve kind of thought through scenarios so that you can recover from it and … keep it really kind of masked from your customers. A lot of pre‑planning, contingency planning.

BAUERNFEIND: A big shout‑out and thank you to GE because I think a lot of [the experience] is about the access that you have. So being part of the marketing partners group, [our use of] Olympic lanes have been phenomenal. We’ve been making it to the airport in 30, 35 minutes, and making it to the venues like Olympic Park, and there’s never a line there.


SportsBusiness Journal Olympics writer Ben Fischer is in Rio providing news updates, people stories and personal insights from the Games. SportsBusiness Journal/Daily/Global are offering the exclusive coverage from the Rio Olympics on each of their websites through Monday, Aug. 22. Among the headlines thus far have included:

Three 2024 Olympic bid cities reprimanded
Brazilian fans are haters, but that’s OK
Wasserman gets behind-the-scenes look at the Games
Rio 2016 struggling to manage volunteer corps
A look inside the NBA House in Rio
Dow Chemical’s Olympic presence evolves
LA 2024’s presser promotes gun control, minimizes Trump
Empty seats becoming a major theme
A look behind the credentialed veil
Meet the USOC’s fixer in Brazil

One of the things that alarmed people going into this was the overall volume of people here. There have been a lot of empty seats. What do you make of the volume of people here in Rio?

TOOLEY: I’ve found it consistent with other Games in my experience. Olympic Boulevard has been packed out there.

KATSULERES: One of the challenges here is how spread out the clusters are, so you don’t have everything kind of in one or two areas. It’s spread throughout.

LIPPARD: Relative to attendance here in Rio, if you break it between the fan and customer and corporate guests, there’s slight attrition from previous Games. I feel fewer Americans in the crowd. And the festivity, in sort of the atmosphere certainly compared to Vancouver and London and maybe even Sochi.

POLL: We’re actually on pace to do a very similar number than we did in the London Games, so for us we’re staying steady, and we have seen a large uptick in the number of C-suite guests that we’ve had. We’ve had every global president, CEO, COO come through the house for our partners, and usually we’re about 50/50 on those folks.

Considering how spread out these Games are, it must be difficult for a brand or a B‑to‑B company to present the image that you’re everywhere at the Olympics. How do you do that?

McKEEVER: Our brand name is actually point of sale. Our local Brazilian team did a great job throughout, so driving to the airport, or just driving around, you can see our advertising throughout the city. I think that the team here didn’t just take the approach that they can only activate at the venue. You have to go beyond that, and I do think it starts at the airport.

George and David, from a domestic sponsor standpoint, how do you take the most of that limited space that you’re allowed to work in here?

PALMER: The key for us has really been working directly with the USOC and doing a lot of pre‑planning, so knowing National S’mores Day was yesterday and making that a big event. We had an event here in Rio, and we had an event back at Hershey. As part of the Hershey campaign from home, we were able to actually link the two events live, and so we had over 600 employees and friends and family in Hershey who were able to actually talk to our Olympic athletes. But it took a lot of coordination, and a lot of help from the USOC.

George, I know you’ve got a different story here with BP.

BAUERNFEIND: We do. We probably do it a little bit different in that we actually sponsor or bring our athlete ambassadors’ family and actually host them, and what we work with them on is actually social media connection. Nathan Adrian is our Olympic ambassador. He won bronze last night in the 100 meters. Afterwards we go down low, Nathan sees the family, we’re right there with them. He actually throws up the little — not the medal — the little bouquet or whatever it is, so his mom actually grabbed that picture. We were taking the picture for him, and then they sent it to Nathan and he posted it to his account.

PALMER: George is spot on with using the internet, digital and especially social media and the athletes’ abilities to leverage social media, and then our ability to amplify it. Really four years ago, certainly eight years ago, much more difficult to do something like that now with it being so commonplace.

Mitch, tell us about the USOC’s work in facilitating that digital and extension from here back home.

POLL: It’s been a huge focus for us. All you guys I’ve worked with over the last four years know we’ve really tried to build our capabilities. We have a production team here on the ground in Rio, and then we have our Budweiser command center built out in Colorado Springs at our training center, so we have a 24‑hour staff there in Colorado which is helping us push content from partners, push content that we’re creating here on the ground, creating new content.

One of the common complaints I’ve heard around the Olympic Park is the competence of volunteers and their ability to direct people around the park. It makes me wonder how your person‑to‑person basic sponsor servicing has been from the organizing committee.

McKEEVER: They’re doing the best they can there. We don’t always rely on volunteers. We have fantastic Visa ambassadors that are on‑site, and it’s their job to really make sure that we’re getting from point A to point B.

LIPPARD: To add to that, we have at GMR 639 staff operating at the Olympic Games. It’s an extension of the workforce to make it all work.

KATSULERES: [Volunteers] probably don’t get a whole lot of training, which may be part of the challenges that they face trying to do the jobs they do. But they do it with a smile on their face. They’re excited to be there, trying to be helpful to the best of their ability. … One other point on the volunteers. We work in the athlete clinic, so all of our diagnostic imaging equipment is in there, but all of the medical staff that treats the athletes, they’re volunteers, as well, so these are professional doctors, and they shut their practices down to give up a week or 10 days of their time to come care for the world’s best athletes.

BAUERNFEIND: We’ve had a lot of excitement from our local businesses, so we’ve actually had a lot of Cariocas and people from São Paulo in our groups. They can speak the language, they’re actually saying the volunteers are quite knowledgeable, but I think there might be a little bit of a language barrier. I’ve seen a few that are English speaking like I saw in Sochi, but I feel like maybe I haven’t seen as many as there could be.

Let’s talk about security. I personally have not felt unsafe, but there have certainly been some headline-grabbing incidents around town with a few athletes and the media bus situation on Tuesday.

McKEEVER: We do have our security team kind of shadow us. It has not affected us in a negative way at all. I think people that come to Rio get a little numb to the fact that when you venture off on your own, because it’s such a vibrant city, that’s when things happen. So we can’t control that. What we can control is how we communicate to our guests that have come from around the world.

BAUERNFEIND: For our really significant guests, we give them a phone and we have an app on there and security 24/7. We actually combine our operations with GE, so we have a joint operations center along with security.

What’s your best memory so far?

Hershey celebrated National S’mores Day with its Olympic athletes at USA House.
BAUERNFEIND: We took another family over to tennis and watched Serena Williams, and she won her match and signed the ball and hit it into the stands. And turns out, and we were on the baseline, (she) hits it right at us. It was me, the brother and the other brother, and we put our hands up, and so our guests caught the ball. Everybody is coming up and taking photos and pictures. His father looked at me and is like, “George, did you work this out? How did you do that?”

LIPPARD: At the USA House last night, the Hershey’s activation, I had a chance to run into and have an engagement with Béla Károlyi against the backdrop of National S’mores Day, which was amazing.

A marketer I know said there aren’t as many signs up with the Rio colors and logo as in other Games. How does the look of the city compare?

KATSULERES: I admit there’s a little bit less than in past Games, but I still feel that there’s a clear Olympic flavor in the city. It doesn’t really matter — to me it doesn’t. It’s more about the atmosphere, and I think the folks here, I think they are into the Olympic experience. That’s what it’s all about.

The Rio Games were always about a trade-off. Given all you’ve had to go through, has it all been worth the upside of bringing the Games to a new market?

KATSULERES: Absolutely, having the Games come to Latin America, having the Games come to Brazil, I think it’s a good thing for the movement long term. I think certainly from a GE perspective, it’s a good thing for our business. We have been in Brazil for nearly a hundred years now. We are going to be in Brazil long after the Games are over, and I think it’s been a great opportunity for us to really kind of position what GE is all about.

TOOLEY: We don’t have the answer yet, what comes of Rio because of these Games, or Brazil as a whole. We don’t know that yet.

PALMER: A place like Rio actually helps bring some more stories to life. It’s good to have had the Games here. With the exotic nature of Rio, and quite honestly, even some of the challenges that Rio has faced … it makes it even better for us from a standpoint of the sponsorship.

LIPPARD: There’s trade‑offs in every Olympic market. I think the trade‑offs are worth it for all the reasons we discussed. It’s about managing the complex ties and challenges and trying to embrace those in a unique way for each market.

McKEEVER: We wouldn’t all have jobs if it was easy to do what we do.