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Volume 21 No. 34

Olympics

The luxurious “Inspiration Club” for Olympic hospitality.
Photo: iluka

Pyeongchang 2018 is a throwback Winter Olympics, held in Pyeongchang County and the coastal city of Gangneung, which together are about the size of Toledo, Ohio.

 

Small isn’t all bad — it’s easy to get around, and quaint certainly counts for a lot — but creating a modern corporate sports hospitality experience is a massive burden.

 

How daunting?

 

Well, how about every night for the 16 nights of the Games, workers in suburban Seoul, three hours west of Pyeongchang, will load trucks to the brim with five-star food and alcohol, all custom-ordered from the Hyatt Group earlier that day.

  

Once full, those trucks will leave Incheon and begin a long trek through the dark, destined for the loading dock of Gangneung City FC’s soccer stadium, near one of the two main Olympic parks. At midnight, the trucks will unload into a temporary kitchen built under the stands.

Each morning, Olympic sponsors will be entertaining VIP guests in the concourse of the stadium, which has been transformed for the Games into the luxurious “Inspiration Club” by London-based agency iLUKA, a contractor for the Pyeongchang organizers. No expense was spared in design, staffing and heating, but if you look up you can still see the stepped seating of the stadium.

 

This extraordinary, costly effort will be repeated every night, just one of the extreme steps taken by the Olympic business elites to provide a five-star experience in the smallest, least-developed Olympic host city in a generation.

 

“You wouldn’t even start here [to look for food, alcohol and staffing],” said Jon Hillman, CEO of iLUKA, a hospitality subsidiary of CSM Sport & Entertainment, which has worked every Olympics since Albertville ’92.

 

Along with a paucity of high-end restaurants and food vendors in Pyeongchang, luxury hotels are few and far between, meaning many groups are staying 45 minutes or more from the Games.

 

“So they travel up here for some events, and then they wonder what are they going to do with these C-suite guests while they’re in Gangneung,” said iLUKA Managing Director Felicity Shankar. “Some of them might have 90 or 120 people, and they can’t keep them together as a group. We’ve had some who are based here, with smaller groups, but they still wonder, ‘How we can create something that is what our guests expect of us?’ So, there was quite a high demand from sponsors.”

  

Albertville ’92 and Lillehammer ’94 are two of the “village Olympics” remembered fondly by longtime Olympic visitors. But since then, the Games have greatly expanded, and so have sponsorship hospitality programs.

 

Jon Hillman, iLUKA CEO, and Managing Director Felicity Shankar.
Photo: iluka

“From one side, [Pyeongchang’s] great, because it’s small and intimate and everything’s kind of near one another, so if you’re lucky enough to have a room there, it’s really great,” said U.S. Biathlon CEO Max Cobb. “On the other hand, it’s a relatively recently developed area for tourism and winter sports, and the accommodations, once the organizing committee and the NOCs are done with their needs, are pretty hard to find.”

 

Hotels have been the main issue. Room availability is essentially gone — Pyeongchang 2018 President Lee Hee-beom strongly suggests day trips from Seoul, which is three hours away, for last-second ticket buyers. There also are few large, high-end facilities needed by major guest programs. More common are small condo developments and “pensions,” like bed and breakfasts.

 

Bridgestone’s guest program is based in Seoul, and it’s taking guests back and forth by bus — a time-consuming six hours roundtrip in a day to see Olympic events. Phil Pacsi, Bridgestone Americas vice president of sports and events marketing, said it works out because his guests want to see the city tourism destinations as well.

 

But it’s an intense schedule.

 

“Timing is going to be kind of weird, because we’re going to be getting back to Seoul very late on the days we’re going to the [sports] events,” Pacsi said. “That next day’s activities are taking place in Seoul.”

  

NBC decided early on to keep most of its luxury clients stateside rather than overburden the hotel industry in Pyeongchang. Dow Chemical is headquartered in Yangyang, 45 minutes north of Gangneung. A General Electric group is staying even farther north, in Sokcho. Even the hotels in Gangneung, where the arena events are, are widely spread out throughout the city.

 

The "Inspiration Club" was transformed from a Korean soccer stadium.
Photo: iluka

Chris Katsuleres, GE’s director of Olympic marketing, said guests are just spending less time at the hotel than they normally would, because there’s no practical way to build afternoon down time into the schedule.

 

“It’s all part of the allocation process, it was best available,” Katsuleres said. “We’ll make it work.” 

 

Even Sochi, known as a built-from-scratch Olympics in an unfamiliar part of Russia, had an urban center when the Winter Games were there four years ago. So, of course, did Vancouver in 2010.

 

“You just don’t have a major metropolitan feel to [it] at all,” Katsuleres continued. “It’s got a lot of potential. We’ll see in a couple weeks when it’s all said and done. Being in a rural environment, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

 

Before he left New York for Korea, CAA Sports’ Lowell Taub said it was hard to prepare for the Games because so few people have been to Pyeongchang, and the level of transportation infrastructure was not clear. The venues are close to each other by modern Olympic standards, but they’re not walking distance, and because of the smaller population, there’s not a lot of taxis. 

 

“It always comes together,” Taub said. “I’m not super stressed about it, but I also feel like I’m also the most in the dark than I ever have been before an Olympics.”

The barriers standing between a full marriage of the Olympics and esports didn’t fall down. But after International Olympic Committee sponsor Intel arranged a modest first date at the Pyeongchang Winter Games, a second event at Tokyo 2020 looks likely.

 

Two days before the real Olympics started, Canadian Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn was crowned champion of the Intel Extreme Masters Pyeongchang, winning a $50,000 prize for besting a field of 18 in StarCraft II, a game normally dominated by Korean men.

During the three-day tournament, senior IOC executives toured the event, and while final viewership figures won’t be released for a few weeks, they were impressed, said Christian Voigt, vice president of marketing development for the IOC. He said they’ll keep working with Intel on esports development.

“The expectation certainly is that we continue that conversation, as we’ve opened the door to a new community,” Voigt said.

Canadian Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn was crowned champion of the Intel Extreme Masters Pyeongchang.
Photo: intel / esl

IEM Pyeongchang was a modest affair, put together quickly by Intel, its advisers at CAA Sports, the IOC and tournament organizer ESL in a few months after Intel signed its global Olympic sponsorship in June.

It was far too late to secure showcase space inside the official Olympic footprint, so the event was relegated to a wedding reception venue in an isolated, run-down part of the city 20 minutes away. It had no live audience but was streamed on the digital Olympic Channel in addition to Twitch, Facebook, Twitter, AfreecaTV and Chinese platforms.

John Bonini, Intel’s vice president of gaming, hopes to deliver a true live event in two years. Intel’s Olympic sponsorship runs through the 2024 Paris Games.

“If I had to put money on it, I’d say it’s going to be bigger,” Bonini said. “Maybe it will be a stadium event, maybe it will even be two or three titles. This is some of my personal areas of interest, so I don’t want to convey this is all locked down. But we’d like to get a little bigger, get a live audience and start getting some more feedback.”

The event’s presentation was a mashup of Olympic imagery and standard esports production, itself an unusual step for the IOC’s normally rigid approach to its brand. The Olympic rings were displayed on the competition stage, and the players wore blue Intel-IOC logo lockup shirts, not their usual uniforms with their own sponsors’ logos. Also, players competed with their national flags behind them, associating them more closely with their country than they normally would be in esports.

Because the event was really just a marketing activation for Intel run under the competition rules of ESL, not an Olympic sport, the organizers had extensive freedoms to innovate. But that was a challenge, too, as parties with little in common negotiated in a short time frame.

Media rights was one of the hardest parts, Bonini said. The IOC, StarCraft publisher Blizzard Entertainment and ESL all initially believed they had a claim to the media rights, he said.

The IEM Pyeongchang introduced esports to the Olympic community, with gamers taking the unusual step of competing under national flags.
Photo: intel / esl

“It took some time to understand what are the real guardrails, what’s everyone’s motivations, and then get people who haven’t necessarily worked together yet to trust each other very quickly,” Bonini said.

Just a few miles away on the night of the round of 16, IOC President Thomas Bach reminded his organization that the Olympics will move cautiously on esports despite their power to reach young viewers. In a major speech, he said the IOC won’t include “video games which are about killing, which glorify violence or which promote discrimination,” limiting the number of possible game partners.

Furthermore, there’s a litany of bureaucratic challenges in making video games an official Olympic sport — there’s no single global governing authority, and publishers own intellectual property rights to their games. Voigt said that lack of clarity on the sport side isn’t a problem for the marketing arm of the IOC to continue working with Intel.

Bonini called for a new model that would sidestep the issues associated with joining the official Olympic program, perhaps akin to the Paralympics or the Youth Olympic Games. “I don’t know what that is, we’ll probably have to go through some bumps in the road for the next few years before we kind of figure it out,” he said.

ESL CEO Ralf Reichert said that two years ago, the question of whether esports would become part of the Olympics would be summarily dismissed. “Today we’re sitting here asking how it’s going to be integrated, not if,” he said.

Inside Eurosport’s offices at the International Broadcast Center in Pyeongchang, retired German ski jumpers Sven Hannawald and Martin Schmitt were recording an analysis segment in their native language. They’re on the same set Bode Miller will use for skiing segments later on, along with stars from at least three other countries.

 

Down the hall, the Norway control room buzzed with activity on the penultimate day before the opening ceremony. Kitty-corner, the Swedish room was also full. Two men walked by speaking French. Giving a tour to reporters was David Schafer, Eurosport’s American senior vice president of Olympic operations, and CEO Peter Hutton.

These polyglot, windowless offices are the proving grounds for one of the most surprising media rights deals in global sports: Discovery’s Eurosport acquiring Olympic rights in Europe through 2024 for $1.48 billion. Debuting at the Pyeongchang Games, the cable giant is eager to prove it’s not merely picking up where the old free-to-air broadcasters it replaced left off, but doing it better.

Former ski jumper Sven Hannawald provides analysis from “The Cube” in Eurosport’s Pyeongchang studio.
Photo: eurosport

“How do you get to the point where you say that Discovery has done this differently?” Hutton said. “How do you raise the bar? Do people say, ‘I love that because of what Eurosport did with it?’”

It’s a complicated task. Eurosport’s rights cover 48 countries in numerous languages — all of Europe except Russia, France and the U.K., with the latter two coming online after 2020. It will show the Olympics on its free-to-air channels in Norway, Germany and Sweden in addition to its Eurosport cable and digital outlets across the continent.

With 900 workers in Korea and 1,200 back in Europe devoted to the Games, Eurosport is tackling the Olympics with the idea of letting their country-specific broadcasters create the show they want with the benefit of a powerful shared-service agency above them, said John Honeycutt, chief technology officer.

For instance, Eurosport has 96 remote camera positions at the Olympics available to the entire organization to share, allowing different countries to dip in and out of sports without committing to a spot for the entire Games.

The set that Hannawald and Schmitt were on earlier in the tour has been dubbed “The Cube.” It’s a generic white box studio that supports a digital background which can be customized by sport and enhanced with highlights and graphics to aid in the analysis.

“The scale allows us to make that big technological innovation, the budget to setting up something like this,” Hutton said. “And then you roll in and out lots of local presenters in lots of local languages, so everyone looks like they’ve got high-tech German content, or high-tech Polish content. And that way, you’re using your spend to create a local impression.”