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.
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.
“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.
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.”