Operators of Vancouver's 2010's premier venues prepare to balance Olympic legacy with economic sustainability.
A mere 18 months after hosting some of the 2008 Summer Olympics' greatest moments, the splashiest facility of those Games - Beijing's National Stadium, a.k.a. the Bird's Nest - was assuming a decidedly wintery feel. By Dec. 19, artificial snow machines had produced a reported 3.7 square miles of one-and-a-half-foot-deep white fluff to transform the stadium into a winter wonderland, complete with a ski slope and an artificial ice rink. The "Happy Snow and Ice Season" program may prove to be good fun, but it's also being widely regarded as a rather desperate attempt to generate a steady revenue stream from the facility, something that has been increasingly hard to come by since Beijing's Olympic torch was extinguished.
CITIC, the company that owned a controlling stake in National Stadium until the Beijing municipal government assumed operational control in August, netted approximately $38 million in revenue after the conclusion of the 2008 Games, 70 percent of which came from tourism, according to China Daily reports last month. But daily facility tours are now down from 50,000 per day to fewer than 10,000, and multiple professional sports franchises that were speculated to become anchor tenants of the 80,000-seat stadium have since flown the coop.
Such tribulations are not lost on those in charge of post-Games operations of the facilities that will be showcased in next month's Winter Olympiad, Vancouver 2010. "We've visited a number of venues in Olympic cities, primarily in Lillehammer, Turino, Salt Lake City and Calgary," says Ted Townsend, senior manager of corporate communications for the city of Richmond, B.C., owner and operator of what is arguably this Olympiad's most ostentatious venue, the Richmond Oval. "The warning we heard time and time again from the people who were involved in building and operating these Olympic venues was, 'Don't make the same mistake we made,' which essentially was to build a venue for the Olympics and then worry about its legacy use afterward. There are too many examples of facilities that have become white elephants, if not outright mothballs, after the Games."
Heeding that warning, the city of Richmond set forth to create a facility that not only represents the state of the art for its Olympic sport (the oval is being touted as the fastest long-track speed skating venue in the world), but also one that can be converted to accommodate a variety of uses that will allow it to remain financially viable for years, even decades, after the Games' closing ceremonies. "We took that advice to heart," says Townsend. "When we made the decision to go forward with a bid for the oval, we planned for a facility that would meet our long-term community needs. It just so happened that the facility had to also have the capacity to hold speed-skating competitions for the Olympic Games."
Townsend says the 512,000-square-foot facility with seating for 8,000 spectators is approximately one-third larger than what studies determined would be needed to comfortably host long-track Olympic speed skating, but that the larger footprint was required for the oval to serve its post-Games purpose. In fact, Richmond Oval may be a misnomer once the games have concluded and the massive conversion occurs. The space currently occupied by the 400-meter ice track will essentially be divided into three more-permanent zones, although Townsend notes that the facility can always be reconverted to allow for long-track training and competition.
One zone will contain two Olympic-size ice rinks that can accommodate both hockey and short-track speed skating. "We're in discussions with the national federations of both those sports about having a relationship to use those ice surfaces for training and competition on an ongoing basis," notes Townsend. The second zone will expand the current wood-surfaced interior of the ice track to achieve the equivalent of eight full-size basketball courts. Says Townsend, "Of course, we can use that area for volleyball, racquet sports, a lot of the wheelchair sports or pretty much any indoor summer Olympic sport you can think of." The third zone will contain a 200-meter running track with a multipurpose infield. "All of those zones are fairly flexible in the sense that the surfaces we will use can be removed or converted," Townsend says. "We can mix and match the zones to host just about any indoor sporting event, for training or competition purposes."
Permanent amenities housed adjacent to the three-zone main activity level include a comprehensive fitness center, a sports medicine and sciences suite, office space for a regional high-performance-athlete development firm, an indoor rowing tank and numerous multiactivity spaces for recreational use. "This is meant to be a full-service facility for high-performance athletes and major competitions," explains Townsend. "But at the same time, the sheer size and flexibility make it perfect for community use."
High-performance sports and athlete development had better be part of the post-Games plan - that is, if Richmond wants some financial assistance in operating the facility. Following a financing model that has helped venues in other Winter Olympics cities maintain post-Games viability, the province of British Columbia and the Canadian federal government each contributed $55 million to create the 2010 Games Operating Trust, which will benefit what are considered the Games' primary legacy facilities - the Richmond Oval, the Whistler (B.C.) Olympic Park, the Whistler Sliding Centre and the Whistler Athletes Centre. Forty percent of the overall fund is earmarked for the oval, another 40 percent for the Whistler facilities, and the remaining 20 percent for contingencies, such as major structural emergencies.
Owners and operators of the legacy facilities - respectively, the City of Richmond and Whistler 2010 Sport Legacies, a nonprofit entity with representation from numerous other nonprofit and government agencies associated with the Games - can each receive up to 5 percent of their portion of the fund's value annually for operational purposes, with the following condition: the facilities must maintain a dedication to Olympic sports training and development.
At the oval, at least, that condition dictated some creative programmatic planning. "In our research, we did see some models where there were tensions between community use and high-performance sport use," says Townsend. "But we have discovered some models where it can work well." Townsend likens the oval's post-Games configuration to the kinds of expansive multipurpose recreation and athletics centers that can be found at certain colleges and universities in the United States. "We think one of the great things about our facility is that we'll be able to have world-class athletes training there, and they may be right beside youth or other up-and-coming athletes who may be inspired by them."
The trust's sports-development clause also challenges operators of these facilities in that development of world-class athletes is hardly a profitable venture. "Our mandate is to own and operate these venues with a focus on sports development, but also with a focus on the bottom line," says Paul Shore, marketing and business development manager for Whistler 2010 Sport Legacies, acknowledging that those two objectives aren't exactly complementary. "There is an onus on us to develop other business elements that are going to generate income that will help supplement the financial needs of these venues."
Thus, to deepen the revenue streams at the three Whistler facilities, the organization is devoting a fair share of its energy to developing tourism programs. At the Whistler Sliding Centre - which includes an operations building, a multipurpose lodge and a nearly 1,500-meter track for all the Games' bobsled, luge and skeleton competitions - post-Games plans call for tourist rides, either on a bobsled behind an experienced pilot or solo on a skeleton, from starting points low on the track. "Sport doesn't generate much revenue for these facilities, but tourism can - especially at a bobsled track," says Shore, adding that the Centre's tourism plan is in part modeled after those in place at some of the world's most renowned sliding tracks, including Lake Placid, N.Y.; Park City, Utah; and St. Moritz, Switzerland (which, constructed in 1903, remains a legend among Winter Olympics legacy facilities).
"We think being in Whistler has set us up incredibly well to do what those three tracks are doing, or better, as far as tourism," says Shore. "We expect to draw a lot of corporate events here, too, because we have some very nice meeting spaces. The events could include sliding, or organizations could just be looking for a creative venue to hold team-building exercises."
After another of Whistler's legacy venues, the Olympic/Paralympic Park, plays host next month to cross-country skiing, biathlon, Nordic combined and ski jump events, it will likewise be promoted not only as an elite-level training venue, but also as an attraction for more casual skiers, corporate clients and tourists of all kinds. "We're working with a local tourism group to try to stimulate business," says Shore, adding that post-Games products will include such programs as the "Biathlon Experience," in which tourists will be allowed to navigate a Biathlon course and use live firearms to shoot at targets. "We're also working with partners to develop some innovative programs to try to attract a lot of corporate team-building in the summer. The park is so spacious and has so many kilometers of trails and roads, it's uniquely set up for athletic team-building events."
At the Whistler Athletes Centre - composed of a high-performance training facility surrounded by lodge and townhome accommodations that will serve as an athletes' village during the Games - post-Games revenue will come less from tourism and more from visiting athletes and additional corporate entities. As part of the long-term vision for the Centre, a 5,000-square-foot gymnastics hall was built into the early designs and will be operated by a local gymnastics club. A regional athlete-development agency will operate a human performance testing lab and a recovery and regeneration facility. By offering food service as well as flexible lease arrangements, Whistler Sports Legacies 2010 hopes to attract athletes of all levels who may be interested in any of the nearby athletics facilities for training purposes.
Whether these efforts will actually pay off enough for these legacy facilities to stay in the black remains to be seen. Making long-term financial prognostications even more difficult is the economic wave that will crest when the Games themselves take place next month. "In a pre-Olympics year, the cost of running any of these venues is much higher than it will be after the Games," says Shore. "That makes it difficult to finalize your estimates. You don't operate in post-Games mode anything like the way you operate in pre-Games mode."
However, Shore acknowledges the need to capitalize on the ripples created by the Olympic Movement. "There is a draw from the actual Olympic Games," he says. "The curiosity will fall off over the years, but a venue does have those years to establish its own personality to counteract that effect. There are facilities that have done such a good job developing their tourism products that by the time that Olympic buzz wears off, they are so well known for what they do that it's hard to pinpoint any falloff."
Townsend remains confident that the extensive post-Games planning for the Richmond Oval will benefit not only the city, but the community, the greater Vancouver region and even the Canadian sports world for years to come. "A long-track skating facility is very difficult to operate," says Townsend, adding that Calgary, host of the 1988 Winter Games, remains the national training center for long-track skating. "If we had made the decision to go into competition with Calgary after the Games, we would have ended up cutting each others' throats. That's part of the reason that we made the decision early on to go with a multipurpose facility. Not only could it support our community better, but it was an economic decision."
In what would seem to be a highly competitive world marketplace for state-of-the-art Olympic training facilities, Townsend says he has been overwhelmed by a spirit of collegiality. "Within the Olympic Movement, everywhere we went when we were doing our best-practices research, we were welcomed with open arms," he says. "People were happy to share with us their successes and also their challenges. We've had a number of visits from people from Sochi and London, and we've done our best to impart any information we may have to them."
Granted, the arms that were opened widest most likely belonged to Townsend's Canadian brethren. "I don't see competition," he says. "Certainly within Canada, there's an effort to build a national model for sport development, and there's a recognition that we all need to contribute to that and create an overall network of sustainable facilities and programs that will allow us to excel in sport. We're not individually trying to own it all."
Shore likewise says the futures of this Games' legacy facilities have been made more promising thanks to the expertise of the scores of people with experience operating the venues of Games past. But he adds that a firm foothold in a global marketplace for high-performance sports is never guaranteed. "It's going to be a challenge," he says. "You can study Calgary, you can study St. Moritz, and you can study Park City. But you have to look at your own demographics - geography, populations, tourism potential. No two venues are ever the same."