Managing The Games Time Agenda

In this fifth article, in an exclusive series for Fortune by Michael Payne – one of the world’s foremost authorities on  the Olympics and Global marketing, we examine the issue of Games time operations for Sponsors – what do they need to do to properly prepare for the Games.

After years of planning, hundreds of million of dollars of investment, as the athletes step forward on to the world stage, so do the sponsors. Like the athletes, the sponsors have also been training for this moment – some will be ready to take full advantage of the occasion, others will risk slipping and failing, because they did not prepare their operations properly for the pressures and strains of  Games time. The line between success and failure can be a very fine one.


Nothing prepares you for the Olympics.

Nothing prepares you for its sheer size and operational complexity.

Nothing prepares you for the real outpouring of public support, passion and national pride.

And nothing prepares you for the speed with which the last few months before the Games will slip away, leaving no time  to complete critical Games time operational plans.

More than a few Olympic sponsors over the years have been caught unaware – and entered the Games unprepared for what is about to happen. TOP sponsors have a distinct advantage – they have been here before, and have been able to fine tune their Games operations with each successive Olympics. For most national partners, it will be their first (and only) time that they are sponsoring the Games, and as ‘virgins’ are a distinct disadvantage. They do not know what to expect. No amount of workshops, sponsor briefings, consultants advice can truly prepare them for what is about to happen.

Time and again, the CEOs of sponsors have arrived at the Games, only to remark ‘if only I had fully understood the power of the Olympic brand – how to properly activate it, I could have achieved so much more with the sponsorship.’

Sponsors like the athletes, are also performing at the Games. In  many cases their technology and services are fundamental to the smooth running of the Games operations – and if for some reason they fail, then the public relations platform to showcase their operations to the world, can turn into a nightmare. As with the athletes, there is never enough training for the sponsor as well.

The challenges of an immovable deadline have tripped up more than a few sponsors. As a senior executive from IBM, stated with uncanny foresight shortly before the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games ‘We could always defer a space shot or big projects of this type. The Olympics are different. July 19, 1996, and the Games begin. It’s show time. We have to
perform. We have a sacrosanct deadline. It’s like hide and seek. Here come the Olympics, ready or not.

Unfortunately IBM was not ready, and the key Games results system collapsed as soon as the athletes started competing. In time-honoured tradition, when things start to go wrong they go wrong big time. The results from IBM’s much hyped information results system never appeared. Actually some results did appear – and the information only served to highlight the extent to which IBM had lost control of the system. It had a life of its own. The IBM results systems started producing stories of one metre high boxers; 900-year-old pole-vaulters; a 12 centimetre tall Nigerian ping-pong player pitted against a 19 metre tall Chinese competitor; and Danes and Australians setting new world records for events that had not yet taken place.

The world’s media were damning in their criticsm of IBM. Fortune at the time summed up the prevailing view when they noted tha ‘Big Blue screwed up at the Olympics, no doubt about it … multi-million dollar ad campaign touted reliability. If self parody were an Olympic sport, IBM have medalled.’

So how do you ensure that the final stretch of your Olympic marketing marathon is a success? How do you guarantee that your Olympic marketing programmes will deliver on their strategic objectives, and not cause you to slip up, and embarrass your company in front of the eyes of the world.

Over the years, I pulled together a simple check list for partners for their final Games time operations plan.  Any sponsor would do well, to cross check their programmes against this list.

1. Operational Planning

Games time sponsor operations requires military discipline. Every single system must be tested and re-tested. Staff members trained and retrained. Every potential scenario thought through, with relevant contingency plans.

Unfortunately it is difficult to test and simulate anything like real Games time conditions. Security, language barriers, untrained volunteers, the workings of the international media corps – all serve to create a unique environment, that can test and surprise the best laid plans.

Critical to operation planning, is the recognition that as a sponsor you are not in control of your own destiny – you are but one cog in a much bigger operational wheel, dependent on multiple different parties for the successful delivery of your operations. Some of the parties, such as your suppliers and support agencies, you can control – but the most critical players, from the Organising Committee and the IOC, through to the security forces, you have no control over.

The Organising Committee is facing many of the same challenges that you as a sponsor are facing. This is the first time for them; they are struggling to control multiple  different operations, hoping that when the time comes to fit them all together, everything will work.

Leave nothing to chance. Do not just take someone’s word for it – validate, validate, validate.

2. Do it now, not tomorrow.

You can never prepare and lock down your Games operations too soon for the Games. At the IOC, I would drive the marketing operations team to try and pin down key programmes months in advance of the Games, knowing that the final weeks and months would disappear in a final mad rush, with unexpected problems and issues arising out of nowhere.

Bump in dates – for setting up operations in key Olympic sites can suddenly get advanced due to last minute security considerations; key suppliers in a complicated chain of operations get held up.

At every single Games that I can recall, there has been challenges with importing of critical equipment at the last minute – as the local customs operations sink under the pressure of the world coming to town. 

Keep advancing your own deadlines for delivery of key games operations programmes.

3. Comprehensive Risk and Contingency Audit

Every partner should undertake a detailed and comprehensive risk audit for their operations. What issues can fall between the cracks – between you and the Organising Committee or other different partners.

Check key information from all angles, that every relevant OCOG department has the same understanding of what your role and deliverables will be, and what their own individual responsibilities are. You need to be a detective to piece together all the bits and pieces of the jig saw puzzle to see if it all first together, and that there are no missing parts.

Organising committees grow at a rate faster than any company – it is virtually impossible for them to keep apace of staffing – and one of the biggest challenges is managing communications and responsibilities as Games operational units move out into the venues.

Prepare for the worst – it is your best insurance policy.

4. Hospitality Programmes.

It never ceases to amaze me how often sponsors underestimate the complexity of Games time hospitality operations. Guests have been invited for an experience of a lifetime – and yet the attention to detail on the little issues will make all the difference as to whether this is truly a unique experience.

Rehearse your hospitality operation, running ‘a day in the life of’ guest experience from airport arrivals (always an issue) through to lost guests at the Opening Ceremony.

Create special moments beyond the Olympic venue. Giving the guest a picture holding the Olympic torch in Tianammen Square, or a signed picture with an athlete and the gold medal at the reception will provide for those lasting memories.

How special is your hospitality experience?

5. Ambush Marketing

Identify areas of potential risk up front – where might your competitors attempt to undermine your exclusive Olympic association. Review with the Organising Committee their response plans as to how specific cases will be dealt with  - and have your own legal team on standby ready to respond. Time is of the essence here – and advanced planning will pay dividends in ensuring that ambush attempts are brought quickly and decisively under control.

Pre-emption is always better than cure. Invest upfront in protecting your rights – and use market intelligence to understand what your competitor is planning, and act accordingly.

6. Public Relations

Give the media simple key facts and information on the sponsorship – not a long thesis on the company philosophy. Far too often, the sponsors hand out expensively produced press kits,  that may make the PR agency feel good, but is of limited value to the world’s media. Give them short interesting facts – what you are doing for the Games and athletes; why you are sponsoring, and what the benefit has been. Keep it simple.

And as part of the risk audit analysis, make sure that your own communications team has prepared for any issue that might arise, and can deal with promptly.

7. Games Time Presence

How will your message standout from all the other sponsors. Games time clutter can be a big challenge. Is there a clear and direct link the Olympic brand – or are the programmes just logo slapping? Is there an integrated Olympic look to the sponsor presence? Will the showcasing connect to the Olympic experience, or just be written off as a corporate, unemotional trade stand.?

8. Collecting the Assets

All too often sponsors in the heat of the Olympic moment, forget to properly document their Olympic story – and then after the Games struggle to build their detailed case study and post Games report.

Filming of operations ( a complicated exercise inside venues with rights clearance and security management) market research and polling; media and guest quotes – all key information to help compile a true report of the sponsorship. Do not wait until after the Games to collect the information and images  - it will be too late.

9. Post Games Programme

It does not all just stop with the Closing Ceremony. The Paralympic Games have in recent years become a major event in their own right – extending the city celebrations and hospitality programmes.

And what marketing programmes are in place to build on the success of the Games and national pride. Post Games commemorative pins. Athlete tours of factories. Local welcome home parades.

Operational planning for all sponsors now will be well advanced. However, the challenge for each one, is still to take a step back and look at the total programme, understand how the different elements all come together – and critically try to imagine how it will work in the real Games time environment. Advance planning, attention to detail, recognition that time, not budgets is now your most precious resource will in large part dictate how the success of a a sponsors games time operations.

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