Industry Gives Winter Olympics the Cold Shoulder

by Harvey Chipkin

Tour operators will not be setting any records when the Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi this weekend.

While there has been a lot of buzz about issues like terrorism and Russia’s anti-gay climate hurting attendance, operators who specialize in sports cite other deterrents.

They point to the distance, the cost, the lack of quality accommodations and negative perceptions of Russia in winter as the real challenges in selling the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Whatever the causes, the damage to travel bookings is real. According to an article in CNN Money, tour operators expect U.S. spectator attendance at the 2014 Winter Olympics to be the lowest in decades.

Another global sporting event – the World Cup in Rio this summer – is proving a much easier sell, operators told Travel Market Report.

Light bookings to Sochi
Annbritt Stengele, founder of  Sports Traveler in Chicago, said that after an initial spike of interest in traveling to the Sochi games, bookings have been “very light.”

“Once the product details came out, people started falling away. It was a combination of all the issues that have been discussed – plus distance, price and lack of five star properties.”

Stengele is sending several groups to Sochi. Most will be taking side trips to Moscow, since all fights connect through that city.

Brrrr . . .
“I think the overall sentiment of Russia in winter has deterred travel more than anything,” said Adam Dailey, managing director of Ludus Tours in San Diego, emailing from Sochi.

“The anti-gay issues definitely didn’t help much, but I don’t think it truly altered many travel plans. The terrorism stuff has been strong, but for better or worse, it came too late for most to change their plans,” Dailey said, referring to recent attacks, including suicide bombings in December.

The U.S. travel industry fared much better with other Olympics.

The Beijing Olympics in 2008 was a strong draw in part because China is a bucket list destination for U.S. travelers, Dailey said. And the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver drew high U.S. attendees because it was “extremely easy” logistically for U.S. travelers.

Safety concerns
Becky Treakle of Best Connection Travel in Annapolis said safety has been the biggest deterrent to travel to the Sochi Olympics. “We had a couple of inquiries, but safety kept coming up, so we really didn’t sell anything.”

That contrasts to the summer games just two years ago, she said. “We did well in the London summer Olympics in 2012. We have an agent who was raised in London and so we were able to put together some good programs for clients.”

The expense
Cost is a big issue. According to CNN Money, the bill for attending Sochi ranges from $7,000 to $14,000 per person for a week-long stay.

And last-minute travelers will pay about $3,000 for flights, which take an average of over 18 hours from New York with a connection in Moscow. Even early bookers paid about $1,000.

On arrival, hotel rates are steep, and the quality is not great.

Stengele said she had booked three star hotels in Sochi and four star hotels in the mountain area – all at very high rates.

The quality of accommodations has kept big-spending Americans from the games as well, according to Stengele. “They are used to more luxurious accommodations.” And early reports from Sochi indicate problems with things like Internet access because the hotels are so new.

Worst in 20 years
Robert Tuchman, president of Goviva in New York, said interest in the Sochi Olympics has been “extremely limited – probably the least amount of business we have run in the past 20 years.”

“The Winter Olympics is usually not as strong as summer, but certainly has great appeal. The main issue this year is the terror threat, local politics, distance to get there and the availability of quality lodging at a fair rate.”

By contrast, the Vancouver Olympics and the Salt Lake City Winter Games (in 2002) were “tremendous” in terms of sales, Tuchman said, due to the “proximity, excitement, years of buildup to those games, and less negative commentary.”

Some doing OK
Still, there are a few travel sellers who are profiting from the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“There was a decent amount of business for some American tour operators, but only because not many of them chose to even do the event,” said Dailey of Ludus Tours.

 Andrew Hill, president of Sports Travel Tours in Arlington, Texas, said he was “quite happy” with sales for this year’s Olympics.

Hockey fans
“These are our first Olympics, but we have done a lot of hockey trips in conjunction with the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, the second largest hockey league in the world. We typically have one group a year go to Russia in January or February to watch hockey, so this is a natural progression.

“For the Olympics we have done well focusing on hockey fans.

“Perhaps some have been put off by the issues around these Olympics, but there are others who are enthusiastic and prepared to pay this kind of money every four years,” Hill said.

Next time: Tips on selling travel to major sporting events, including this summer’s World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.

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