The London 2012 Olympics impacts and legacy: an Edinburgh perspective

City of Edinburgh Skyline (Arthur’s Seat)

by Kenneth Wardrop

Sunday 9 September saw the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games and the end of the UK’s ‘Summer of Sport’, the highlight of which was the Olympic Games from the 27 July to the 12 August 2012.  Edinburgh’s Summer Festivals were well placed in the calendar (sitting between the Olympics and Paralympics) to take advantage of the Games. The immediate impact of the Olympic Games on Edinburgh, the UK’s second city for international visitor arrivals are now being considered and analysed by commentators and academics. 

The world’s largest  annual arts event the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which runs alongside six other major summer festivals in Edinburgh in July through  to September, ran from the 1 August to the 4 September 2012.  The first week of the Fringe overlapped with the last week of the London Olympics.  At the end of the first week of the Fringe Festival many event  promoters and venue operators were openly voicing concerns about poor audience levels and ticket sales, which were being put down to the impact of the Olympics keeping people at home to watch the events on television and influencing overseas visitors to change their travel plans to the UK,  but also to poor summer weather and the impact of the on-going economic recession on consumer’s purchase of tickets.   Some commentators suggested that in 2012 the dates for the Fringe should have been pushed back a week to avoid the clash with the Olympics.

In 2012 the twenty five day Fringe Festival  witnessed a 6% increase in scale with 2,695 shows, 42,096 performances, in 279 venues involving 22,457 performers  – the largest event in the 66year history of the Fringe.

At the end of the Fringe on the 4 September,  ticket sales seemed to have recovered after the first week when it was head to head with the Olympics for audience and media attention, with ticket sales in 2012 being only 1% down overall. Total ticket sales in 2012 were actually at the second highest level ever in the Fringe’s history.  The International Book Festival saw a 3% increase in ticket sales while the International Festival  enjoyed an 11% increase in ticket sales and 9% increase in box office income.

One of the major successes of the International Festival was the Cultural Olympiad show   ‘Speed of Light’ by NVA   a ‘fusion of public art and sporting endeavour’ involving a light show with lit runners and the audience being led in a  climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat  (the extinct volcano that dominates the Edinburgh skyline)

NVA Speed of Light Show Edinburgh International Festival 2012

So overall the immediate impact of the Olympics on Edinburgh has been deemed not to have been negative.  Jonathan Mills Director of the International Festival stated:  “I think we have been very ambitious, when everyone around is saying ’be unambitious, batten down the hatches’ (because of the Olympics), and that has stood us in good steed”. [The Herald, 3 September 2012

City partners working with Edinburgh’s Festivals and VisitScotland for the past three years have been working on a strategic plan to ensure that the city made the most of the opportunities of the London Olympics, and took mitigating action to counter negative impacts.  Marketing campaigns hedged bets and both targeted domestic and international visitors coming to London for the games and also those seeking an alternative to London ( the South East of England is Scotland’s main domestic tourism market).  VisitScotland  invested £500,000 (c €400,000) in 2012 on marketing Edinburgh’s summer festivals.  VisitScotland also brought large numbers of the world’s visiting press to the Olympics on familiarisation visits to experience Edinburgh during the festival.  They also worked with city promotion bodies to raise the profile of Edinburgh and Scotland at Scotland House in London. Edinburgh’s Festivals also bolstered their communication and marketing to existing and new customers through 2011 and 2012 to stimulate visits. As ever it is difficult to prove that this promotional activity directly contributed to the overall success of the summer festivals, but I would suggest that not to have undertaken this promotion against the backdrop of significant  Olympics marketing and media coverage would have been a brave move?

A major first for Edinburgh was the successful hosting on the 13 and 14 August 2012  of the International Culture Summit  taking place on the days after the London Olympics closing ceremony.

This event was a major development in the utilisation of the high brand equity and artistic regard  of Edinburgh’s Festivals as a vehicle for promoting cultural diplomacy, while at the same time the summit also formed part of the significant cultural diplomacy activity of the London Olympics themselves.  The summit hosted  by the Scottish Government in the Scottish Parliament, with the support of the Edinburgh International Festival, the British Council and the UK Government, brought together representatives from 37 countries including Cultural Ministers and leading commentators. The summit considered the role of arts in deepening relationships between culture and nations and issues such as the funding of the arts and culture.  The summit strengthened Edinburgh’s reputation for shaping opinion and influencing thought through culture and the arts.

Edinburgh International Culture Summit, Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh August 2012

The lessons learnt from this year’s Cultural Summit, and other cultural diplomacy activity associated with the London Olympics and Paralympics 2012, will now be taken forward by Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Festivals in a programme running up to and during the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014  It is anticipated that the Edinburgh International Cultural Summit will become a regular event.

The experience of Edinburgh in 2012, a destination seeking to maintain its market position in the shadow of a neighbouring and competing destination hosting a mega event such as the Olympics, suggests that as long as the product is strong with established consumer appeal and awareness, negative impacts can be managed and with appropriate advanced planning benefits can be drawn and market advantage taken.

In terms of other London Olympic and Paralympic 2012 legacy, expectations in Edinburgh, Scotland and the United Kingdom are that the positive global profile raising and perception shifting of the destination, and in particular the diversity of the country’s cultural offer, will boost demand for trips to the UK in 2013 and beyond.   This of course will undoubtedly be the subject in the future of significant analysis, review and commentary, seeking to establish best practice and shared experience for other destinations hosting mega events.

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