Peter Sharkey: What the Olympics will do for economic recovery.
11:00 10 August 2012
I doubt the 7:34am train from Clapham Junction to Windsor & Eton Riverside has rarely been as full as it was last week. Britain’s biggest train station is used to handling large numbers of passengers, but this daily journey from south west London to Berkshire seldom draws thousands of travellers, especially ones in such high spirits despite the disappointingly overcast conditions.
By 8:30am, few disembarking the train permitted themselves anything other than a fleeting glance across to Windsor castle. The immediate task involved joining one of dozens of shuttle buses transporting hordes of colourfully-clad folk to Eton Dornay, temporary home for Britain’s Olympic rowers.
We left several Aussies, with whom we had chatted on the train, behind at the bus stop. They were waiting for compatriots due in on a later train. A dozen of them were staying with relatives dotted around London. On the bus, meanwhile, we sat opposite a couple from New Zealand whose son was in their national rowing team. They had swapped their home for one located in London’s suburbs for the month. “I hope the Brit is feeding my sheep properly,” laughed the gigantic New Zealander.
The clockwork-like nature of our journey continued uninterrupted as we headed towards an enormous car park. Crowds surged towards the rowing centre, a tangible sense of pre-race anticipation adding a spring to most steps. As planned, we met up with an American family, all six of them staying with mutual friends in Reading.
It dawned on me that not one of the international visitors with whom we had spoken was staying in an hotel. Indeed, it became evident from other random conversations held during an enjoyably patriotic day that few people were spending anything other than the minimum amount of time in hotels.
Granted, this is only anecdotal evidence, although while there has been widespread coverage of central London restaurants and visitor attractions suffering a short-term loss of custom, the biggest losers must surely be the capital’s hoteliers who envisaged making a commercial killing during the Games.
According to Experian, footfall in central London was down by 12pc on the Games’ first weekend. Young & Co, the pub group with more than 240 pubs dotted around London acknowledged that its West End and City outlets have been “very quiet, abnormally so.” Yet the fall in demand for overpriced hotel rooms (some central London hotels have reduced room rates by 90pc) is not the result of a lack of Olympic visitors. Last Thursday (2nd August), London’s Underground carried 4.31m passengers, the highest number in its history. On an average working day, the Tube transports 3.8m passengers. However, an Olympic Games rarely provides a concurrent economic boost of significant magnitude. Prior to the Beijing Games, economists estimated that tourists would pump in around £500m to the Chinese economy; the actual figure was £93m. At no point in history has domestic spending risen in the country hosting an Olympic Games. Nonetheless, the Olympic feelgood factor has washed over anyone with an ounce of national pride. Our economic woes are temporarily forgotten as the nation wears a wide, collective smile. In fact, the longer-term impact on Great Britain’s ‘branding’ is likely to be significant. We’ve become a ‘can-do’, well-organised, smiling nation. It’s this attitude that could spark economic recovery and attract foreign tourists, not overpriced hotels intent on making a short term killing.