On Message: “Olympian” effort needed to make London 2012 a success

Last week we saw the latest move in the extraordinary renaissance of Willie Walsh, boss of British Airways. He was unveiled as the new president of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI). (http://bit.ly/bG3xhW)

Two-and-a-half years after the lowest moment of his career – the chaotic opening of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (http://bit.ly/8Z5Mb9 ) – Walsh took on his additional role with all the PR bombast he has discovered since then.

He warned that London’s reputation as the world’s leading business centre was ‘under threat’, not least because of the government’s determination to block a third Heathrow runway. 

Walsh is now in a very powerful position in terms of the UK’s capital. Not only is he about to become (London-based) chief executive of the soon-to-merge BA and Iberia (with more airlines to be acquired in time), but will also use his new role as head of London’s business lobby to leverage great influence.

The LCCI has traditionally had a low media profile, but Walsh clearly intends to change that. And he will certainly be able to do so because his two-year tenure will encompass the 2012 Olympics in London.

Delhi’s disastrous beginning to hosting this year’s Commonwealth Games reminds us of the power of sporting events to build, or ruin, the reputation of destinations.

The headlines last week surrounding the collapsed bridge, and allegedly sub-standard accommodation for sports stars, reinforced the hugely damaging stereotype of ‘an inefficient and disorganised’ India in much of the Western world.

The next two years will throw the spotlight on to London as a business and tourism destination, something that Walsh recognises only too well.

And while he will be doing his best to further the interests of London business (and BA-Iberia’s new International Airlines Group), the capital will need a more co-ordinated effort if it is to shine on the international stage.

The Pope’s recent visit – during which one of his aides described landing in Heathrow as akin to visiting a ‘third world country’ – reminded us of the importance of London’s gateways in forming the destination’s brand reputation.

Whatever the aide actually meant, arriving at Heathrow can indeed be a deeply depressing experience, primarily because the infrastructure is so confusing and poorly designed. Regardless of the third runway, the whole of Heathrow – with the exception of the generally excellent Terminal 5 – needs to be revamped.

Meanwhile, the most direct way into the capital from the airport – the sluggish and cramped Piccadilly Line – is hardly a great advertisement for a world-leading city destination. Many cities, including Iberia’s home Madrid, have invested admirably in their core infrastructure to great effect.

And to be fair, London Mayor Boris Johnson is lobbying central government hard to do the same. But here we are, less than two years from London’s greatest ever showcase, and it simply doesn’t feel enough.

While Locog, the organising body, appears to be doing a sterling job in marketing the event itself, in my view the UK needs to look at South Africa’s excellent World Cup tourism marketing effort to get brand London shipshape.

Whereas the various South African authorities pulled together in their campaign, in the UK there is a tendency for different bodies to criticise one another. South Africa also cleverly used the very latest new media techniques to maximise this effect. (http://bit.ly/blvgoF)

To make London 2012 a success in destination terms, we will need a combination of operational efficiency, warm welcome and well-managed brand perceptions.

We can trust Walsh to continue to make his own individual impact, but even the rejuvenated ‘little Willie’ will be p***ing in the wind without a co-ordinated – and Olympian – effort behind brand London over the next 23 months.

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