Sports tourism is a big business and is not just for those places that a Premier League football team calls home. Paul Clapham reports on how to get a slice of the market
The commercial impact of a local team can have a real impact on hospitality in the area - these days sports tourism is big business. "It's absolutely magnificent, not just for my team but the whole town." Ian Holloway, Blackpool FC manager, describes the boost to the local economy derived from the football club's promotion to the Premier League.
In Blackpool, the hope is that fans will come for the match and stay for the weekend, as they did in times past. Archit Bhatnagar, operations manager at the Blackpool Best Western Carlton, says it will have a big effect. "Fans will stay the weekend, even those coming from Manchester and Liverpool," he says. "They come to enjoy themselves and the football will be part of that." Catering for the sporting crowd, the hotel has flat screen TVs throughout to tempt them to stay that bit longer in the bar while other matches are on.
Pat Francioni, owner of the Alumhurst hotel, is also upbeat. She sees the benefit as not just match day visitors, but also the exposure that the Premier League will give the town. When the cameras turn up, the seafront, the tower and the pleasure beach will get some worldwide coverage, encouraging more than just football followers. Though they come with a reputation, Francioni isn't worried by the possibility of raucous revellers. "Blackpool deals with worse than football fans every weekend," she explains.
Hollingdales hotel is very much a family hotel with 85% repeat business, so owner Nick Lumsden is more cautious about the benefits - he doesn't want big groups upsetting his regulars. At the same time he's already booked in a group of them for the visit of Sunderland and he predicts that this will be a theme - regular visitors coming for another stay to watch their team. And this, Lumsden believes, will be the real business benefit, particularly in the winter months. "The real boost will be in the quieter months from November to March," he says.
There's a similar enthusiasm elsewhere. Cardiff is a city which has seen a major uplift in sports tourism over recent years. The Millennium Stadium has been the major catalyst, especially when it substituted for Wembley. In addition, the Welsh Assembly has been very active in recruiting sporting events. Whoever would have expected the Ashes to start in Cardiff?
Javeed Anwar, head of marketing at the Sleeperz group, cheerfully admits that good old location, location, location does their sports marketing for them - the hotel is right next to the Millennium Stadium. At the same time, the product has to be right and pricing handled with sensitivity. Although they're guaranteed a full hotel when the stadium is full, they actively try to extend stays beyond one night via pricing.
There are many more benefits than just a full hotel. First, sports fans are good for bar sales. They are also repeat business - the same people come back time after time, and they provide referrals. Above all, "sports events create a buzz, a vibe in the city and the hotel - there's nowhere like Cardiff on a big sporting weekend", says Anwar.
Five minutes walk from the Millennium Stadium, the Big Sleep is another beneficiary of sports visits. The hotel is also opposite the Cardiff International Arena, which attracts a variety of events, including some sport. General manager James MacLeod says that sports represent "a big element of our weekend trade". To develop the business, he recommends working with the sports travel specialists, and he believes that price is a key factor in attracting this business. As elsewhere, MacLeod finds no conflict between sports tourists and other clientele, nor are they troublesome guests. "They're just here for a good time," he adds.
Edinburgh is a somewhat different kettle of fish. Although there are two Premier League football teams - Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian - they don't attract many overnight stays because the bulk of away fans are travelling less than ninety minutes.
Rugby, however, does generate serious business. At the Murrayfield hotel, Sarah Buchanan says that sports fans are valuable business year-round. The hotel has established good relationships with the rugby club who play in National Division 1. For the Six Nations matches they are full, but to keep those regular twice-yearly visitors it's important to stay in touch.
Buchanan recommends a broad-brush approach to attract this business. The big tour operators are important but there are also hundreds of smaller operators. Equally valuable is the youth sector, which is growing year on year. Get in touch with inbound travel agents. Above all, develop your existing customer base. "Sports fans pass on the good word and they really value personal recommendations," Buchanan says.
Andreas Maszczyk, manager of the George hotel in Edinburgh, says that sports travel offers a fantastic business base but the key to success is service. "You have to answer the question ‘what can we do to be special?'" he says. He recommends being prepared to be flexible over facilities, have a separate check-in for groups, and accommodate overseas visitors' tastes. The George will often include a piper to make a visit memorable - the cost of which comes back over the bar.
Maszczyk also recognises the value of relationship building - at exhibitions, business networking events and with all the tourism bodies. He is also a keen user of social network sites. "One tweet could be big business," he says.
A key message is not to miss the low-profile events. A huge number never touch the radar of national media, but, from archery to yachting, they are still very well supported by enthusiasts. Tourism expert Professor Tim Coles of the University of Exeter says the market should not be overlooked. "Sport tourism is a highly significant segment in the market but it does not always get the full attention it deserves," he says.
"Events like the Olympic Games and World Cup are rightly recognised for their economic, social and cultural significance for host countries and destinations. But there's far more to sport tourism than just the great spectacles.
"Many people around the world travel, not just to watch sports or to cheer on their teams. They travel to participate in a wide range of sports, and not always in established sports like football, rugby, cricket or athletics. Surfing, mountain biking and extreme sports are increasingly capturing the imagination and travel spend of young people, while opening the potential of sport tourism to an ever wider range of destinations."
For the small operator, these events - be it bowls, darts or netball - have the added advantage that access to tickets is easier and cheaper. Combined with other tourism products, they offer the potential to create excellent value and a memorable experience.
But to appeal and directly market to these visitors means making sure you know what's going on, when and who it appeals to. Start with local and regional authorities who should know all the events planned for their area, talk to the managers of local leisure centres and contact the local county sports organisations.
If you have locally a league football, cricket or rugby club, be sure to talk to the commercial section. In many cases, you can link to their website or advertise there. The same applies to the lower profile sports - basketball, hockey and ice hockey have national leagues. Be aware of local and regional leagues - some bring teams and supporters from quite a distance. Note that the teams may need accommodation, too.
If you think there's a great opportunity in your locality, push it hard to your local and regional authorities and other hoteliers. There's a world of sportsmen and spectators out there looking for some competitive rivalry by day and friendly service by night.
TIPS TO ATTRACT THE SPORTING CROWD
Work the web: Link with every possible club, sports body, tour operator and inbound travel agent
Use your database: Tell your existing customers about events in your area and associated offers you're making
Incentivise your customers: Every sports fan knows another - give them a reward when their friends stay with you
Contact all the sports travel specialists: Find out what events are happening and seek to partner with the agent in terms of promotion
Be an entrepreneur: Put together accommodation and tickets packages, especially for the smaller events
Be a fan: You will only make this work if you like sports fans and players
If you're small, think small: There are plenty of small sports events to target
Think next time: Few sports fans or players are totally focused on one sport. Tell them what else is happening locally - that rugby fan could be a competition angler with a whole other set of friends to introduce
CASE STUDY: KEEPING THEM COMING TO CARDIFF
Hugh Hilary is general manager of the Park Plaza in Cardiff and chairman of the Cardiff Hoteliers Association. Many of the facets he lists of a good sports travel hotel would apply to all customers - location, a good reputation, quality food and beverage offering. In addition, he says: "Sports fans are looking for fellow sporting companionship and a lively atmosphere."
The Park Plaza has a large leisure facility which is also attractive since fans like to play as well as watch.
Hilary recommends establishing contact with sports travel specialists like Gullivers, Events International and Mike Burton Management. Note, too, that some major events have a big footprint and can swallow every bed for miles around, so get on their mailing lists. The Cardiff Trade Association makes a point of supporting all bids for events with keen pricing - if you want events in your town, you have to do your bit.
"You have to sell to the organisations. Invite them to your hotel and sell yourself and your product," Hilary says. This process should not be just about price. Yes, you'll be negotiating prices against volume, but the confidence that you can deliver your promise is more important when you're asking an organisation to choose and recommend you.
For the Park Plaza, sports tourists are definitely repeat business and the return visit isn't necessarily sports related. Hilary makes the point that these customers need to be viewed as long-term potential. If you take advantage because they're only there one or two nights, you'll lose them forever.
WHAT DO SPORTS TRAVEL SPECIALISTS LOOK FOR?
David Hall, director of Gulliver's Travel, believes there are some key features that a hotel must offer to attract supporters. "A hotel must have a good bar - sports fans and players are convivial people," he explains. "It must have a good number of twin rooms because our parties are typically based on a coachload. The location should not be just about sport, there are three other "s" words involved - sight, see and shop."
Hall's recommendations for developing this market are about old-fashioned sales graft. Get in touch with the specialists and stay in touch regularly. Go to World Travel Market and meet the movers and shakers as well as the people at the coalface.