I don’t know about you but the Sydney Olympics for my family and I, as immigrants from the UK, was one of the highlights of my life. The buzz, the excitement, the ‘almost mortgage’ taken out on tickets, a house full of overseas visitors, sheer awe at the extent and common sense of the logistics and national pride in the same year as two of us became Australian citizens. Brand Sydney, brand Australia was at its prime and at its best. It was an extraordinary time.
The fact that my former home country, the UK, is hosting the Olympics in 2012 is personally breathtaking and as I am particularly familiar with the economic areas of Strathfield, North East London, the transformation that these areas of London will undergo is mind boggling — it brings with it a whole new sense of possibilities and opportunity for areas that were previously in need of a ‘brand makeover’.
But I’m struggling with what that English pride means for visitors in the wake of the riots this week and am deeply saddened. The media coverage has been extensive, but to recap quickly, the death toll has risen to five — and the damage is estimated to be well over $200 million to business and property. For many just like us, business has been halted, family injured, or worse, and time wasted. A backwards step in trying to make a living and support the local community. At first glance, the footage this week reminded me of some World War II clip, except the vision of a burning red double decker bus, the icon of all things London, brought home this is today and now, happening to family and friends less than one year out from one of the globe’s largest and most prestigious events.
An unprecedented 16,000 police swamped the streets of the capital last week spreading across England, with the trouble reaching Manchester, the worst hit on Tuesday night. Starting in Tottenham, then onto Enfield, Croydon, Clapham, Hackney, Ealing, near my birth town Harrow and Peckham by mid week. Household name stores such as Curry’s, JD Sports and Debenhams have been robbed, with large stores in Clapham, Tottenham and Brixton completely cleared out. We’ve seen local crime have a shattering direct impact on business. But will it have a direct affect on tourism and ‘brand Britain’?
Has ‘Brand UK’ been knocked? Have the riots dampened enthusiasm? Or is this a trend? Less than one year out both Mexico City in 1968 and Seoul in 1988, had similar rioting as a prelude to the Olympics? On the positive perhaps, the city will be better prepared to deal with the unexpected!
The UK ranks as one of the most popular destinations for Australians. Over 950,000 Aussies visit the UK every year. According to the Australian Federation of Travel Agents Chief Executive Jayson Westbury, the riots “had not tarnished the British brand” and the violence was nowhere near comparable to the subway bombs six years ago.
Britain’s tourism authority has evidently dropped a slick 60-second marketing video entitled ‘You’re invited’ that was put up on the BBC and other websites to attract potential tourists from abroad. Perhaps the creative and the reality just didn’t gel after the events of last week. A spokesman for VisitBritain said, “We have taken the videos down, they are not appropriate at this time. We have not changed our advertising and marketing strategy, but we have removed those videos for the time being.”
Mary Rance, head of trade body UKInbound, which represents businesses in the tourism industry, said, “The riots of the past few days, particularly in London, are most unfortunate for the global image of the UK — and not just ahead of the Olympics but for the country’s short term and long term inbound tourism industry. London is still one of the greatest cities in the world with an enviable record of safety. It’s important we stress that these developments are not typical”.
Perhaps, if we are searching for the good, Brand Britain reveals that the famous British National pride does live on. The extremes of human unity were encouragingly on display last week with groups pulling together for mass clean-ups even as nearby far-right groups were still forming vigilante groups. Tariq Jahan, father of a man killed in the riots, called for peace not revenge. An extraordinary moment.
Perhaps with the spitting of pent up frustration over, the spirit of Brand Britain will allow focus to return to the preparation and spirit of the Olympics. Let’s hope so, for Brand Britain’s sake. There is only one flame we want celebrated.