The summer Olympic games in London are now over and if you were watching, I bet you not only reveled in the athletic competition, but you also contemplated the logistics and expenses. Those of us who work at historic sites don’t experience events like most other people. Sure, we like the music, food, and tours, but we also look at the placement of signs, calculate ratios between attendance and restrooms, check out the store for items we can sell, and mentally map out visitor circulation and note the bottlenecks. Or is that just me?
The Olympics is just another special event, although it’s huge and involves a cast of thousands and decades of planning. The designers and planners of this event are the best of the best, so what can historic sites, at a much smaller scale, learn from their experience? One of the most valuable lessons is that you have to measure the success of an event both today and in the future.
The London Olympics cost $14.4 billion and revenues are expected to be about $4 billion from admission fees, sponsorships, donors, and retail sales–leaving a $10 billion deficit. Indeed, the 1976 games in Montreal didn’t pay off their debt until 2006. These events aren’t fundraisers, so why are cities and nations tripping over themselves to participate in this money-losing venture? The primary reason is the belief that the Olympics provide a long-term economic boost for a place but in “Olympinomics,” Matthew Yglesias of Slate points out that the results are mixed. Indeed, he’s found that countries can benefit even if they aren’t selected to be host sites for the Olympics. How’s that possible? “The main gains from an Olympics, when they exist, stem from overall infrastructure rather than sports infrastructure. . .Investments in sports infrastructure are generally useless. [Researchers] Baade and Matheson cite Atlanta’s 1,400-acre International Horse Center as a costly facility with no real post-Games value. Cities that profit from the Olympics do so because they use them as a pretext to invest in transportation infrastructure that would be valuable even if the competition never happened.”
So what can historic site managers learn from the Olympics? Have a long term plan for improvements to your facilities, such as a site master plan that locates future buildings, pathways, electrical outlets, water connections, and sign locations, and use major events to implement them. An electrical outlet in the right place will not only help you during the event, but continue to benefit you for years to come. Don’t install that outlet if you’ll never use it again. Historic sites spend an incredible amount of time and energy for a one-time event, so let’s figure out how we can get most of them.