The countdown to the Olympics began, of course, on that now far-off day of July 6, 2006 when it was announced that London had won its bid to host the event this year; and one of the immediate fall-outs, just a day later, was the co-ordinated terrorist bomb attacks on the city. Seldom has triumph and anticipation turned to despair and dread so fast.
But now that we’re just 16 days to go before the Olympics begin — even if the countdown clock on the BT Tower seems to have given up the ghost a while back — the anticipation is building again; and so is the dread.
Already, as I wrote here on Monday, the traffic problems have started to take hold, as the early closure of the Mall creates an intolerable pressure on Trafalgar Square. The Olympic lanes being put in around town show just how much priority is being given to its traffic, but won’t the remaining already over-trafficked arteries simply clog up when everyone else tries to squeeze into them?
And Sunday’s Observer offered a taster of one of the unexpected economic effects of the Olympics. London hotels, anticipating a rush in demand over the summer and setting rates up to three times higher than their usual rates, are now slashing them by as much as 30% below the usual rates.
As The Observer noted, “Hotels in London are paying the price for pushing up their room rates for the Games: bookings are down by 35% after long-haul travel operators advised international visitors to go elsewhere this summer…. A survey by the European Tour Operators’ Association last November showed that advance bookings for the Olympics period were down 90% compared with last year.”
The story quotes Tom Jenkins, executive director of the tour operators’ association, pointing out, “When the Olympics are on, normal tourists are scared away because cities are perceived as expensive and too difficult to deal with.” And the hotel rooms are staying empty. “Hotel bookings in the capital are down 35% in July and 30% in August, according to the latest published figures from hotel room wholesaler JacTravel, which books half a million London bed nights a year.”
One 38-room three-star Paddington hotel admits now, “We originally increased our prices by an average of 80% for the Games. But we’ve had to cut them because our bookings for the Olympics period are down 50% on last year, and in August, when we’d expect to be full, it’s completely dead.”
A friend of mine who has a flat in Islington long ago decided to get out of town and let his flat for the duration; he managed to do so for £9000 for the two week rental. But another friend, who lives in Hampstead, tells me that his upstairs flat is going to be empty; he’s not been able to find any takers.
And, of course, with no ‘regular’ tourists in town, it’s not just hotels that are now discovering the need to slash prices. The Observer has found that “theatre seat bookings have slumped by 20% or more, according to Chris Ryan, director of marketing for Encore Tickets, which sells two million West End theatre tickets a year. ”
Ryan cites Billy Elliot, which “would not normally offer any reductions during the summer”, offering 700 to 800 tickets each weekday night through to September 9 “at discounts of between 32% and 35%.” And shows that would have discounted anyway during the summer months are slashing their prices even more: “Tickets for The 39 Steps, for instance, are being offered from just £12.50, half the usual price, and the long-running Chicago is offering discounts throughout the summer of up to 40%.”
Getting tables at some high-end restaurants is also proving easier, too. “Celebrity hangout Le Caprice has tables for dinner available on Thursday and Friday evenings throughout late July and all of August, while Gordon Ramsay’s Claridge’s restaurant is available for most sittings any day of the week. There are even tables to be had at Heston Blumenthal’s hugely popular Dinner.”
So perhaps there’s a new Olympics message that needs to be got out: Londoners should brave the overcrowded tubes and impossible roads and rush to secure a bargain. Myself, I’m leaving town this morning — I’m heading to New York. But it’s not just the Olympics that are taking me away: I’m getting married there on Saturday morning.
So I won’t be here tomorrow — but will be back on Friday and every Tuesday and Friday thereafter for the next three weeks, until I get back for a week in Edinburgh from August 4.