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The IOC has revolutionised its bidding process: will associations do the same?

In the end it was a formality, but that didn’t stop the celebratory firework display or the spontaneous celebrations that erupted in the streets of Brisbane after the city was named host of the 2032 Olympics – joining the queue behind Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028).

A formality because it was a one-city race after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) instigated a new bidding system in February, which handed the Queensland capital exclusive negotiating rights, ending the hopes of other cities and countries who had expressed an interest in hosting the event.

The new system replaces a two-year candidacy period where each city had to convince the IOC that it was the right place to stage the games. Open to corruption and expensive for the candidate cities, the old system was great entertainment but put the IOC on a pedestal that had started to wobble.

The new system, which includes a one-year ‘continuous dialogue stage’ with no financial commitment, removes the need for cities to spend millions on feasibility studies and dazzling campaign packages. It aims to eliminate the risk of White Elephants and ensure more ‘sustainable projects and master plans.’ Cities are vetted early before the Future Hosts Committee selects which cities to progress to the Targeted Dialogue Stage. In this instance only Brisbane made it through.

An explainer on the IOC’s website states that the goal was ‘to create Olympic projects that are less expensive and that maximise operational efficiencies, while also unlocking greater value for future hosts, with a strong emphasis on legacy and sustainability’ (Editor’s emphasis).

It might sound like jargon – the placating language of a corporate CSR document – but the IOC is clearly seeking to head off trouble here. The reality is relatively few cities now bid for the Olympics. The Games are not always popular with voters (Brisbane has seen its own backlash) and usually go massively over budget. Oslo and Stockholm both backed out of their 2022 bids when they saw costs spiralling. Boston withdrew from consideration for the 2024 Games for the same reason.

Too often in the past, ‘legacy’ was the huge pile of debt the host city – having bowed to the IOC’s demands to build world class venues and infrastructure – found themselves paying off years after the closing ceremony. Note that the new bidding process is the culmination of reforms dating back to 2014, which include far greater flexibility for candidates to use existing or temporary venues. The Olympics has lost some of its lustre for bidders. The IOC is being more accommodating as a result.

Will international associations, especially those whose events cater for many thousands of delegates, be tweaking their own bidding processes along similar lines? Much will depend on the economic recovery strategy of City Halls after the pandemic. Those that promote sustainability, or the wellbeing of residents, might start to question current association bidding procedures, which cast cities as the eager-to-please suitor and associations as the much coveted ‘prize’. In future, they might want to start the conversation on a more equal footing – asking, ‘if we allow you to deposit 40,000 people in our city – what will be the long-term benefit for the people who live here?’

Following the immiseration of Covid-19, this might sound fanciful, but the organisers of ‘mega’ association congresses might find the conversations they have with cities taking on a different hue.

In a webinar I hosted for ASSOCIATIONWORLD recently, Patricia Foo, Congress Director at the European Respiratory Society, which convenes c.24,000 delegates at its flagship congress, said this:

“For me, the important thing to know is, ‘what is the local support from the local authorities? Do they want people like us? Are they interested in having a group like us? They may be interested, for the sake of the economy. But the inhabitants – are they going to go against it? We have to look ahead to a world post Covid and ask, ‘what plans do cities have for people like us who organise these events?’ I think that is the really important question.”

Time will tell.

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