How Olympic organisers can get shot of the West End ghost town

Marion Dakers
WE’VE scared them off. Somewhere between Boris Johnson’s ominous ode to overcrowding, and TfL’s weird posters of diligent Londoners in their underwear, planning routes to work, the city’s attempts to keep moving during the Games have frightened droves of tourists into barely venturing out of the confines of the Olympic Park.

If organisers don’t act urgently, these lucrative sporting sightseers will stay put, only to leave in a couple of weeks with Boris’s baritone ringing in their ears and a vague impression that everyone in England wears fetching red and purple polo shirts.

The European Tour Operators Association reckons foreign visitors to London are down by as much as half – to 150,000 for the month of July. But it’s not just tourists that have vanished – Londoners have gotten so far ahead of the Games, they’re in danger of lapping them on their flights back from Mediterranean boltholes.

Experian figures yesterday showed that retail footfall in the West End is down 4.5 per cent on a year ago, which can’t all simply be blamed on skinflint visitors. Even the East End saw a 9.6 per cent footfall slump on last year during the opening few days of the competition.

Online shoppers are up 15 per cent on a year ago, which Experian attributed to a small army of Londoners working from home – but even this rise is illusory, since the Office for National Statistics recorded 14.3 per cent annualised sales growth for internet shops months before the Games.

After the security scandals, transport hysteria and ticketing grumbles, it barely seems possible – but did London over-prepare for the Olympics?

In the West End, which is faring particularly badly in the Games drain, many restaurants and museums seem to think so.

The British Museum, having seen a 25 per cent drop in footfall compared to a year ago, is one of many institutions worried that organisers have done too good a job of keeping people out of central London, to the extent that its people have asked the Mayor’s people to embark on a PR campaign with precisely the opposite message.

It’s a decent idea – businesses are already quietly pleased to see newspapers thundering about the ghost town to the west of Stratford. It means that word is getting out that attractions normally heaving with sticky schoolchildren and coach parties could provide a peaceful getaway from the Olympic Park.

Locog and friends have the means to take this a step further. Having boasted of their strong links to local businesses that were initially wary of a deluge of visitors, organisers should now be working with the same firms to lure reticent sports fans back into the centre of town.

The British Hospitality Association, for example, suggests advertising special offers for ticket holders, or restaurant promotions aimed at Olympic boroughs.

London 2012’s copyright enforcers already appear to have slackened off – the coffee shop closest to our office has been proudly flying an Olympics flag without complaint for over a week now. A few words confirming this from Locog would help lift the chilling effect seen in over-cautious businesses, which remain nervous about attracting tourists from the Games, even legitimately.

Transport-wise, those buses on standby to cope with the now eerily smooth rush hours could be deployed to ferry fed-up fencing fans to the festivities offered elsewhere in the city.

TfL has already removed the Mayor’s “welcome” message from the Tube’s tannoys, but it could do plenty more to cheerlead what’s beyond the sporting venues.

This ebb and flow of visitors was expected. Previous hosts experienced similar stumbling blocks as tourists came to immerse themselves in sport at the expense of cultural gems elsewhere. And it was always going to be a hard sell persuading hardcore ping-pong fans, for example, to leave London laden with Bond Street’s most expensive couture and a fistful of upmarket restaurant receipts.

But all the talk of a “different visitor profile” during the Olympics hardly seems like a good excuse for not giving visitors a nudge back into the city.

“We just want to remind people that we exist,” grumbled one West End business yesterday. Perhaps it’s as simple as putting Boris on a zip line down Oxford Street.

Marion Dakers is senior reporter and assistant news editor at City A.M.