Riding the Olympic Wave

Muse Magazine April 2010

Pending a final tally, about 250,000 visitors were expected to descend on Vancouver to take in the 2010 Olympics. On top of that, 13,000 media were reporting to a world of fans estimated at three billion television watchers and 1.5 billion on line viewers. That all adds up to more than half the planet’s population.

What an opportunity for western Canadian museums and cultural institutions to capitalize on. Visitors, especially first-timers, want to take in some local and Canadian culture during their stay. And importantly, a good percentage those TV-watching billions around the world will have been awakened to the beauty of Canada’s west coast and may plan their next holiday there. How is it affecting the museum and cultural sector—is it really the bonanza it sounds like?

Tourism BC certainly thinks so. “The 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games provide a once- in-a -lifetime opportunity for British Columbia and Canada to showcase our province and the country to the world,” says Raymond Chan, Vice President 2010 and Corporate Relations. “We have a great opportunity to raise the awareness of British Columbia as a travel destination.”

Chan says Tourism BC has always thought of the 2010 games opportunity in three phases: before, during and after the games. “Before the games, we were working to prepare our tourism sectors (including culture and heritage) to develop their product. During the games, we focus on the visitor experience and feature the games and the destination. In the post games phase, we capitalize on the increased positive awareness and deploy marketing strategies to convert that interest into long term visitation.”

The post-games may be the biggest opportunity of all, Chan reckons. He says as soon as Vancouver was awarded the games, Tourism BC looked back on the experiences of other major Olympic cities—Sydney, Salt Lake City, Torino, Beijing—and studied their impact. Some findings were surprising. “Sydney’s biggest mistake was stopping the investment after the games,” he says, “and Torino was a huge success during the games but again didn’t emphasize the afterwards.” The impact should last five years or more he says. Tourism BC has taken steps to maintain the momentum, for example “every time someone goes to our websites we try and engage them into long term dialogue—try to get as many eyeballs into our province as possible,” says Chan. He sums up the post-game promotion: “The second half begins after the games.”

“The International Olympic Committee told me that the games are about the athletes and sports; but also about the host destination and its peoples, arts and culture,” says Chan. “We are going to maximize this opportunity.”

So how do museums fit into this picture? Of course the larger museums on the west coast such as the Museum of Vancouver and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria are already all about showcasing the region’s culture and so did they have to create anything special to capture some of the Olympic-generated custom?

“We haven’t started anything particularly unusual,” says Amanda Gibbs, Director of Audience Engagement at the Museum of Vancouver. “We were interested in re-visiting some of the interpretation of our permanent gallery and the games have kind of given us the impetus we needed to do that. We have some new interpretive guides and some new tours of our permanent Vancouver story but I wouldn’t say we are doing anything particular for our Olympic visitors.”

During the games, they hadn’t really expected visitor numbers to spike. “In some cases we may see a drop—it’s hard to get around the city during the games because of our location,” says Gibbs. “We’ve taken a cautiously optimistic approach to the games; providing a good image of Vancouver but we’re not investing a huge amount of our resources in Olympic special promotions. We are using our exact same marketing style as before.”

Gibbs says they’re anticipating more traffic generated by the Olympic oriented media. “We’ve had networks coming in pre-games to film some of our galleries and at the core of it that’s what we see,” she says. “For the most part people who travel to Vancouver for the Olympics are so vested in that experience they may not have time in their schedule to make a trip to see cultural institutions but the world media are interested in us providing context for their broadcasts and story-telling.”

Much of that pre-shooting happened in the late fall of 2009, when the foreign media wanted to understand the city says Gibbs. “That’s the opportunity for us. But no particular focus on Olympic visitors.”
The Museum of Vancouver is also interested in longer term exposure post-games, but important to them is another role: preservation of the Olympic experience for the city. “We see ourselves as observers of this city and we wanted to watch and see what’s happening during the games,” says Gibbs. “In fact we are interested in collecting artifacts and ephemera associated with the games and the things that people do; keeping an eye on the culture and also watching what plays out. And after it’s all over, to get some analysis and interpretation of what happened.” She feels it’s a critical moment in the city’s history and the Museum of Vancouver will be guardian of those stories.

The Royal BC Museum faces a different sort of challenge when it comes to attracting new business generated by the Olympics extravaganza. “Although we are the cultural icon for the Province of BC, the Olympics themselves are in Vancouver and Whistler, not here in Victoria,” says Theresa MacKay, the museum’s Director, Marketing and Communications. “Given that we are on an island an hour and a half’s ferry ride away it becomes an interesting challenge.”

“So what we have being doing is working very closely from a communications standpoint rather than a marketing standpoint. To capitalize on the media that are coming through—there has been a ton of media here,” she says. Pre-game, “we had German TV stations, two Chinese stations, NBC, Brazilian TV. The media have made our reach much wider than our own promotion.”

MacKay says it started with the torch relay which began right next door to the museum. It was literally a media circus. “We hosted over 41 international media covering the relay,” she says. “We hosted them for breakfast right here in our First Peoples Gallery so they got a sense of First Nations culture in BC. Then we had them tour through the rest of our permanent galleries before the relay started.” It was a tremendous marketing opportunity.

And the Royal BC Museum did put on own special Olympic attraction. “It’s called S’abadeb – The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists and is running until March 8th. That is our Olympic show. It’s all contemporary and ancient art and artifacts. It was originally curated by the Seattle Art Museum and it really gives a sense of First Nations and our culture here in BC specifically within the coastal communities, which is very Vancouver and Whistler centred.

They didn’t expect too many more visitors than normal during the games. “We expect more to be coming after the games. That is where I think we will see any sort of lift,” says MacKay. “And it will be our long term strategy.”

Smaller cultural organizations can be highly affected by the Games too—and many made a move right away. “When Vancouver won the bid we immediately realized we wanted to do something around it,” says Frieda Miller, Executive Director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. “There was an exhibit being circulated by a Washington museum we were looking at first, but we changed our plan and launched our own.” She says the Centre saw 2010 as a wonderful opportunity to research their own participation and came up with an original; one that demanded working with scholars and specialists. The result was More than just games: Canada & the 1936 Olympics. Highly relevant to the 2010 Olympics, it presented a side of Canada most people were unaware of—we didn’t join the boycott.

“Canada’s reaction in 1936 was unusual,” says Miller, “and nothing had ever been pulled together on Canada’s role in those Olympics.” The research team scoured newspapers, memos, personal archives and dredged up images never before seen by the public. When it came to funding, “we were really lucky to have found people who were behind the project,” she says. They borrowed artifacts from several museums and individuals, and installed touch screens so visitors could interact with individual athlete’s stories. Media coverage was good; images such as Canadian athletes clamoring for Hitler’s autograph struck a chord.

Despite the success and relevance of the exhibit, Miller wasn’t expecting any spikes in attendance during the 2010 Games. “We’re located off the beaten track,” she says. “And during our initial research we found museums don’t usually see increases anyway. Most are here for the games; unless they trip over us—most cities have found this.” But, she adds, if they get more visitors they would of course be delighted.
Miller does foresee more visitors to the city in the years after the games too, largely from the unprecedented media coverage the Centre and the city have experienced. But they don’t have the money for big post-games promotions. “We don’t have an advertising budget; just banners and bus shelter ads,” she says. “So it will be media releases targeting the international news media here to cover the Olympics.”

Farther afield, but still in western Canada, the permanent exhibits at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum are also already about western Canadian culture—with much more of a plains First Nations and settler culture to show. “For any visitors wanting to explore Western Canadian history, we have our Blackfoot gallery exhibition, developed in collaboration with the Blackfoot community,” says Tanis Shortt, Manager, Marketing & Communications. “And our Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta takes a unique approach to telling our province’s history through 48 maverick individuals and their fascinating stories.”

She says two new exhibitions slated for the winter, Kent Monkman: The Triumphs of Mischief and The Nude in Modern Canadian Art are travelling from the Musee National des Beaux-arts du Quebec. Both open on February 13th and Shortt reckons it will be a great opportunity to introduce the community to his nationally-acclaimed work. “Glenbow is the only Western Canadian venue for the Nudes exhibition so is also a significant show for Western Canadians.”

Shortt says the two exhibitions were not necessarily selected to coincide with the Olympics, “but we feel they meet the needs of various audiences – particularly with an increased international presence within Western Canada at that time and by providing an opportunity for those international tourists who pass through Calgary to become acquainted with both modern Canadian art (1920-1950) and also a leading contemporary artist today,” she says. “These exhibitions will encourage thought beyond the traditional landscapes that come to mind when thinking of Canadian art.”

The Glenbow went through the Olympics experience with the 88 Winter Olympics in the city, laying some foundation for First Nations exhibits. Although controversial and a learning experience, the show, entitled The Spirit Sings, brought loaned First Nations materials from Europe and Australia that had been collected many years ago and hadn’t been seen in Canada since. “It was considered a significant exhibition because there were learnings that came about from the show which have led many other institutions to work collaboratively with indigenous communities when developing exhibitions related to First Nations culture and history,” explains Shortt.

Controversy isn’t the only dilemma facing museums when their cities host world events. Expected to capitalize on the commercial hoopla, they often have to sideline their creative instincts. “It’s an interesting dilemma: how do you balance your entrepreneurial spirit with the capturing of the commercial opportunities?” asks the Royal BC Museum’s MacKay. “We often look at that when we bring in international shows. Are we looking at it from a commercial benefit and the expected gate receipts, or are we doing it because it is the right thing to do? We have to wrestle with those kinds of things.” Hopefully, with the expected legacy of the 2010 Winter Olympics, she should enjoy both.

Note: This story was written prior to the 2010 Games.

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