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September 27, 2010

GAME OVER?:Will the press coverage of the Commonwealth Games damage India’s meetings industry?

Media reports about the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi are undermining confidence in India’s ability to stage international events, and this could have a serious knock-on effect for the country’s meetings sector. Pete Roythorne goes in search of answers…

With the current media frenzy surrounding the quality of work at the Athletes’ Village for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India finds itself at the centre of storm that will have people questioning its ability to stage and hold any sort of major event. With the ICCA conference in Hyderabad fast approaching, is this a storm in a tea cup or a serious blow to the country’s lofty ambitions to become a global meetings and events destination?

“The Commonwealth Games  coverage is an interesting example of how stories can spin quickly out of control; and how existing preconceptions and ready-made stories get dragged into the mix,” says Martin Sirk, chief executive of ICCA. “The same thing happened in the run-up to the Fifa World Cup in South Africa, with many in the media focusing on crime, risk, transport chaos and venues not being likely to be ready - but in that case I think the media were managed more effectively by Fifa and the local hosts.”

As Sirk points out, once the World Cup took place and the predicted disasters didn't unfold, the media actually gave incredibly positive coverage of the whole country and its ability to manage such events – a big change from the wholly negative pictured painted just a short time before.


The new face of India's meetings industry


Working in partnership
“I think it's premature to judge how India handles the Commonwealth Games,” Sirk continues. “There are very real challenges, but let's wait and see how India and, let's not forget, the organisers and administrators of the Games themselves handle this – any major event is dependent on a partnership between the hosts and the administrators, not just on one of the parties.”
Sirk also points out that the sporting infrastructure and the training facilities are virtually all complete, despite earlier worries that they wouldn't be ready. Also the city has undergone a huge change and upgrade of its infrastructure. Although the majority of the athletes’ village seems to be ready, some tower blocks still need substantial cleaning and final preparations, but this also needs to be put into perspective: Delhi has just suffered from the worst monsoon floods in decades, lasting until very recently, which would clearly have had a big impact on the pools of standing water that have been filmed around the village.

“This allows the media to run stories such as ‘dangers of dengue fever’ relating to potential mosquito breeding grounds,” adds Sirk. “Again, there was no one to report on the major work that must have been done over the last few weeks regarding the flooding, to give a balanced viewpoint and to set the story in context.”

Alarmist publicity
Rajeev Kohli, vice chairman of the Indian Convention Promotion Bureau (ICPB), agrees: “What is happening at the Games in many ways is more alarmist than what the real situation is. We do not deny there have been problems, but most of the work related specifically to the games has been completed. What is left is the peripheral work of sprucing up parts of Delhi, which has been badly hampered by the worst monsoons in 30 years.”

Kohli also feels it is extremely unfair and unjustified to correlate a government-run sporting event to the skills and competencies of the private meetings and events sector in India. One just needs to look at the Indian Premier League cricket to realise the country is perfectly capable of handling big sporting events.

“Every major sporting event in recent history has been marred with controversy: the 2008 Beijing Olympics; the 2012 London games are already on cost over-runs; the Greek games were touch and go; and sportsmen ended up getting killed during the Vancouver Winter Olympics because of defects,” continues Kohli. “So let’s use the same barometers and pass judgement rather than let colonialist ideologies run us down just because we are a third world nation. No one has focused on the new transport system put in place in Delhi. No one has focused on the new world-class metro system. No one has focused on what is now the sixth largest airport in the world that was built in record time. I am not saying that there are no problems, but the press has taken such a negative approach to all aspects that the good has been totally left out.”
Sirk is very much in agreement with this last point, and feels there is more than a little scaremongering going on in the press.

Media scaremongering
“There clearly are issues that should have been sorted out a long time ago. But where is the context? Where are the stories about what the Indians have done right? What about the massive issues that have been solved?” he says. “Also, I've been shocked by how some of the British media has been reporting stories of competitors who have dropped out of the Games. Yes, there have been a few people who are genuinely worried about security and aren't going for that reason, but it seems that every injury-hit individual is being included as an example of someone who's worried about going to Delhi. They're being used as evidence to fit a pre-set storyline. But again, I don't see anyone actively managing the PR to explain the facts.”
Picking up on this point about the handling of the PR, Kohli adds: “Unquestionably, our government has handled PR very badly. That is where we got hit as the damage control skills have been poor, and that is a cultural trait. If they had been smarter and smoother, we would have had a more balanced coverage.”

Beyond this, Sirk feels it is not helpful to compare the organisation of a major sporting event with a country's ability to host international meetings.

Looking forward to Hyderabad

“They have totally different logistical challenges,” says Sirk. “With the former frequently having massive and almost inevitably controversial infrastructure development issues. Our members will experience India's skills in meetings management first-hand in Hyderabad, and I am certain they'll have a great experience at the ICCA Congress.”

Kohli backs up Sirk’s thoughts. “Bottom line is that we need to de-link what the government is doing and what the country's thriving private MICE sector is doing,” he says. “We are a nation of contrasts and measuring all Indians and all that we do just by one irrelevant set of games is not fair in any way. We have always delivered world-class experiences for conferences and incentives and there is no reason why that will change. If anything, the Common Wealth Games have brought us amazing infrastructure that has enhanced our abilities.”

India is just starting out as an international meetings destination. The Hyderabad International Convention Centre (HICC) was the first world-class facility to be built in the country and has only been open for three years, and similar standard facilities are only just now starting to emerge in other cities. The country's airport infrastructure is going through a revolution as well, which is essential for any destination that wants to be a serious player.

Again, Hyderabad International Airport was recently voted best airport in the world in the 5-15 million passenger category. The country has some great professionals in their hotels and PCO/DMC companies, and it recognises that it needs to train thousands more. The Indian meetings industry knows there are challenges relating to Indian bureaucratic practices, which can be complex and frustrating, but they're working on improving these matters.

Learning curve
But it’s having to learn fast… handling international media is one of the first things any major destination needs to understand.

“We all saw the damage that the media did to Mexico over the Swine Flu outbreak, most of which was media-driven and took place within a context-free-zone,” says Sirk. “India will certainly have taken away an important lesson here. But the partnership issue is important yet totally ignored. All events require effective partnerships between local hosts/contractors and incoming experts/administrators/event-owners.  It's ridiculously simplisitic to say: ‘The locals failed,’ if a major event goes pear-shaped.”

So has it been a PR nightmare for India? The answer is probably yes. But does this show that all Indians are incapable of holding events, then unequivocally the answer has to be, no.

“We have no doubt that the games will go off spectacularly,” concludes Kohli. “There have been allegations of corruption and inefficiencies, but that is our internal problem and something we as Indians will deal with. We as a country will deliver a world-class sporting event, and we will also deliver a world-class congress in Hyderabad for ICCA.”

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