Poland eyes Euro 2012 business goals
Not many bosses of major sporting events can say that they started their career operating petrol pumps in a filling station.
But the man driving Poland's hosting of the 2012 European Championship, Marcin Herra, can make such a claim.
He started out at a petrol pump for Polish oil firm Lotos Group in 1995, rising to become chairman of the board before moving to the football post nearly three years ago.
"If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be looking after my country's preparations for Euro 2012 I would not have believed you," says the former law student.
The 35-year-old is chief executive of PL 2012, the private company set up to organise the Polish half of the event, which is being jointly hosted with Ukraine.
The Poland half of the 2012 hosting has received less adverse publicity than its Ukrainian counterpart.
That is down largely to Mr Herra's clear vision of what has to be achieved at each particular stage on the timeline towards kick-off in Warsaw on 8 June 2012.
For example, last year a plan was implemented for the project management of the four new stadiums being built to host the event.
They are being constructed in Poznan, Warsaw, Gdansk and Wroclaw, all football cities, says Mr Herra, where there are large populations and a strong interest in football.
And that, he says, means there is little danger of the stadiums becoming expensive "white elephants" post-Euro 2012.
"All stadiums are being built to an elite standard, with state of the art infrastructure," says Mr Herra, speaking at the Global Sports Industry Congress in London.
"In 2012 we will have the competition, but these venues must be built for the [longer] future."
And he points out that it was only a few years ago that Poland had no stadiums of a quality sufficient for hosting a Uefa-standard event.
The first reconstructed stadium to reopen was Poznan last month, with Gdansk to open in June 2011, Warsaw a month later, and Wroclaw some time in the third quarter of next year.
Mr Herra says that should allow organisers plenty of time for testing the new venues and an opportunity to deal with any gremlins.
Meanwhile, building work is also taking place at a number of airports across Poland, to deal with the influx of visitors.
"These [airports] are necessary for the cities' future growth and growth of the economy," he says.
There are a total of 227 event-related infrastructure projects, such as upgrading motorways, accounting for a total of 20bn euros in investment.
Mr Herra says that of these projects, 84% are on track, with only one, unnamed, project at "high risk" of not coming to fruition.
But it hasn't been all smooth running, and getting an initially-sceptical Polish public onside has been another of his tasks.
On one of his first trips to the site of the new stadium, built next to the site of a former huge outdoor market, Mr Herra says his taxi-driver "urged me to quit my job as soon as possible".
He adds: "I tried to convince him that anything is possible when people work together."
Attention to detail
A total of one million people are expected to visit Poland in 2012, who he hopes will later go on to become "ambassadors" for Poland.
Mr Herra says that for that to happen, visitors need to have an enjoyable experience, with accommodation, transport and even medical support tailored to their needs.
Smaller things are also important, such as a comprehensive and thorough advice service for those arriving at airports.
"The small things might be more important than the big things," he says.
"What is important for us is to understand the needs of the consumers: VIPs, players and supporters."
Mobility studies are also being carried out, both within cities and between host cities, to allow organisers to know "how many trains we need, where to get trains, and who will need to be responsible for train schedules".
A Polish Pass is being created, to combine insurance, travel and accommodation credits on one smart card.
Mr Herra says another area that has been a major part of his job is Poland's public perception.
"We have to manage the expectations and the information about the country," he observes.
A survey of European attitudes in 2009 showed what Mr Herra says is a "poor knowledge" of Poland.
For example, while the British saw the Poles as hard-working, in Holland his fellow nationals were seen as "alcohol abusers", while in Germany they were primarily perceived as being "religious".
Other areas of preparatory work are in the formulation of a security plan and in the recruitment of volunteers.
A total of 2,830 people will be taken on across the country to help staff facilities including fan zones, guest services, fan embassies, security service support, medical care and media assistance.
Meanwhile, people who work in Polish public services that will interface with the 2012 tournament will be given training next year in the run-up to the event.
Organisers are working with a total of 168 institutions to deliver the games.
"Poland has been a success story over the past 20 years, our GDP in 2009 was a success, and so again in 2010," says Mr Herra.
"Euro 2012 gives us a chance to present ourselves and build a new experience of our country.
"We can also celebrate together as hosts, it is important to use the event internally as a country too, to make everyone feel part of it."
He adds: "We have prepared for the most optimistic scenario, which is Poland in the final, and for the worst situation, which is if we have only three games," he says.
Benefits to Poland include project know-how, building a "yes we can" attitude, changing perceptions of Poland and making it a tourist destination, hopefully boosting the economy and providing new infrastructure.
And about 200m euros extra is expected to be spent around the tournament.
Now what is important, says Mr Herra, is keeping the momentum going, as people start to tire on the final approach to 2012.
Meanwhile, negotiations continue with hosting neighbour Ukraine on issues such as open skies agreements, border controls and introducing safety and security measures of a similar standard.
And what of the sceptical Warsaw taxi-driver?
"Recently I got into a taxi and it was that same driver and he did not recognise me," says Mr Herra.
"We could see the emerging new stadium in the distance and he said to me he was 'so proud we are able to do this' and added, 'I always knew from the beginning that we could do it.'"