Will West End theatre leap Olympic hurdle?
- 16 December 2011
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
As London prepares itself for the 2012 Olympics, how will theatres in the West End be affected by a massive influx of sport-loving visitors?
The Olympics may be some seven months away, but producers in London's Theatreland are already trying to predict what might happen to their audiences during July and August.
With regular tourists expected to stay away from the capital during the Games, some shows are already offering special enticements, or not taking bookings at all.
Top-price tickets for musical The Jersey Boys are being offered at £20.12 each for performances during the Olympics and Paralympics.
Meanwhile, the musical Sweeney Todd - starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton - will open in the West End in March but will take a break during the Olympics.
"There's a lot of discussion and disagreement about what is going to happen," says Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, theatre-owner and producer of the West End's longest-runner The Mousetrap.
"Personally, I think that the two-and-a-half weeks of the Olympics will see pretty poor attendances in theatres because people will be focused on sport. I hope I'm going to be proved wrong.
"There's concern and anxiety, but as far as we're concerned we'll be doing eight shows a week."
Last month, the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA) warned of a 95% slump in leisure bookings for the period of the Olympics (27 July - 12 August).
According to Tom Jenkins, ETOA's executive director: "We always see a decline in demand for a destination during an Olympic year. Clients tend to think that a city has priorities other than being a place to visit for a normal holiday, so some of this was to be expected.
"But this tendency is becoming absolute as the hotel rates climb in July and August. During the Olympic period itself, there is currently almost no demand from regular tourists."
A 2010 ETOA analysis of Olympic hotel demand in Sydney, Athens and Beijing concluded that no host city has ever predicted the demand for the Olympics correctly, and has "invariably overestimated" the number of foreign visitors.
"We know that the tourist mix next summer will be very different from a normal summer," says Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatres (Solt).
"There will be people here in very substantial numbers to come and see sport. Our message is: if you're coming to London and you haven't been to the theatre, then you haven't seen one of the jewels in London's crown."
Solt and Transport for London recently launched a travel guide aimed at theatre-goers heading into the West End during the Olympics. More initiatives to entice Olympic visitors are likely to be announced.
Despite the gloomy forecasts, Mr Bird predicts that big brand musicals - like Phantom of the Opera, Shrek and Les Miserables - could do well during the period.
"Shows open and close every single year, I don't know of any that are closing as a result of the Olympics," he adds. "I was in a meeting with a big producer this morning who was talking about putting a show in before the Olympics."
And he says that the box office slump caused by 2011's royal wedding isn't a fair indicator of what will happen in 2012.
"It's no secret that us, all the museums and most of the major retailers had a pretty tough day, but it was about people queuing for one event on one day, and the Olympics is many events spread out over many days."
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group is among those in the West End debating whether to close a show during Olympics fortnight.
Last month, a Really Useful spokesperson said that the issue was "being discussed" but no plans had been confirmed. Lord Lloyd-Webber's The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium is currently taking bookings throughout the Olympics period.
"The initial responses to that survey are in really stark contrast with some of the predictions," says editorial director Terri Paddock.
With several weeks of voting still to go, the feedback from the first week indicates that 63% of respondents think theatre attendances will see a positive impact.
Some 60% say they plan to go to the theatre as much as they normally do, and nearly 10% think they will go more than normal. Fewer than 15% say they are not going to go to the theatre at all during the Olympic period.
"I think the Olympics will affect different shows in different ways," says Paddock.
"Perhaps the most vulnerable will be the bigger family musicals because families might not want to come into central London at such a busy time."
But, she adds, the vast majority of Londoners won't leave the capital during the Olympics, and other shows may benefit from "increased footfall" around the West End.
"Many years ago we had a real low in theatreland after the gloom and doom of foot-and-mouth, but even throughout the depths of recession we don't have dark theatres," says Paddock.
"If a show comes off there is invariably a show lined up to come in, so the Olympics present a challenge, but it's not going to be the death of the West End."