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Sport tourism can transform a city, bring major economic gains, says sport policy expert

You know you’re a good marketer when you can attract tourists to your town for a regatta — and the nearest navigable body of water is almost 1,000 miles away.

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You know you’re a good marketer when you can attract tourists to your town for a regatta — and the nearest navigable body of water is almost 1,000 miles away.

Alice Springs, a city in the Australian Outback, took on the challenge and created the quirky Henley-on-Todd Regatta in 1962 to celebrate a couple of skills that serve Outback residents well — namely, a sense of humor and a talent for improvisation.

Laurence Chalip

Dr. Laurence Chalip is professor in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. 

Contestants in the now wildly popular regatta raced bottomless boats through the Todd River’s dry bed, and what started as a good-time local event, began to morph into a bigger affair. As word of the event spread and marketers generated major publicity, the regatta turned into an international lure, with competitors and media from around the world attending and the money flowing into Alice Springs.

Not bad for a town with no river, lake or ocean.

Dr. Laurence Chalip, a professor in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, studies what motivates people to travel to a destination in order to view, participate in or appreciate some aspect of sport.  He also helps sport organizations like the Olympics and works with cities to strategically plan how to draw sport tourists and keep them coming back for more.

“A location that successfully markets itself to sport tourists can enjoy significant economic gains,” says Chalip, a Department of Kinesiology and Health Education faculty member and one of the experts consulted when Australia drafted its sport tourism policy. “The problem that many potential sport tourism spots have is in focusing too narrowly and thinking only in terms of marketing the specific event or facility, whether it’s a national beach volleyball tournament or the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Perth and Fremantle in Western Australia are excellent examples of a region that had significant marks against it when it came to attracting sport tourism but that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  Where a strategic vision exists and planners understand the importance of leveraging all of an area’s assets, the results can be exceptional. The Australians are particularly good at this.”

Sport tourism is a fairly new niche, from a marketing perspective, and experts like Chalip are discovering the challenges that crop up when you aim to combine promotion of a sport event with promotion of a destination and want to enjoy economic gains that extend well past the event’s end.

Camel races in Alice Springs, Australia

Situated in the inhospitable Australian Outback, Alice Springs hasn’t let its physical environment prevent it from being a popular sport tourist destination. One major tourist draw is the annual Camel Cup, which includes market stalls and other entertainment in addition to the camel races themselves. 

“A destination is a largely static factor,” says Chalip. “If a town in a desert wants to become popular with sport tourists and see them return, the planners have to work with what’s there. You can’t pick the city up and move it 800 miles east where the temperatures are more moderate and there’s lush scenery. If there’s one hotel in the town and you want to create a three-day motocross rally, you probably aren’t going to build six or seven more hotels just for that purpose. Destinations have relatively permanent traits when you’re talking about natural as well as built features.

“You look at the assets you have and start by doing a comprehensive inventory of everything that could possibly be a selling point or appeal to a visitor. You need to know as much about your potential visitors as possible — in many instances you’re going to have several different potential markets that you’ll need to ‘woo’ differently.”

Perth is an interesting example in that it’s actually the quintessential Cinderella story. It’s a city that’s described as the most isolated metropolitan center on earth, with the nearest state capital being Adelaide, which is around three hours away by plane, and Darwin and Melbourne are more like four hours away if you’re flying. Jakarta in Indonesia is the nearest foreign city, and if you headed due west from Perth, you’d bypass Africa altogether and hit South America. It’s remote, a place in the middle of nowhere on the way to nowhere.

According to Chalip, for Perth the turnaround began when they won the America’s Cup in 1983. The winning city is invited to host the next America’s Cup, and as future hosts, they suddenly realized that the eyes of the whole world would be on them. Major media coverage was guaranteed. It was a golden opportunity to promote and showcase Perth as well as the event.

Longhorns football game

Avid sport tourists are willing to travel long distances and spend significant amounts of money to view or participate in meaningful, emotion-rich, sport-related events. 

“As soon as they found out they’d be hosting the America’s Cup,” says Chalip, “they became very deliberate and aggressive in building up their infrastructure to market the event and, most importantly, the city. They tried to design an overall experience that visitors would expect, enjoy and remember.

“It was a rare opportunity to introduce people who came for the America’s Cup to a whole array of additional experiences in Perth, and planners seized it. They created what is now Eventscorp, which is the events development arm of the state government of Western Australia and asked, ‘How can we communicate the Perth and Western Australia brands to the world?’ It’s not something most cities would do or ever had done.”

Organizers started by inventorying Perth’s marketable resources and came up with pristine beaches, the beautiful Swan River, great sailing, terrific surfing, good and plentiful hotels and restaurants, and just about the best climate in Australia.

Best of all, Perth had “first mover advantage” and didn’t really have well organized competition from anyone else when it came to marketing Australia to sport tourists.

Wouldn’t it be likely that some of the sailing enthusiasts who attended the America’s Cup would enjoy participating in sailing, diving, swimming and surfing and appreciate the abundance of natural beauty? Wouldn’t it be possible to package Perth as an incomparable locale for engaging in outdoor activities, not just for viewing one event?

According to Chalip, destination and sport marketers have a much better chance of success if they understand their target market’s motivation and present a number of experiences that are likely to elicit strong positive emotional reactions in visitors. The goal is to optimize the depth and quality of a tourist’s response to being at that destination.

The more emotion-rich the visit ends up being, the better. The more sensory associations with the city that the sport tourist can develop, the more likely she is to return again and again. The more nostalgia the sport tourist develops for a spot and sense of community or shared pleasure he enjoys while there, the more likely he is to encourage others to visit as well.

Skier against blue sky

Tourists who attend an event like the Winter Olympic Games and have an opportunity to try their hand at skiing while there are very likely to return to that specific location for future ski trips. Turning sport viewers into participants is a profitable aim for marketers.  

Fortunately, many people who traveled to Perth to watch the America’s Cup were indeed physically active types who appreciated the opportunity to sail and surf. They valued these aspects of Perth so much that it solidified itself in their minds as the spot for endless blue skies, lovely beaches, friendly natives and surfing.

According to Chalip, Perth even managed to capitalize on what many thought was its worst trait — its location — by marketing the city as the western entryway to Australia. Sydney had traditionally held a monopoly on being the Gateway to Australia.

The savvy Australians worked the same magic when they hosted the Sydney Olympics in 2000. According to Chalip, they were the first to develop aggressive tactics to leverage the Olympic Games as part of an overall tourism development strategy.

“What’s interesting when you look at sport tourism,” says Chalip, “is that it encompasses so much. The sheer diversity of what you can call ‘sport tourism’ is one issue researchers are tackling right now. You can’t limit it to mega-events like the Olympics, Triple Crown or Indy 500. Small towns and rural areas are presenting sport events, drawing significant crowds, selling their communities’ unique features and making a good deal of money as well.

“In West Texas, remote towns like Fort Stockton and Fort Davis have started hosting car and motorcycle rallies. These little towns may not be cultural meccas or close to centers of fine dining and shopping, but they have long, lightly traveled roads. Hosting the rallies and having devoted participants and viewers come to town and stay for several days has meant big business for them.”

Fireworks celebration in Sydney, Australia during 2000 Olympic Games

Sydney was the first city to strategically, and successfully, leverage the Olympics to promote itself to sport tourists. 

Fort Stockton, in fact, has enjoyed the success of two sport tourist draws. The Fort Stockton Water Carnival, which launched in 1936, is held annually and centers around a host of water activities. Probably half by accident and half by planning, the event has developed quite a sizable and loyal following. People don’t travel from London or Singapore to watch and participate in the water sports or view Miss Fort Stockton be crowned, but the ones who do trek back for the carnival come year after year.

“Fort Stockton is like a lot of small towns in that many of the young people move away after graduation,” says Chalip, “but what’s happened is that the Water Carnival has built a solid sense of community and shared heritage that has great meaning for these expats now living in New York, California, Dallas, wherever. It’s tradition to  come back and visit during Water Carnival.

“Class reunions are scheduled during the summer carnival, so the event helps people to reconnect and celebrate their hometown’s heritage. There’s tremendous social value as well as economic value. This is one of those instances in which both work together — when you can generate both social and economic value, that’s ideal.”

Sydney, Perth and Fort Stockton notwithstanding, there are some places that just can’t be sold despite what seem like the perfect blend of features. Chalip has seen plenty of grand plans that never got off the ground because there was limited vision, unwillingness to partner with other stakeholders or too narrow a focus.

The town of Linhares, Portugal

The little Portuguese town of Linhares is surrounded by lovely hills and has some of the best updrafts in the world — it could have been a perfect destination for paragliding enthusiasts. 

“When I think of failed attempts,” says Chalip, “I think of a little town in Portugal called Linhares. It has beautiful hills and some of the very best updrafts in the world — it’s perhaps the perfect place for serious paragliding.  Somebody recognized this opportunity to turn little Linhares into the paragliding capital of the world and envisioned the economic benefits from the tourists who’d flock there from around the globe.

“As it turns out, the community as a whole wasn’t really on board and, when all was said and done, they refused to adapt to the tourists. Restaurants wouldn’t serve food that tourists would eat and there were too few accommodations that were appropriate for the paragliding tourists. This meant the sport tourists who did visit had to drive to the next town to dine, or they stayed at a hostel run by a local paragliding school. Linhares wasn’t getting the money. A large chain hotel planned to open there, but outside people would have to be brought in to run the hotel because they had the necessary skills, and locals would be left with the menial jobs. You see this sort of scenario in many places.”

Even though Chalip’s been director of sport management programs at universities in the U.S. and abroad, worked at several Olympic Games, been named to the International Chair of Olympism and is a Research Fellow of the North American Society for Sport Management, he’s still in learning mode.

Scholars like Chalip are still examining how best to finesse and manage the different aspects of sport tourism marketing so that an event is successfully promoted, the host destination is successfully promoted, and the negative qualities of either don’t ruin both.

Hainan Island

Hainan Island, China, has enlisted sport tourism expert Laurence Chalip to begin work on a plan for turning its lush, tropical island into a sport tourist mecca. 

“Recently I was asked to work with Hainan Island,” says Chalip, “which is in the South China Sea, on how to turn the area into a popular sport tourist destination. We’re in the initial stages of planning our work right now, and this work brings up an important consideration in the sport tourism field — the environmental benefits or drawbacks of having an influx of tourists.

“Hainan isn’t highly industrialized, and its primary attractions include lush forests and virtually untouched beaches. Without careful planning, its major selling point — the raw, unsullied natural beauty — could all too quickly be destroyed. This is something many areas have to consider, from Australia’s beautiful Gold Coast to Costa Rica.”

Chalip and colleague Dr. Bob Heere in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education also are working with the Dutch Olympic Committee to help them plan a bid for Amsterdam to host the Olympic Games.

“This project has kind of a different twist,” says Chalip. “They want us to come up with a strategy that will guarantee economic and social gains for Holland even if they lose the bid. This opens the door to all sorts of future marketing possibilities. It’s like the famous ‘Field of Dreams’ quote, but with a twist — even if you don’t build it, they will come.”