THE MAIN EVENT: Interview with major events sports specialist, Alan Hamer
In this latest industry interview, Sports Venue Business’ Katie McIntyre hears insights from Alan Hamer, the major events sports specialist, who was Project Director for the Football Association of Wales’ Local Organising Committee for the UEFA Champions League Final 2017 and more recently Bid Director for the Association’s UEFA EURO 2020 bid.
Can you start off by telling us a little about yourself and your career achievements to date?
Like most Welsh people, I love sport, whether it be playing or watching (more the latter now). When I was growing up, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but since I liked maths, one of my school teachers suggested a career in accountancy. So I went on to study accountancy in university before qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1994. Not for one moment did I ever think that my love of numbers would result in me working in the sports industry.
I first ventured into the sports industry in 2004, when I became the Welsh Rugby Union’s Finance Director. It was a challenging role, as the organisation faced significant cash flow issues due to the sizeable loans taken out to build the Millennium Stadium (as it was called at that time); now known as Principality Stadium. It was a steep learning curve but things gradually started to improve and the pressure eased. Although I only spent 2 years in the role, I learned a great deal which provided a good grounding for my future roles.
I then joined Glamorgan County Cricket Club, initially as their Finance & Commercial Director. It was an exciting time to join the county – they had just been awarded an Ashes Test match and they were about to redevelop their stadium (now called The SSE SWALEC).
Although the county had a long and proud history, it was a period of significant change and a new team of staff was recruited. Getting the stadium redevelopment completed in just 2 years whilst at the same time, planning for a high profile Ashes Test match, was a big challenge.
Since the Club borrowed money to pay for the stadium, debt levels increased and as a result, we were all under pressure to generate new and increased revenue streams. From a commercial perspective, we had lot of attractive inventory to sell – be it stadium naming rights (the agreement with SSE was the first for a large stadium in Wales) or match day hospitality (we had over 10,000 hospitality covers to sell for the Ashes Test match).
Like all sport venues, there are only a small number of match days each year, so we had to “sweat the asset” and a big priority for the club was to develop our conferences and events offering (the club’s non-match day business soon delivered £1m+ of revenue per annum). Over a relatively short space of time, the Club’s turnover increased significantly and the venue is now firmly established as one of Wales’ premier sporting and conference and events facilities.
Despite intense media scrutiny (there were many people that didn’t agree with Cardiff being awarded an Ashes Test match and the first one of the series as well), the 2009 Ashes Test match in Cardiff was a major triumph and was ground breaking for international cricket in the UK. Our emphasis was on raising the bar in terms of the customer match day experience and following this event, other more established cricket venues reviewed and then improved their offerings.
The successful staging of the Test match led to the Club being awarded a second Ashes Test match in 2015 and the Club was also shortlisted for UK Venue of the Year at the illustrious UK Sports Industry Awards.
Shortly after the Ashes Test match, I stepped up to the role of Chief Executive Officer and during my remaining time with the Club, we reached our first one-day final in nearly 40 years and were also recognised by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for our Community Engagement programme. I finally left the Club in 2013 to look for a new challenge.
Amongst the people I then contacted to let them know of my change in career was Jonathan Ford – CEO of the Football Association of Wales. A few weeks later we met to discuss a project that he thought may be of interest – heading up the bid for Cardiff to be chosen as one of the 13 UEFA EURO 2020 Host Cities!
One project turned into another and during my four years at the Football Association of Wales, I was fortunate enough to have worked on some of the world’s biggest sporting events.
Although I have worked in three very different sports – rugby, cricket and football – the challenges, highlights and achievements at each were similar, namely: improving profitability, increasing revenue, streamlining operations, recruiting staff, bidding for major events, profile & reputation building, delivering high quality sporting events, and raising the level of customer experience.
Throughout my working career, I have been fortunate to have attended several major sporting events and I have always taken an interest in noticing the things that work well and the things that don’t!
Over time, you try to incorporate the good ideas into your event plans and ensure that the bad points are highlighted as risk items at the earliest opportunity. It’s not rocket science – the moral of the story is that you are never too old or too good to learn from others. The moment that you think you know everything is the start of a slippery slope. Several well-known sports venues have suffered such a wake-up call over recent years.
During the planning phase for UEFA Champions League Final 2017, we observed the 2015 and 2016 finals in Berlin and Milan, and had people working on the ground to understand how the events operated. We also met with the English and German FAs to understand their challenges and words of wisdom in relation to staging such a high profile event.
I can assure you that things definitely don’t always go to plan but when things do go wrong, you just need to make sure that they don’t go wrong again. This way, and over time, the quality of your offering will continue to improve.
I have always placed strong emphasis on delivering high levels of customer experience (one of our slogans for UEFA Champions League Final 2017 was “delivering the best experience for all….”) and I have always tried to approach the event planning process from an attendee perspective – what would I want to know if I was planning to attend an event? How would I describe a successful event?
In addition to the success of the 2009 Ashes Test match, the 2017 UEFA Champions League Final was also hailed by UEFA as one of their best ever events and generated their highest ever guest satisfaction rating (97%). I guess it shows that making customer experience one of your top priorities is hugely important.
You spent just over four years at the Football Association of Wales in total. Can you tell us a little more about the projects you worked on?
I started in October 2013, heading up Cardiff’s bid to be chosen as one of the 13 UEFA EURO 2020 host cities. We had just six months to submit our bid. We pulled together what we all thought was a winning bid – building on Cardiff and Wales’ enviable reputation for staging major events (FA Cup Finals, Ryder Cup, Ashes Test match, Rugby World Cup etc.), and once again putting customer experience high on the priority list (our bid provided free match day travel on trains for ticket holders). We were naturally hugely disappointed to have missed out by the narrowest of margins (our bid finished just one point behind Glasgow’s).
At the same time as leading the UEFA EURO 2020 bid, I also worked as the Local Organising Committee’s Project Leader for the 2014 UEFA Super Cup Final, which was played at the Cardiff City Stadium. The match, between Real Madrid and Sevilla, was a sell-out (first time in the competition’s history) and UEFA were very impressed with the way in which the event was delivered including the Football Association of Wales’ ground breaking pan-Wales community engagement programme.
Towards the end of 2014, I then headed up the Cardiff’s bid to secure the 2017 UEFA Champions League Final – the single biggest sporting event in the world and the biggest event to have ever been staged in Wales. Securing this prestigious event had long-been one of Welsh sport’s biggest goals and on 30th June 2015 (a date I will always fondly remember), UEFA’s Executive Committee announced that our bid had been successful and that Cardiff would stage both the Men’s and Women’s Champions League Finals in 2017.
Having been awarded the event, I then moved into the role of Local Organising Committee Project Director. Although both finals took place in June, the post-event wrap up period was considerable, particularly the financial reconciliations – in total over 4,000 financial transactions were processed by the Football Association of Wales and the event was completely reconciled by the end of September.
I was due to finish at the end of September last year, but on 21st September, UEFA’s Executive Committee then invited Cardiff (along with Stockholm and London) to submit bids to potentially replace Brussels as one of the 13 UEFA EURO 2020 Host Cities due to ongoing concerns over the construction of their new stadium. I then performed the role of Local Organising Committee UEFA EURO 2020 Bid Director and spent two months working on the bid.
During your time at Glamorgan County Cricket Club, you led their major match bid, which resulted in a second Ashes Test match being awarded to Cardiff. You also led the City’s bid to stage UEFA EURO 2020 and UEFA Champions League Final 2017. Can you explain what exactly is involved in compiling a bid for a major sporting event?
For any major sporting event, the bidding requirements are considerable and continue to increase year-on-year.
Although the stadium and its key facilities will always be at the heart of any major sports bid, event organisers have increasing requirements in relation to what happens outside the stadium (security, transport, fan zones, branding, accommodation etc.) and also in relation to political matters (levels of financial support, guarantees etc.).
As such, preparing and submitting a bid for a major event is a complex and challenging process and requires a team effort with the full support of all key stakeholders. In Cardiff this included: the Welsh Government, UK Government, Cardiff City Council, neighbouring local authorities, the police, the owners and operators of the relevant stadia and other key locations, transport providers and hoteliers associations (contracting rooms before the rates shoot up post bid decision).
The bids that I have been involved in for cricket and football were completely different – in cricket, bidders had to propose a fee to pay to the event organiser. In football there was no fee payable but in return, all of the event requirements needed to be paid for by the Local Organising Committee.
As such, understanding and forecasting the Local Organising Committee’s event delivery costs is hugely important, as is agreeing the respective funding contributions from each stakeholder. If you get either wrong, you will be left staring into a financial black hole.
Although major sports events tend to generate a significant economic benefit to the local area, securing public sector funding to pay for the event delivery costs is not easy due to the competing demands from other areas of government during times of austerity, especially given the well-publicised challenges in the areas of health, social care and education. So your business case for public sector funding needs to be very compelling.
From a bidder’s perspective, it’s important to give some thought as to why you want to host the event – there are sporting and non-sporting reasons:
- Typically the sporting reasons are linked to the desire to use the profile of the event to increase participation numbers within your sport (playing, coaching, refereeing etc.); and
- The non-sporting reasons are financial (economic benefit to the city / region / country), profile building (global media exposure of your city / country) and also instilling a sense of pride and goodwill for those residing in your city / country.
From an event organiser perspective, they will typically have three main considerations:
- Quality of your bid in relation to facilities at the stadium & other key locations, security arrangements, political support, guest & fan experience, transport, accommodation and partner branding & rights protection.
- Financial return:
- Revenue – seating and hospitality capacity at the stadium; less
- Cost – proposed rental cost of the key venues and the extent of any temporary infrastructure overlay requirements.
- The potential impact on the sport in your country should your bid be successful (the infamous “legacy” word!).
How did your involvement with the UEFA Champions League Final 2017 help with Cardiff’s recent and albeit unsuccessful UEFA EURO 2020 bid and what were the key lessons learned?
When we submitted the original UEFA EURO 2020 bid back in 2014, we had yet to stage any of UEFA’s major club finals and therefore we had no experience to support our various promises and commitments.
Without doubt, the quickest way to gain someone’s confidence is to demonstrate a track record of successful delivery – in our most recent bid, we were able to remind UEFA of our capabilities in staging UEFA Super Cup 2014, UEFA Men’s Champions League Final 2017 and UEFA Women’s Champions League Final 2017. All of UEFA’s Executive Committee were in Cardiff in June so they had first-hand knowledge of our capabilities to host UEFA EURO 2020.
Having just delivered UEFA Champions League Final 2017, we were also in a good position to understand the true scale of UEFA EURO 2020, UEFA’s extensive requirements, the likely economic benefit and the expected Local Organising Committee delivery costs (particularly in the area of security). This then provided all of our key stakeholders with accurate information in order to consider whether we wanted to bid.
UEFA’s Executive Committee only announced on September 21 that Cardiff could bid to potentially replace Brussels as one of the thirteen UEFA EURO 2020 host cities. How challenging was it to submit a bid within a much reduced six week period?
Yes, it was an incredibly tight deadline. However sometimes, the shorter the bidding period the easier it is to get decisions made quickly. We had to work quickly to get to meet all of the key stakeholders in order to get their full support for our bid. For the UEFA Champions League Final 2017, we had over 100 legal agreements with various stakeholders, so the complexity of pulling together another bid was significant.
Without doubt, the recent success of hosting UEFA Champions League Final was firmly in the minds of those that we had to convince, so the meetings were hugely positive and enabled us to work quickly to meet UEFA’s deadline.
When the pressure is on, you are solely focused on getting the bid submitted, but when you have time to look back at what we achieved in such a short amount of time, it was pretty impressive:
- Obtaining all 18 requested government guarantees;
- Contracting the key venues,
- Securing £19m of event funding
- Obtaining commitments from rail, air, ferry and coach operators to increase capacities during UEFA EURO 2020; and
- Contracting 48,000 hotel room nights at discounted rates for exclusive use by UEFA EURO 2020 spectators (one of our many customer experience objectives).
We said before UEFA’s decision on December 7 that we were very happy with the bid we submitted and that we could have done no more. Despite the disappointing outcome, we don’t have any regrets and I wish UEFA and the 12 chosen host cities the very best. Although it will probably be a challenging tournament to deliver, it will also be an excellent one.
What advice would you give to other Football Associations, clubs, cities, etc., looking to bid on major sporting events?
I think the six most important pieces of advice are:
- Be clear on the reasons for wanting to host a major sporting event;
- Make sure you fully understand the bidding requirements and the cost implications. I know this sounds obvious advice but things can change significantly between the date of your bid and the time of the event which can then hugely increase event delivery costs (particularly in relation to security);
- Clarify the roles, responsibilities and funding obligations of each of your bid stakeholders;
- If you can, speak to those that have previously hosted similar events;
- Have a strong communications and lobbying plan. The lobbying is equally as important as the bid content!;and
- Never give up on your dreams.
The UEFA Champions League Final was the single biggest sporting event in the world in 2017, that’s some achievement, not least as Cardiff is also the smallest city to have ever staged the event. What were the main challenges and how did you overcome them?
The challenges were numerous and far bigger than I had imagined and included the following:
- The perception that Cardiff was too small and that it wouldn’t cope. It was still being talked about in the week of the Final by a leading Spanish newspaper;
- The scale of the event was significant and although we had observed the finals in in 2015 and 2016, it was much bigger than Cardiff had seen before and surprised some of those that had previously worked on similar major events in the city for the past 20 years;
- The media profile was insane (good news for promoting your country but can also increase pressure on the delivery team during the final run in as there is no hiding place if something goes wrong!);
- The security climate had changed considerably since being awarded the final back in 2015 and in the week of the final, the UK threat level was raised to Critical following the Manchester terrorist attack. Without doubt, security was our biggest challenge in the 12-months leading up to the event;
- You only know the identity of the two finalists 3 weeks before the final which makes it difficult to finalise your security and transport plans. We therefore had to prepare a number of different scenarios based on the identity of the finalists;
- Cardiff had limited number of hotel rooms (6,000 compared to 123,000 in Berlin) so we knew it would further increase pressure on the transport network which had struggled to cope during Rugby World Cup 2015;
- Due to the accommodation challenge, we knew that we would have very high numbers of supporters wanting to travel to and from Cardiff on the day of the game. How could we process so many supporters through Cardiff and Bristol Airports? How could we get people back to Bristol and London by train after the game when there are no timetabled trains?
- The popularity of Women’s football in Wales was quite low. How would we avoid having an embarrassingly low attendance at the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final?
Ultimately, our detailed planning paid dividends and UEFA have hailed the event as one of their best ever.
We were always confident in our abilities and maintained throughout that people shouldn’t pre-judge us and should wait until the event had taken place before passing comment on Cardiff’s capabilities to host (it was very similar position to 2009 Ashes Test match)
Amongst the many highlights were the following:
- Highest ever guest satisfaction rating for UEFA event (97%)
- Second fastest selling hospitality UEFA event of all time with over 12,500 guests attending the match;
- UEFA Women’s Champions League Final attendance of 22,500 was 700% increase on previous Welsh women’s football record and second highest in the competition’s history.
- Despite the increased security climate it was reported that a record 312,000 people were in the city centre on the day of UEFA Champions League Final 2017 and all fans entered stadium in time for kick-off despite having to go through four different layers of security checks;
- Providing 21 high speed trains to take 15,000 supporters back to London post match (the trains ran every 15 minutes between 23.00hrs and 04.00hrs and the complex operation formed the basis of a TV documentary which was aired last Summer on Channel 5);
- Building a temporary second terminal at Cardiff Airport in order to process 2,400 arriving or departing charter supporters each hour;
- Despite being reported as the most complex air traffic control operation in Europe on the weekend of the event, Cardiff, Bristol and Birmingham Airports successfully processed 400 flight movements (charter flights, private jets, helicopter movements) without any delays;
- The Local Organising Committee taking pro-active action on behalf of UEFA’s Partners by:
- contracting 3,000 hotel rooms at discounted rates; and
- reserving all key city centre advertising sites to minimise risk of ambush marketing
- Creating a supporters travel app in the languages of the two finalists, which provided real time information along with a simplified booking process;
- Delivering a hugely successful year-long pan-Wales community engagement programme which involved over 500,000 people in Wales; and finally
- Creating of a safe and welcoming city which included 3,000 police officers, 1,500 stewards and 1,000 volunteers.
How has the sector changed over the last decade and where do you see it going in the next 10 years, as millennials become the largest target group?
Without doubt, event requirements have increased significantly. It’s no longer just about the stadium and the game – it’s about the guest experience from the moment the attendee leaves his/her house until they arrive home safely.
Unfortunately, due to the world we live in, security will now be the biggest challenge facing any event organiser. Delivering a safe and secure event will always be the primary objective of any Local Organising Committee, but striking a balance is also important as it needs to be a welcoming event and not something people are afraid of attending.
During the planning for UEFA Champions League Final 2017, we were amazed by the event’s social media following during the 2016/17 competition:
- Official website: 137 million web and app visits;
- Facebook: 534 million interactions and 374 million video views;
- Instagram 338 million engagements; and
- Twitter: 14 million engagements.
These stats increase year-on-year. People now expect real-time event information at their fingertips, 24-7 and therefore digital content will play an ever increasing role in engaging with event attendees. The days of a paper ticket and printed information guide will soon disappear.
Moving forward, I think that fewer venues, cities and countries will now be able to bid to stage the world’s biggest events due to the increasing bid requirements (in terms of facilities) and associated costs. It is therefore more likely to lead to larger cities and stadia tending to dominate the event bidding process, with events perhaps being allocated to a small cluster of cities on a rotational basis. I hope I am wrong as this would make it difficult for my home city to stage similar events in the future.
You’ve certainlly had an interesting career so far. Where do you go next and what would be your ideal job?
I have been very fortunate to have worked for some fantastic companies in an industry that I am very passionate about. I have learnt a lot during my 14-year career in sport and still have a lot to offer and to learn.
I am therefore keen to continue to work in the sports industry – either on another major event, for a sports governing body or for a club – and will now wait for the right opportunity to arise.
Main image (top): Economia | Tales From The Frontline – Alan Hamer of the Welsh Football Association, pictured within the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. 11th September 2017, Pic Credit: Gareth Iwan Jones
Huge thanks to Alan Hamer for taking the time to do this interview and if you would like to discuss any issues raised in the piece above with Alan direct, you can email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org