Sunday 25 February 2018

Rival stadiums draw swords in battle for billion-euro business

After the temporary arrangement which saw Croke Park house rugby and soccer internationals -- for the handsome price of €36m -- a ball has yet to be kicked in anger on a competitive stage at the new Aviva Stadium.

An interprovincial smattering of the country's best young rugby players did kick things off in a low-key fashion at the spanking new Dublin 4 venue last Saturday, when a Leinster/Ulster team routed a Munster/Connacht selection. That will now be followed by more 'friendaly fire' for the visit of Manchester United against an Airtricity League selection in the first soccer match to be played at the stadium tomorrow.

This autumn, Declan Kidney's 2009 Grand Slam heroes will play four internationals at the venue, while Giovanni Trapattoni's soccer side will take on Argentina in a high-profile friendly on August 11, before kicking off their Euro 2012 qualifiers with a home clash against Andorra.

However, while the sporting competition promises to be keen, the off-field battle will be just as competitive. Croke Park will seek to offset the departure of their financially rewarding tenants in a joust against Aviva to attract the increasingly lucrative conference and business elements.

The trouble is the new kid on the block in Dublin 4 will also be looking for their share of the estimated €1bn business tourism spend due to flock into the Irish capital between now and 2013.


So, where once the hand of hospitality stretched across the Liffey, now the two stadia will be in direct competition, along with the imminent arrival of the Dublin Convention Centre and the conference centres -- some of which are stilted due to the faltering economy -- that are already open for business.

Croke Park have already slashed their prices for those seeking to utilise their conference spaces -- by up to 40pc in some instances -- as selling prices slump to 2005 levels.

In their opening two months of business, Aviva Stadium chiefs have already demonstrated their enthusiasm for the scrum to ensure that they can bank as much bang for their buck.

Something has to give -- even though industry analysts observe that there is more than enough business to satisfy all venues in an area where the growth potential is still largely untapped.

Speaking in a newspaper interview recently, Croke Park stadium director Peter McKenna admitted that the competition between the two stadia would be a compelling feature, now that the co-operation between the Drumcondra venue and the formerly homeless IRFU and FAI is at an end.

"The competition for us has always been there," says McKenna. "We only had a solo run for three years while Lansdowne was closed down.

"From a sporting point of view, we don't compete. Things will be tough for us all in the conferences market and in attracting events, but there is no doubt Dublin needs two major stadiums."

Understandably, there is a reluctance within Croke Park to openly elaborate on the changed dynamics of this fascinating new tussle, believing that a more realistic perspective can only be drawn towards the end of the year.

"It's way too early to look at that," said McKenna. "It's only open a short while so how do you compare it to a place that's been running for 125 years? It's too early to compare the venues. When Aviva is up and running at the end of year, we'd be more happy to hold a comparative analysis."

For now, though, those in charge of the Aviva Stadium are not reluctant in blowing their own vuvuzelas as they seek to gain an advantage.

Sales and marketing manager Cailin Keaney is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that her team can deliver the elements that, along with sporting achievements on the field, can grease the 'financial engine' for rugby and soccer.

"We're very happy with the level of business we've had to date," says Keaney, who represents Compass, the firm who provide exclusive catering services to the Aviva, as well as the Millennium Stadium and Wembley.

"We've had about 5,500 delegates in through the doors over the first seven weeks, so I don't think we could have done better than that. Business tourism and business sports tourism are big focuses for Bord Failte at the moment.

"The figure currently being flagged is about €1bn due into Dublin from business tourists by 2013. Dublin accounts for 80pc and we are really chasing our fair share of that.

"Business tourists generate a lot more wealth than leisure tourists. There is a lot of focus on that area and we fit in nicely to what Bord Failte are trying to do. The uniqueness of the structure makes it an iconic venue.

"That helps international buyers who want a hook, but ultimately it all comes down to service levels. It doesn't matter how amazing a building looks if the service levels, the quality of food and the quality of staff aren't there."

According to Failte Ireland, there were 120 international conferences in Ireland last year, an increase from 89 events the previous year. The benefit to the economy was also up substantially last year, from €32m to €72m.

As far as competing with Croke Park is concerned, Keaney's attitude mimics those of Kidney and Trapattoni -- she will concentrate on what her team is doing and let the opposition look after themselves.

"We are chasing business and it's a very competitive market," she says frankly. "But just because we're the new kid on the block doesn't mean that we're not suitable.

"We have to be out there in the market place and be as active as anyone. I can't really comment on what Croke Park or anyone else is doing, but we're totally comfortable in what we're bringing to the market place.

"We're concentrating on what we want to do and we're doing quite well to date. If people want to use us after checking other businesses, that's brilliant, but we're chasing business even though we're still new."

Their position in leafy Dublin 4 will be an inevitable attraction; just as some rugby denizens will feel more comfortably swathed in the boozers of Ballsbridge rather than Drumcondra, so too will business clients prefer to wallow in Dublin's social 'West End'.

And just as the price of a pint will certainly differ from Dorset Street to Baggot Street, so too will the privilege of pitching your corporate tent in the new Aviva Stadium.

"We can't overestimate how important price is to buyers nowadays. We did a broad competitive analysis in October 2008, looking at pricing and the trends in buyers," adds Keaney.

"I feel our pricing is very competitive and the commercial reality of trading for the last two months shows that the industry agrees with me. Our pricing is competitive. We've a lot of really good competitors around us, too, so we have to be mindful of that."

While the IRFU are likely to be able to see profitable times from around 2013 onwards when their next batch of 5,000 premium tickets are sold, the FAI's financial difficulties in fulfilling their stadium obligations are much more complicated.

Suffice to say that John Delaney et al will be desperately hoping that Keaney and her side can deliver as consistent a performance off the pitch as hopefully Trapattoni's men do on it, funnelling much-needed profits into the Lansdowne Road Stadium Development Company, from whom the IRFU and FAI will absorb prospective profits.

No pressure, then.

"I've been in the UK recently and there's a huge awareness of the stadium even though there hasn't been a game here yet," says Keaney.Many people are aware of the conference end of things as well.

"We can't just sit here with a brand new stadium and expect the business to come to us. That's not the way this business works. We've five people selling and we need to be out there all the time.

"Any modern stadium around the globe has a very active non match-day portfolio -- and that does drive a lot of revenue. As an international stadium you only have a certain amount of fixtures very year. There's a lot of days when the stadium is sitting idle when it needs to be fully utilised."

Croke Park faces similar issues; more so now as - apart from one International Rules encounter in October - no big games will be played there from September's All-Ireland football final until the All-Ireland club finals next March.


"I'm confident that stadium director Peter McKenna and his staff will continue to do well, but the days of it being a cash cow are over," warned director general Paraic Duffy earlier this year. Duffy's predecessor Liam Mulvihill reckoned Croke Park, redeveloped at a cost of €260m during a decade from 1993, would be an anachronism by 2020, requiring more expensive refurbishment.

"It will still be a valuable, profit-making vehicle but nothing like before," admitted Duffy.

Nevertheless, Keaney reckons that there will still be enough of what is a growing business to satisfy everyone.

"There's enough to go around for all the various venues once they remain competitive, professional and offer what the international clients want -- be it technology, service levels or a modern Irish experience which we are," she says.

"There are traditional Irish venues which can be exploited, but we are a newer, modern experience and target markets have changed radically in the last five years.

"Before we would have been chasing banks and building societies, we're not chasing them anymore because but they don't have any money. We couldn't be doing better and we just need to continue on that basis."

Her reference to banks is a poignant one. Bank of Ireland won't be renewing their €500,000 corporate box with the IRFU -- a sign of these tough times as much as the scores of empty hotels sliding into Nama-land.

Results on the field aren't guaranteed, but Keaney is hoping that results off it can be.

"We're really happy with what's on the books," says Keaney. "For a space only open two months, and for this type of business, we're very happy."

Irish Independent

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