Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Political conventions are a security headache. The Olympics are an infrastructure spending bust. What giant civic gatherings really deliver the best return on investment?
The Cleveland 2016 Host Committee projected that last week’s Republican National Convention would bring in $200 million in direct spending to the Ohio metro. The Dems estimate their gathering this week will hand over $350 million in economic benefits to Philadelphia.
Sounds like a good deal, but such promises often go undelivered. What kind of civic blow-out offers the best return on investment? We asked some mega-event experts to scope out the windfalls and pitfalls of hosting large-scale urban gatherings.
PROS: “Lots of people agree that civic pride is boosted by these events, and that’s hard to build, so that’s a positive,” says Anne-Marie Broudehoux, a scholar at the University of Québec who studies city branding efforts. And this mega-event-to-end-all-others does have enormous practical potential: If they play their cards right, smart cities can add useful infrastructure and bring in outside investment while they command the interest of the world. (See: the successful summer games of in 1992, which help fuel Barcelona’s post-Franco revitalization. In fact, the city had a redevelopment plan in place before it placed its IOC bid.) And if you’ve already got the sports facilities and political strength to host an Olympics without tons of new infrastructure build-out, against the will of the IOC, so much the better. (See: Los Angeles in 1984.)
CONS: Sadly, those two cities are considered the outliers of recent Olympic history. To understand everything wrong with holding the Games—and for soccer’s World Cup, a process that shares many of the same challenges—just look at poor Rio de Janeiro. Shoddy and useless infrastructure, huge public debt, mass displacement of residents, and political chaos are just a few of the problems Rio shares with other cities that bungled their hosting duties.
UPSHOT: Don’t do it. Two words: Olympic Island.
PROS: You might not have heard much about these monorail-intensive, nation-branding orgies since Expo 86 in Vancouver, which was the last world’s fair held in North America. In the U.S., Congress banned the use of federal funds to support world's fairs in 1999. But on other continents, the Expos keep on coming—Shanghai’s über-elaborate production in 2010 was the most attended in history. They share some the same upsides as an Olympics, with the added benefit of long duration and more flexible infrastructure. See: Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Montreal’s Habitat 67, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. For many cities, particularly in Asia, holding a fair is a way of emerging onto the world stage, according to Mark Wilson, who heads the Mega-Event Planning Group at Michigan State University and advises cities that bid to host Expos.
CONS: “The pitfalls for world’s fairs aren’t the wasteful white elephants of infrastructure, though they do happen,” says Wilson. “It’s distorting your city to host it.” As with the Olympics, cities often plan for world’s fairs as an end in themselves, bending investment to support the event rather using the fair as a means to benefit the city in the long term, as Montreal successfully did in 1967. Also, economic and political crises can arise in the multi-year lag between the city’s bid and the actual event, and they can be magnets for all manner of violent protest.
UPSHOT: Plan carefully, proceed with caution.
PROS: Besides putting their host cities’ names in the media spotlight, election-year showdowns like this summer’s in Cleveland and Philly bring in a working week’s worth of up-ticked tourism dollars to center-city hotels, limo companies, and restaurants. Most of this economic influx will be coming from out-of-towners. To the eyes of city leaders, it looks like “free” tax revenue.
CONS: Nothing’s “free.” While a sliver of the service industry might be running fat and happy, work-week road closures and traffic disrupt commutes and productivity, which has real dollar impacts (though it’s hard to say exactly how much). Then there are the security costs: As Chicago learned in 1968, these can be volatile events. Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor who studies sports economics, says that cities can underestimate just how much extra police they’ll need to rope off streets, create protest areas, block parking, and guard politicos. In 2012, Charlotte and Atlanta spent $50 million in federal money to protect their conventions, and additional spending by cities can be in the tens of millions. Those sunny “direct spending” projections that party committees come up with often fail to account for these costs. And, as the need for security increases, “it’s becoming harder and harder for smaller cities to compete for these conventions, even though they might want them more,” says Burbank.
UPSHOT: High risk during contentious times, and there are safer ways to make a glitzy political splash. How about a gala or a benefit concert?
PROS: Lots of music festivals are out in the sticks, to accommodate the vast crowds and high volume. But the Lollapalooza festival, which is held this weekend and is one of the largest annual pop music events in North America, has called downtown Chicago’s Grant Park home since 2005. In 2014 the event brought roughly 300,000 people and a reported $82 million in direct spending in the city. The Chicago Park District receives $3 million of Lolla ticket sales annually, and apparently sees a lasting positive impact. “Grant Park is dependent on Lollapalooza now,” Bob O'Neil, president of Grant Park Conservancy, told NBC Chicago last year. “Thousands of trees planted, different gardens renovated, and new gardens created.”
CONS: As with a political convention, festivals can discourage non-event-related spending activity nearby, as locals and non-concert-going visitors steer clear. And concertgoers can sneak a share of problems through security: Expect noise complaints, drunken loutishness, and a fair probability of property damage. (Think twice before booking country star Kenny Chesney, whose 2013 Pittsburgh gig left behind a sea of devastation.) Also, no surprise here, but Chicago’s been striking pretty corporate-friendly, tax-cutting deals with Lollapalooza’s organizers, so the city isn’t likely benefiting as much as it could, or should, be.
UPSHOT: To boost economic benefits, cities should host their own music festivals in a park, or do it with a non-profit organizer, like New York City’s successful SummerStage series. And maybe stick with performers less likely to stoke audience aggression.
PROS: There’s little, if any, new infrastructure to build, since the big game’s host cities always have the stadium to support it. The odds of a major hiccup, such as the lack of seats at the Cowboys Stadium in 2011, are pretty slim. Plus, you’ll score some nice blimp shots of your skyline on the year’s most-watched televised event.
CONS: Unlike political conventions, Super Bowls really only deliver one or two nights of extra tourism dollars, instead of three or five. Most of the media attention is focused inside the arena. The biggest risks involve bad weather (there’s a reason why the NFL prefers indoor facilities and warm-weather host cities) and pre-game bad publicity. See: San Francisco officials sweeping homeless people under the rug.
UPSHOT: Sure, have a Super Bowl. Just don’t do anything stupid.
Cannes, Sundance, South by Southwest, Bayreuth, Ciclavia, Vatican Jubilee, Hajj, etc.
PROS: Hey, what does a Bavarian opera festival have in common with a sacred papal pilgrimage? To a city events planners, they’re both money for the same basic reasons, according to Martin Müller, a senior research fellow who studies mega-events at the University of Birmingham. “For World Cups and the Olympic Games, you don’t own the rights—they’re franchises,” he says. “As a city, you want to own the event you’re hosting.” These multi-week festivals and convocations are synonymous with their locations, which helps those places create an international profile. Because they draw people year after year (or decade after decade), infrastructure can be reused, media attention tends to be overwhelmingly positive, and folks whose livelihoods depend on these events get better at their jobs. And by making use of multiple venues dispersed around the city, pilgrimage-style happenings spread tourism dollars more evenly than a convention, concert, or a sporting event would.
Broudehoux also offers up the model of Montreal, which has branded itself as a “city of festivals,” hosting a series of events throughout the summer to attract manageable numbers of tourists to venues across the city.
CONS: Almost none—at least until the events get so successful they actually start drawing new residents, who wind up displacing existing ones. And make sure you invest in crowd control: Thousands died in a stampede at Mecca during the Hajj in 2015.
UPSHOT: Build an affordable housing plan, get a team of expert crowd managers, and invent a city-specific religion which magnetizes global adherents to their spiritual birthplace every summer. Then: Profit!