The event tourism segment is growing rapidly, and has received a boost from this year’s World Cup, which saw millions of fans flocking to Russia despite the tense relations between Moscow and western governments.
Tourism in general is a growth sector — international tourist arrivals increased by 7% in 2017 to reach a total of 1.3bn, according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer — and event tourism is expanding faster than many other areas, according to Sefi Donner CEO of international ticket broker Sports Events 365.
"This segment in tourism is growing every year and it’s growing faster than regular tourism is growing, as more and more people realise it’s not that challenging to combine a sporting or other event with a trip,” Donner says in an interview with bne IntelliNews.
As incomes grow across Central and Eastern Europe, and low cost airlines continue expanding their networks, travel to and from the region has boomed. Sports Events 365, which operates websites in 19 languages, has been expanding its presence in CEE along with other regions like East Asia, and most recently signed large-scale co-operation deal with TUI TravelCenter to market its services in Romania.
Under the terms of the agreement, TUI TravelCenter, the world’s largest travel agency, will provide its B2B and B2C customers with access to major sporting events outside the country by using the Sports Events 365 database and search engine.
Sports Events 365 has been working with TUI for a couple of years already; “They realised we are serious and professional and decided to go to the next step,” Donner says. He anticipates sales will more than double in Romania following the agreement with the local TUI subsidiary, projecting revenues from the country to reach €500,000 within six months.
Romania is a relatively new market for Sports Events 365, but in a statement issued when the deal was signed, the company describes it as an “emerging market with a particular interest in sports tourism”. Donner has observed Romanians are increasingly interested either in flying to other countries specifically to see a match, or in combining a sporting or cultural event with a family or business trip.
Many Romanians follow tennis, their interest primed by the success of local superstar Simone Halep, as well as handball, but as in the other countries where Sports Events 365 is active, it’s football that is the real draw.
Even people who don’t go to watch football matches in their own countries are buying tickets for matches abroad, according to Donner, especially “in what we call the ‘football countries’ — England, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands. He talks about “the atmosphere, the crowds, the songs, the beer” as well as the match itself, that often make these the highlight of a trip.
Donner stresses that travelling abroad for a match or other event isn’t just for the rich, but is possible at all price points. While some of his firm’s customers — he mentions Russians in particular — go for VIP tickets, Sports Events 365 works with all budgets; last year it sold over 50,000 tickets in total.
As well as the agreement with TUI in Romania, the company’s presence in CEE includes exclusive representation agreements in Hungary, Poland and Serbia, and it works with travel agencies and customers in other countries across the region. Elsewhere in the world, event tourism is growing strongly in the Far East, and the company has websites in Japanese, Chinese and Korean to serve those markets.
The World Cup 2018 in Russia didn’t just focus the world’s attention on the ‘beautiful game’, it also shone a spotlight on the beautifully lucrative sports tourism segment.
More than 5mn tourists, including 2.9mn foreigners, visited the 11 Russian cities hosting World Cup matches, the head of the Russian Federal Tourism Agency Oleg Safonov told a press conference midway through the tournament, Tass reported at the time. This included 2.7mn who visited the capital Moscow, and a further 600,000 in St Petersburg and 500,000 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The championship also took foreign fans to cities far off the usual tourist trail such as Kaliningrad, Saransk and Yekaterinberg.
As well as the tourist spend, Russia reaped PR dividends at a time when the geopolitical situation is increasingly tense, with glowing media reports of the fun and camaraderie among local and visiting fans in the host cities.
“I think the World Cup in Russia was a great success and it gave appetite to a lot of people to go and see football themselves later on,” says Donner.
And the World Cup didn’t just benefit the host nation in terms of tourism, it also raised the profile of the nations — like outsider Croatia that unexpectedly made it to the final.
The Croatian Tourist Board (HTZ) said on July 12, the day after the Adriatic nation knocked England out in the semi-final, that visits to its website jumped 250% compared to the same period last year. Most of the visits were made from footballing nations like Italy, the US, Russia, Germany, the UK, France, Poland and the Netherlands.
The benefits for tourism, which already makes up 25% of Croatia’s GDP (directly and indirectly according to WTTC figures), were acknowledged by Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, who commented: “Congratulations to the Croatian national football team … for the fascinating success of Croatian sports and promotion of the country.”
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and his ministers at their cabinet meeting on July 12 — the day after the national team beat England to secure a place in the World Cup final — in red-and-white checkered Croatian football shirts.
And the cities in other countries whose teams include players from Croatia, Russia, or other successful national teams, can also benefit, says Donner. “People want to follow their country’s top players, and those from countries whose team didn’t get to the World Cup are also interested in seeing their favourite players at their clubs.” ‘Follow your player’, as Donner dubs it, is yet another factor taking people abroad.