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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » August 1, 2013
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Pride of Place
August 1, 2013   
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After a period of mixed fortunes, Warsaw’s National Stadium is breaking one record after another. If everything goes to plan, by the end of next year the stadium will become as popular and profitable as the famous Wembley stadium in London, says the PL.2012+ company, which began to manage the stadium at the start of this year. It’s just that Wembley stadium took years to reach where it is now.

Once Zamkowy Square with the Royal Castle was the symbolic heart of Warsaw; then the Palace of Culture and Science became the main symbol of the city. Today the heart of the city beats by the Vistula river, at the National Stadium. During the latest Night of Museums, when major museums as well as cultural institutions were open to the public late into the night, the National Stadium set a record in terms of the number of visitors, outperforming other popular venues such as the houses of parliament, the Belweder Palace—the former residence of Poland’s presidents, and the Copernicus Science Center.

In a recent survey, 80 percent of junior high school students from outside of Warsaw mentioned the National Stadium—ahead of the city’s subway system and sites such as a McDonald’s restaurant—when asked about the place they would to like to visit most in the Polish capital.

Work to build the National Stadium started in 2009, when the cornerstone was laid. The project officially ended in 2011, when the stadium was cleared for use, yet construction work went on until the opening of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament in June last year. Until the end of last year, the stadium was managed by the National Sports Center. In January this year, the PL.2012+ company took over as the stadium’s operator.

Open door policy
“At the beginning, we had to learn the topography of the building and how to find our way around,” says Mikołaj Piotrowski, director of communications and spokesman for the PL.2012+ company. “As we negotiated those hundreds of meters of corridors, thousands of stairs, we were struck by one thing—the absence of people… The building was empty, closed, isolated from people and the city.”

That’s why one of the first decisions of the new operator was to open the entrance gates to visitors. Today the stadium is open seven days a week from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m., and Piotrowski watches as hundreds of people come here every day to go running, exercising, cycling, roller skating, doing yoga, tai-chi, or simply sitting on the grass and relaxing. And for all those people a special space is being created, Piotrowski says, with electric sockets, phone chargers and service staff. It will be possible to repair your bike or have your skateboard serviced. After all, the National Stadium is meant to be a place for everyone, PL.2012+ says.

“The opening of the entrance gates, apart from its purely technical aspect, also had a psychological dimension,” says Piotrowski. “It changed the way many people think. I could see fear in the eyes of staff, who couldn’t understand what was going on. They would say ‘What do you mean open the gates? That will mean crowds of people coming in.’ But that’s exactly what we wanted.”

PL.2012+ completely changed the approach to managing the stadium. There should be something going on at the stadium every day, the company says. From major music and sports events to trade fairs, exhibitions, fashion shows, workshops and conferences, to low-profile private parties and weddings in the local chapel, which can be used by people of different religions. The new operator wants the stadium to be teeming with life.

Profit a priority
The beginnings were not easy. When the PL.2012+ company took over the stadium at the start of the year, the venue was expected to be zl.21 million in the red by the end of 2013. Not a single target in the stadium’s business plan for last year was achieved.

“The previous operator planned zl.140,000 in revenue for the stadium in January, whereas we closed May with zl.2.4 million,” says Piotrowski. “That’s more than a 20-fold increase in revenue for the National Stadium in just four months. No other stadium in Poland has such a high revenue.”

All the events at the stadium are supposed to generate money these days. Sometimes the income is greater, sometimes smaller, executives say, but there must be a profit. In order to come up with a competitive range of services, the company had to develop a special brand strategy. It took three months to create but it was worth it, executives say. Now the company knows what it can sell to whom and for how much.

The National Stadium is expected to stay in the red until 2015. Only then is it expected to break even and start generating profits. To compare, Wembley stadium started out with a loss of 30 million pounds after it was redeveloped six years ago. “But they will take seven years to [break even], while we will only take two,” says Piotrowski.

Multi-pronged strategy
The National Stadium should be a venue for everyone, PL.2012+ says. The strategy is that a third of the events held there should be sports events, a third music and entertainment events, and a third social events. Top-level sports appeared at the National Stadium during the Euro 2012 tournament last year. Over the next few years, the stadium will host all the World Cup and European Championship qualification matches played by the Polish national soccer team as well as the final of the 2015 Europa League. The stadium will also be the venue for major motor sports events such as Verva Street Racing and Top Gear, and even for ski jumping competitions.

“We have a preliminary agreement to host a World Cup [ski jumping] tournament but we don’t have the cost estimates or technical specifications yet,” says Piotrowski. “Moreover, negotiations on the stadium hosting the opening game of the 2014 Volleyball World Championship are at an advanced stage.”

The long list of culture and entertainment events at the stadium includes the Orange Warsaw Festival for music fans and concerts by the likes of Depeche Mode, Paul McCartney and Roger Waters, as well as the Warsaw Book Fair, which saw a record number of visitors and a record level of sales. Other public events include a Science Picnic and an event called “Jesus at the Stadium,” conducted by Fr. John Bashobora, a charismatic Catholic priest from Uganda. By the end of the year, 18 “whole-stadium” events will be held, which means one major event every three weeks on average.

“We could host more events, as we have estimated the maximum number at 26, but we are closing the stadium for two months during the Climate Change Conference in November. A two-story [makeshift] building will be erected on the pitch, and the whole area will be excluded from Polish jurisdiction,” says Piotrowski, joking that staff “will have to come to work with passports.”

Business-oriented
The previous operator managed to sell only one of the stadium’s 65 VIP lodges. Piotrowski says this is because the lodges can only be sold when an attractive roster of events is on offer.

“We’ve completely changed what’s on offer,” says Piotrowski. “There are two options for buying a lodge—for a specific period of time or for a specific event. This year, it’s only possible to buy a lodge for six months because the stadium will be closed for the climate summit. The event lodges were sold almost instantly because the diary of events is really interesting and diversified.”

A stadium lodge is also a perfect venue for an exclusive business meeting or small conference. The stadium also has Warsaw’s largest conference center with a huge parking lot, six halls for 1,920 people and a beautiful view of the city. “Businessmen and other regular conference participants who are accustomed to hotel conference rooms without windows are impressed when they are able to see a panorama of the city,” says Piotrowski.

“We are all hosts” was the motto of the nationwide promotional campaign ahead of Euro 2012, and although the campaign has already ended, its message lives on, according to the managers of the National Stadium. They say a security worker or a technician responsible for connecting the wires for the media are the hosts of the stadium in the same way as the company CEO or the Director of Communications.

In all, several hundred people work at the stadium daily, growing to several thousand during events. At the time of the Orange Warsaw Festival alone, some 2,000 people worked there.

Cooperation, not competition
The new stadium managers say they are perfectly aware of their strengths and limitations. Instead of competing with other companies, they try to come to an agreement with them and join forces. The first such joint project was with the Copernicus Science Center, with which PL.2012+ signed a five-year agreement to host the annual Science Picnic.

“After signing this agreement, we began to think that since the negotiations had gone so well, and since we have similar aims and, to a large extent, the same target group, then it might be a good idea to come up with a service package: we will help you park buses because you have problems with that. The buses will be able to park on our parking lots, the passengers will visit the stadium, and then walk across the ¦więtokrzyski Bridge to the Copernicus Science Center on the other side of the Vistula River. Perhaps in the future we will offer a joint ticket and a water taxi service?” says Piotrowski.

Piotrowski says he is dreaming of further strategic alliances, for instance with venues on the other side of the Vistula River—directly across the river from the stadium—that have become fashionable recently, or with various Warsaw hotels, which, like the Copernicus Science Center, have problems with parking space and conference halls for more than 600 people.

Beginning of the road
From January to May, the National Stadium’s revenue grew a staggering 1500 percent, from zl.142,000 to zl.2,346,000. The number of participants in business events increased 37 times, from 588 in January to 22,000 in April, and the number of visitors to the stadium exceeded 500,000. Yet, although executives say they are pleased with these figures, no one is popping the champagne corks.

“We realize that we are at the beginning of the road,” says Piotrowski. “We plan to steadily develop our range of services, for instance by opening a restaurant or a fitness club, but this has to wait until after the climate conference. This stadium will be a favorite spot for people in Warsaw as well as for visitors from out of town.”


Agnieszka Dokowicz

STADIUM: facts and figures
- Usable area: more than 200,000 square meters (equal to three large shopping malls)
- Total volume (not including roof): 1,000,000 cubic meters (more than the Palace of Culture and Science)
- Capacity: 58,000 seats (including 4,600 “Premium” seats)
- More than 800 seats in 65 VIP lodges
- 106 seats for disabled people
- 900 seats for the media
- 4 LED screens (200 sq m in size in total)
- parking for 1,765 cars
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