London’s Olympic Stadium, site of the opening and closing ceremonies in 2012, is billed as the most sustainable major sports arena ever built.

London’s Olympic Stadium, site of the opening and closing ceremonies in 2012, is billed as the most sustainable major sports arena ever built.

In summer 2012, London became the first city in the modern era to host the Summer Olympic Games for a third time; it also had hosted the Games in 1908 and 1948. Only 30 years earlier, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had expressed concern that not enough nations and cities were applying to host the Games: through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the right to host the Olympics was not so keenly contested, and few of the leading international cities of the era bid for the Games or hosted them.

This all changed with the 1992 Olympics, when Barcelona spectacularly used the Games to reintroduce itself to the world and to decisively accelerate a program of major urban redevelopment. Since that time, many of the world’s most successful cities have bid to host the Summer Olympics, including Beijing, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Istanbul, London, Madrid, Moscow, New York City, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo. The Olympics once again are seen as an event to bid for and to be a part of. The Olympic Games have been reinvented as a tool for long-term urban development and city positioning.

Hosting of other global events has also become attractive, with events such as Formula 1 motor racing, yachting’s America’s Cup, and the elite ATP World Tour tennis tournaments being much sought after by nations and cities.

Chief among the reasons for the surge of interest in hosting these events is that global economic development increasingly involves integration and mobility. Much more of the content of city economies is now contested through international competition, giving rise to an increasing desire by cities that their identities, attributes, and advantages be understood in international markets.

At the same time, many cities have gone through rapid socioeconomic change that has left them with unused or derelict land, obsolete infrastructure, a deteriorating brand, environmental liabilities, or segments of their population that lack the skills or attributes necessary to succeed in the modern economy.

It is often costly to address these challenges, and it can be difficult to synchronize the attraction of new jobs, companies, facilities, and land uses without a comprehensive plan for change and a reinvestment strategy to support its delivery. Hosting international events can provide a means of catalyzing these plans and developments.

At the heart of the dynamic increase in cities and nations competing to host events lie major questions and challenges. Will the costs of bidding for or hosting an event ultimately be justified by the advantages and benefits that accrue to the host city? Will the profit-and-loss account of the event be black or red? Can the likely outcome, whether net positive or net negative, be known in advance? And, perhaps most crucial, can the bidding city do anything meaningful to increase the benefits or reduce the costs involved in holding the event?

Many cities are keen to consider hosting such events but have no direct experience in doing so. Because such events are being fought over with renewed vigor, it is timely to reexamine the key challenges involved in deciding whether to bid, how to bid, which events to bid for, and how to make the most of such events.

To investigate these issues and practices, ULI Europe held two pre-Olympics events in London during May 2012. It gathered 70 decision makers from metropolitan and national governments across the world and from the property development field to review “lessons on legacy” generated by London 2012 and by previous host cities of major sports events. The idea of the event was to generate insights that would be useful for cities that bid for or host events in the future.

The ULI report To Bid or Not to Bid: Making Global Events Work for City Development draws from discussions at the ULI workshops, collates existing research, benefits from additional primary research, and seeks to set out what is useful for cities that may consider bidding for or hosting the Olympics, World Cup tournaments, world expositions, and other events over the next decade. Case studies are used to demonstrate how benefits of bidding and hosting have been codified in published research.

Cities that are considering bidding for an event should follow the following ten steps, expanded upon in the To Bid or Not to Bid report, to optimize benefits. The report is available at

  1. Plan and invest for the long term. Hosting events is not a quick fix for a city’s problems. With a long-term plan, the city can develop a “no white elephants” policy for the event. City leaders must start by considering what the city needs to do to prosper and succeed, then align events so as to make the event an accelerator of progress toward those long-term goals and not a distraction from them.
  2. Consult and build a coalition to support the event. Consultations with citizens and business partners must build a long-term consensus and coalition around the event-based strategy. Events are a tool for building the city, but they do so mainly indirectly and over the medium term, so it is essential that the role of the event is understood and accepted.
  3. Think and act nationally and locally, and manage the politics. Although it often is a single city that is seen as the host of an event, in most cases it is officially the nation that plays host. Different benefits can be achieved at the local and national levels. Effective delivery will rely on effective governance that promotes collaboration among national, regional, and local authorities, and provision of a means to resolve problems and address
  4. Select the right event or events. The city must consider different events in terms of their potential benefits and decide whether hosting can be an important trigger, catalyst, or accelerator for its development, as well as identify the realms in which the event could be particularly helpful.
  5. Select the right locations. Some events, such as the FIFA World Cup, are multi-site across wide geographical areas; others, such as the Summer or Winter Olympics, are multi-site within a smaller geographical area; and others, such as a world exposition, are single-site events in a single area. Each involves key choices and brings a different pattern of potential impacts.
  6. Promote a clear identity and reputation. Any bid for an event must be guided by the wider branding and communication objectives that a city wants to achieve. Before a city develops a bid, it must work out the identity and reputation it wants to secure and be committed to building those throughout the whole process.
  7. Win by bidding. The city should prepare and execute the bid for the event focusing on communicating and leveraging the benefits of bidding. If the bid wins, the city should rapidly put in place plans to secure the long-term program of benefits and organize the delivery plan for the event around those outcomes. If the bid loses, the city must work hard to continue to secure the benefits from having made the bid and take stock of opportunities to bid again.
  8. Consider bidding for a series of events. Many cities have realized that the costs and risks associated with bidding for an event can be offset more effectively—and the capacity for bidding and hosting justified and utilized more fully—if they develop a longer-term approach to hosting events.
  9. Build capacity to organize the legacy and shape the leveraged investment. Cities that win the right to host an event should set up a special-purpose vehicle with a strong mandate to deliver the local and physical legacy—and do so as early in the process as possible.
  10. Seek outside help. Cities that have succeeded with global events have learned from others. There is a well-developed body of knowledge, there are communities of learning, and there are institutional capabilities at organizations like ULI that a city considering a bid can use to accelerate its planning.

Greg Clark is a senior fellow for ULI Europe.