Companies advised to do homework to access opportunities

Canadian small business operators are dreaming of competing for 2010 Winter Olympic gold alongside traditional corporate powerhouses.

Small companies across the country hope they can reap the financial rewards from the Vancouver-Whistler Games, even though the Olympics - summer and winter alike - have long been perceived as playgrounds for large multi-national players such as CocaCola and McDonald's.

"The Olympics is not only for corporations," says Mosi Alvand, owner of Olympia Restaurant on Denman Street in Vancouver's West End. "The Olympics is for everybody."

Alvand's restaurant hosted a recent meeting for fellow business owners along Denman Street who are looking to boost the profile of one of Vancouver's oldest commercial districts. Area operators are hoping to create a Denman business association that will help make the area - near the tourist hotspots of English Bay and Stanley Park - more visible when the world visits four years from now.

Bayne Stanley, Business Edge
Mosi Alvand, left, and Maurice Cardinal want to break into the Olympic market.

Alvand and Maurice Cardinal, president of Area46 Media Communications who helped organize the meeting, believe raising the profiles of distinct business districts such as Denman, Kitsilano, Commercial Drive and West Fourth Avenue will help small retailers compete against their corporate rivals. Joint initiatives, possibly through co-operative TV and newspaper advertising campaigns, will also make it more affordable for smaller firms to promote their products, services and places of business, they say.

Alvand's role as an Olympic-business booster is controversial because he has waged an ongoing dispute with VANOC - Vancouver-Whistler's Olympic organizing committee - over his restaurant's sign, which includes five Olympic-like rings and a torch. Citing copyright infringement, VANOC has called on Alvand to remove the display, but he has refused.

"It's quite simple - I was there first," he says.

VANOC has threatened to take legal action against him, but his supporters contend the quasi-government agency is trying to inflict needless punishment on a small business. Alvand, who emigrated to Canada from Iran in 1988, began working in the restaurant in 1989 and purchased it in 1992. He has offered to cover the sign and even close shop during the Games, but VANOC has rejected those suggestions.

VANOC says it will take action against companies that abuse the Olympic brand, including names, phrases, marks, logos and designs, because unauthorized use threatens to reduce the more than $1 billion in official financial support that is needed to host the Games. VANOC says it won't sue businesses with Olympic-related names if they formed before 1998, but businesses launched after 1998 will be "required" to change their names and stop using all Olympic-related symbols.

Cardinal, whose home-based firm advises small businesses on "leveraging their Olympic momentum," says small business communities must create strategic alliances if they want to profit from the Vancouver Games - especially when it comes to attracting Games visitors to their premises.

Kevin Wamsley, an Olympic historian at the University of Western Ontario's Centre for Olympic Studies, says it will be difficult for Vancouver's small businesses to profit during the Games. Tourists who usually visit Vancouver at other times will stay away during the Olympics, he adds, because the "Olympic and media hordes" will prevent them from visiting their favourite places.

"If you're not easily accessible or on the beaten track, you're not going to do well," Wamsley predicts.

Companies that strike deals with hotels may prosper, but VANOC will likely prevent them from doing promotions near Games venues because they'll want their corporate sponsors to reap the biggest benefits. Clothing and apparel stores might also do well, but some shops may struggle to compete against a planned Olympic superstore.

During the 2004 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Wamsley informally polled downtown businesses in the Australian city and discovered traditional tourists stayed away, while cab drivers lost 30 per cent of their business because of a free train service.

He predicts pre-Olympic promotion in Vancouver will be very important to small retailers located away from Games sites, but questions whether joint promotions will work because many small companies can't handle the "sheer volume that is required to host an Olympic Games."

"The companies that secure the (Olympic) contracts are going to do well, and that includes construction contracts and service contracts," says Wamsley. "The trickle-down effect to the other companies is virtually non-existent."

But Walter Bramsleven, general manager of Sitka Log Homes based at 100 Mile House in B.C.'s South Cariboo region, argues that small firms can still score Games gold.

"There's all kinds of contracts available for large businesses, small businesses and everything in between," says Bramsleven, whose company built and shipped the B.C.-Canada Place building to Turin, Italy, for the Winter Olympics and Paralymics.

Operators should also remember there are plenty of deals to be had with private companies, and not just VANOC, he says. Small firms seeking Olympic contracts must "be prepared and have a complete profile ready."

Sitka struck a $2.9-million deal with the provincial and federal governments to build the Turin facility after the B.C. government put out a request for qualifications from log-home builders. Sitka also built three lodges for an architectural firm for the 2002 Salt Lake Games.

"It's a perfect legacy for us and a permanent legacy for us because it's a permanent marketing tool," says Bramsleven.

Kootenay Knitting Co., located in Cranbrook, B.C., also hopes to secure Olympic business directly or indirectly after it produced hats for Canadian athletes for Hudson's Bay Co. during the Turin Games.

Kootenay marketing manager Carol Jeske says the deal allowed her 10-year-old company to expand and employ 45 to 50 people during full production, instead of the usual 15 to 20.

"You don't want me to tell you that," says Jeske when asked to describe her Olympic experience. "It's trying. It's lengthy. It's extensive. Many layers to go through."

Kootenay is now featured on VANOC's website, and Premier Gordon Campbell wore one of the company's sweaters when Vancouver's winning bid was announced in Lausanne, Switzerland. He also bought sweaters for Canada's other premiers.

Noting that it can be expensive just to bid on Olympic projects, Jeske says small businesses have to be "a lot more flexible" than larger companies and provide a niche if they want to secure Games deals.

Chris Pasterfield, CEO of Regina-based Laurie Artiss, says its partnership with Lake Forest, Calif.-based Aminco International Inc. was a key to securing the Olympic lapel-pin contract.

"Neither of us felt we could guarantee winning the licence on our own," says Pasterfield, who serves as CEO of newly created Artiss Aminco Ltd.

The new company hopes to generate $20-$25 million in revenue based on the Canadian and U.S. partners' Olympic experience.

Named after its retired founder, Laurie Artiss was the official pin supplier for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary and provided pins to companies such as CocaCola and General Mills during other Games over the past two decades. Aminco has been the official supplier for more recent Olympics.

Pasterfield says small firms seeking Olympic deals must be willing to work hard and research opportunities thoroughly while budgeting their money and time wisely.

VANOC president and CEO John Furlong says his group will work closely with operators to help them develop opportunities, because small businesses are vital to helping Vancouver meet the huge challenge of hosting the world.

"We need everybody to be involved," says Furlong.

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(Monte Stewart can be reached at