I've enjoyed watching the Olympics this week. I have also found the debate that has raged about the number of empty seats to be interesting as well. Disgruntled members of the public had tried and failed on several occasions to buy tickets - only to see that there have been numerous empty seats in the stadia during the first week of the Games. Several commentators have complained that LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) have had "seven years to avoid this situation".
Obviously, there needs to be a degree of sympathy for Olympic protocol. It is a condition of the bid that a certain percentage of seats are kept aside for the "Olympic Family". Although their share of tickets was marginally reduced for London 2012, the change was insignificant and Olympic Family members could see no reason to make any major shift - they were happily awash with free tickets, with no compulsion to use them. Perhaps LOCOG might have foreseen this problem earlier though and weighed up the cost of doing nothing (the inevitable negative publicity that followed the revelations of the empty seats) against the costs of trying to influence or even coerce the various country delegations to be more flexible with their seat allocations.
This is a dilemma that negotiators regularly face. On the one hand there is the option of maintaining the status quo (doing nothing); on the other hand there is the cost of change. The costs need to be weighed and decisions taken on the basis of the evidence.
Elsewhere in the world, Kofi Annan resigned as the UN's peace envoy in the Syrian conflict. He has been threatening to do this for some time, as his plans for peace were being routinely ignored, and the super powers had consistently refused to budge despite the tragic loss of life we see on our TVs day by day. His threats were designed to force the protagonists to change their positions; they refused, so he had to follow through.
Using a threat is a well-worn technique to get reluctant parties to negotiate, and as Kofi Annan demonstrates, they need to be valid and real. If the threats are empty, it indicates weakness. There is another downside of threatening people; they tend to have long memories and may respond in kind!
Alternatively, negotiators can incentivise the other side to move things forward. I do not know how LOCOG dealt with the "Olympic Family" but I imagine that incentives were offered to get the flexibility they needed to sell on the empty seats. Perhaps sharing event research, additional cultural support, extra logistical assistance, more promotional activity, as well as financial incentives - all of these might have been of interest to Olympic family members and may have encouraged them to be more flexible with LOCOG.
For LOCOG, their priority has always been clear - to leave a sporting legacy for the youth of today. The sight of empty seats in a stadium does not present sport well and does not portray the right message to a generation, some of whom were involved in somewhat different activities in London only a year ago. It was important to for LOCOG to be seen to be dealing with the problem and the good news is that more and more tickets are being made available so that the gaps are filled.
Scotwork UK LLP
About the author:
As a Senior Consultant I advise clients on our training and consultancy and deliver our negotiating programmes. Before joining Scotwork, I was a Regional Manager with a former subsidiary of BP – developing and supplying environmental products and services within Europe, Asia and Russia.