LONDON – As any Olympic athlete will tell you, preparing for the Games requires meticulous planning, dedicated preparation and a ruthless streak that often borders on selfishness.
Yet, while sports fans can appreciate those personality traits in the men and women who will compete for gold in London next summer, they are less welcome when the perpetrators are hotel managers and owners seeking to make a killing from the sports world's quadrennial extravaganza.
With the Games now just a year away, British hoteliers have already put steps in place to ensure they strike gold at the expense of international visitors who are left with few alternative options. Price gouging has become a serious concern as the London hotels – many of them burned by the recent economic downturn to have ravaged the United Kingdom – are acting in unison to pump up prices and give themselves a much-needed fiscal boost.
With Games organizers powerless to prevent price gouging, the losers will be tourists and sports fans from around the globe, with many forced to either shorten their trips or even reconsider them altogether.
"I had been planning this trip for a couple of years, but now I will either have to go for only one week instead of two at best," said Timothy Clark, a physical therapist from Irvine, Calif., who attended the last two Summer Games in Athens and Beijing. "I am actually wondering whether to skip it and save up for Rio [de Janiero, site of the 2016 Games] or go to the next soccer World Cup instead."
Virtually all London hotels have at least doubled their prices for the Games' two-week period, with some – especially those close to the key Olympic sites in Stratford, which is east of the city – inflating things even further.
The Evening Standard newspaper reported that one four-star hotel had jacked up its prices from a typical rate of $300 per night to more than $1,600 while the event is taking place, a theme repeated around London.
Trade authorities have urged their members to retain realistic pricing to avoid damaging the reputation of the London hotel business, but their pleas seem to largely have fallen on deaf ears.
"Hotels appear to be gripped by a frenzy of greed," Mario Bodini, general secretary of UKinbound, the trade union for tour operators, told the Financial Times.
Even London mayor Boris Johnson, a controversial and often outspoken character, waded into the discussion. Johnson attacked the hotel owners, likening them to Arthur Daley, an unscrupulous fictional businessman from a 1980s television series.
"We mustn't be seen as sharks through the actions of the short-sighted Arthur Daleys out there who want to cash in on the Games," said Johnson. "Their actions could ruin the excellent work put in by the rest of the tourist sector, with repercussions for decades to come."
Worrying signs have been seen already during two recent international events held in London. Hotel prices for the Champions League soccer final between Manchester United and Barcelona at Wembley Stadium rose significantly in the days leading up to and on the night of the big game.
In the week leading up to the royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, there was a noted escalation in charges, especially for any hotels situated close to the regal processional route. One leading hotel offered a four-night package in one of its suites for an extraordinary $59,000.
The stance of the London hotels has caused businesses in other parts of southern England to sense an opportunity to profit. The local tourism board in the county of Suffolk, more than 70 miles from central London, has launched a campaign aimed at attracting Olympic tourists put off by the sky-high costs in the capital.
Some fans are playing a game of cat and mouse, taking a risk by waiting and hoping that room rates drop nearer to the Games.
"I remember being quoted exorbitant figures a year out from Athens," said Robert Johns, a 51-year-old Olympics fanatic who has saw his first Summer Games in his hometown of Los Angeles in 1984 and has not missed one since. "Then with a couple of months to go they started dropping and fell to quite a reasonable level.
"The hotels that price gouge are the greedy ones, and I'm sure they will benefit from it in the short term because there will be people prepared to pay inflated rates. But it is a little sad, and not really in the Olympic spirit."