OpEd: No Room at the Inn in PyeongChang?

Olympic superfan Everen T. Brown was recently in Gangneung on a search for game time accommodations. Here's what he found.

It has been a while since I visited an Olympic city as an "advance man" to plan my Olympic trip. Finding accommodation is not so difficult in these days of the internet. Everything appears to be just a click away. For PyeongChang – despite all my online research – something was missing, and I was determined to find out what it was. I needed to visit firsthand and see for myself why it is impossible to get a room during games time. It should not be that challenging – should it? That is the $64,000 question.

It was a pleasant ride through the Korean countryside on the "Seoul to Gangneung" express bus. Beautiful fall colors set the stage, along with Olympic logos and signage as I got closer to this "coastal cluster" city of Gangneung.

My sport is ice hockey and after arriving in Gangneung it was a quick taxi ride to the "ice" venues of PyeongChang 2018. My goal was to find a hotel room near the express bus station or train station, so I could easily take buses to the various venues during the Games. Venues looked beautiful and near complete.

PyeongChang 2018 has a small visitor’s center nearby and that was my next stop to find some answers. However, simple questions – as to where the buses will leave from the city to get to the venues – could not be answered. The staff did not know much about the Games. I was told more information would come later as we get closer to the Games.

PyeongChang 2018, we are close enough to the Games now to know where the venue buses will leave from. I would like to know so I can plan on staying nearby and making my travels easy. Will venue transport buses leave from Gangneung KTX train station to the venues? Or will it be the Express Bus Terminal? Information I received prior to my arrival mentions a "Gangneung Transport Mall". No one could answer where that will be – information I have seen says it is 12 kilometers (about 7.5 miles) outside Gangneung. Is it the Express Bus Station? Or another location? With months to go to Opening Ceremony someone should know by now. This should not be so hard.

The staff gave me a folder with stock information and sent me on my way. Unfortunately, this "official" folder and its four listings for Olympic "accommodation" would prove to be useless. It listed a hotel chain that does not have any hotels anywhere near Gangneung or Alpensia. It lists two generic tourist organizations that are brands that certify hotels, and another is for finding accommodation in a temple. None of these four listings have anything near the Olympic venues/cities. Is this just laziness on the organizing committee’s part? People need a place to stay and putting this worthless information in an official brochure is an insult.

The rest of the day was spent shuttling from one hotel to the next, asking about accommodations during games time. It was a challenge to find anyone who spoke any English. Be prepared for the language barrier.

I visited more than 20 hotels near the bus and train stations as well as the oceanside hotels asking about room availability. Much to my surprise I found rooms! Lots of them! In my informal survey, I found over 200 rooms available! Only problem is – they won’t rent you one room – they want you to buy a block of 20, 30 or 40 rooms! These small Korean hotels want to sell out their entire property for the entire month. Prices skyrocket to seven to 10 times their regular rates! I understand this is the Olympics and room rates do go up, especially after 14 Olympiads I know how this works.

Most of these are small inns and I viewed many of the rooms firsthand to see what a guest would get for their money. These are spartan accommodations. You would be lucky to find anything in the room other than a bed or futon. No desk or chair in many of these rooms. These are not five-star accommodations with onsite restaurants. Just basic accommodations.

I realize these owners don’t want to sell just the opening and closing weekends and get stuck with mid-week rooms. They need to sell the first half of the games or the second half of the games or some other formula that allows regular people to get a room while selling out their hotel. I am not in a position to buy a block of 30 rooms. I just need one room! I don’t want to stay 56km (35 miles) or more away from the venues, especially when there are rooms in town.

Ticket sales are lagging. Could it be that fans cannot find hotels near the venues and have decided to not buy tickets to attend this Olympiad?

NBC/Universal has decided to host advertisers and affiliates in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and watch this Olympics on TV from comfortable hotels. Does this Olympic sponsor have the right idea? If logistics are too tough to make it happen, just don’t go.

Other Olympic friends are staying in Seoul. Hotels there are reasonably priced and available. They will take the high speed KTX train each day and make this a "commuter" Olympics. My nephew and I did this for Nagano 1998 and it turned out okay – though the distances traveled were not as long PyeongChang 2018. Disappointing to be in a beautiful country and spend more time on a train commuting than enjoying the surroundings. Especially when there are hotel rooms in cities that are being withheld from the market.

One friend booked an Airbnb in February at a great price in Alpensia – near the venues and was super excited. She received an email at the end of October that the reservation was canceled and no longer honored. Did the renter get a better offer? Hotels are not perfect – but I would trust a hotel over Airbnb just because of instances like this.

This is an Olympics on the edge of "make it or break it" and hotels that are holding back rooms do not help. International travelers like to know where they are staying in advance. They have bought tickets based on faith they will get a room. Many will probably sell off their tickets rather than taking the risk.

As news reports highlight low ticket sales and plans to bus in school children to become Olympic seat fillers, I wonder how successful this Olympics could be if this excess of hotel rooms were on the market?

PyeongChang is banking on the locals coming through at the last minute to buy tickets. With the sizable population of Seoul nearby it is probably worth the bet that Koreans will commute as well. However, it is a big gamble if they don’t show up.

There are rooms. There are tickets. The new question is: When will these rooms be put on the market?

Everen T. Brown is a Salt Lake City businessman, an Olympic superfan and a panoramic photographer.

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