Copenhagen adapts beyond aesthetics to become a premium events host

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK - JUNE 18: ( EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout image provided by Red Bull, Jonathan Paredes of Mexico prepares to dive from the 28 metre platform on the Copenhagen Opera House during the second stop of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series on June 18, 2016 in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo by Romina Amato/Red Bull via Getty Images)

  • The Danish capital has developed its venues to attract big-ticket events
  • The country has already hosted international competitions with a variety of sports
  • Copenhagen is set to host Euro 2020 matches and the 2021 Tour de France’s Grand Départ

Until just a few years ago, hosting events that focused on Copenhagen’s aesthetic appeal, rather than its sports infrastructure, was a necessity.

The Danish capital was relatively ill-equipped to compete for the hosting rights to indoor events, especially before the turn of the millennium, when several of the city’s pre-eminent sports facilities – including the Ballerup Super Arena, Farum Arena and Royal Arena – had not been built.

Even Parken Stadium has undergone significant renovation work since opening in 1992 as Denmark’s national football stadium, with the addition of a retractable roof in the early 2000s ensuring it would remain fit for purpose on the international sport and entertainment event circuits.

“In the early days, Copenhagen had a lack of sports venues, which taught us the value of using our city as the backdrop with events in archery, running and cycling,” says Kit Lykketoft, director of conventions at the Wonderful Copenhagen agency, which promotes business and holiday tourism in the city and surrounding region.

“Today we no longer have a shortage of suitable venues, so we can combine events in the city with more venue-specific events.”

Parken Stadium, Copenhagen (Sara Strandlund/EuroFootball/Getty Images)

New horizons

Copenhagen has an urban population of about 1.6 million inhabitants, placing it in a highly-competitive category of medium-sized cities jostling for the right to host a variety of European and World Championships in Olympic sports, rather than events on the scale of the Olympic Games themselves.

Sport Event Denmark, the national agency responsible for attracting and hosting international sports events, has been a key driver in broadening the country’s horizons over the past decade.

When Sport Event Denmark was established in 2008, sports event-related international tourism turnover in the country was €4m ($4.5m) per year. In 2017, the figure had increased to €29m, with total volunteer hours topping 140,000.

After the 2014 Badminton World Championships, 2015 World Archery Championships and 2017 European Short Course Swimming Championships, the city co-hosted the 2018 Ice Hockey World Championships with Herning, located on the Jutland peninsula.

In January this year, Copenhagen’s Royal Arena was one of two venues in Denmark to host games during the World Men’s Handball Championship, alongside four cities in Germany. A year on from staging four matches during football’s continent-wide Uefa Euro 2020 tournament, Copenhagen will welcome the 2021 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships.

However, the sports that underpinned Copenhagen’s event-hosting strategy for so long before the relatively recent expansion have also grown in stature, partly due to the increasing recognition of the city’s appeal as a backdrop for the action.

(Dean Alberga/World Archery Federation via Getty Images)

Destination branding

According to Lykketoft, road cycling and running have traditionally been seen as an ideal fit for Copenhagen, whose landmarks – Tivoli Gardens, the Little Mermaid statue and Amalienborg Palace – provide obvious destination-branding opportunities.

Lykketoft adds that the city is keen to use its “fresh air, clean harbour and beautiful buildings as a backdrop for sports events” and notes the example of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, which saw competitors leap from the roof of the Copenhagen Opera House.

The latest eye-catching addition to the city’s sporting skyline – the astonishing Copenhill development, with a ski slope situated atop the formidable Amager Bakke energy plant – is another example of the city’s creative approach when it comes to creating spectacular spaces for sport.

“We take archery to the canals, cycling to the closed-off streets and triathlon to the beach with swimming in the clean harbor,” says Lykketoft, who adds that a so-called ‘localhood’ approach – “activating the locals as well as guests right from the beginning” – is vital for the city.

Organisers were startled when nearly 200,000 spectators lined the streets to watch the inaugural Ironman Copenhagen triathlon event in 2013.

However, it was a year later, when the city hosted the International Association of Athletics Federations World Half Marathon Championships, that a significant step for the ‘localhood’ strategy was established.

Public participation

The 2014 event was accompanied by a mass-participation running festival that featured 30,000 members of the public. Speaking at the time, Sport Event Denmark chief executive Lars Lundov said that the country would explore future major events that could be accompanied by “side events that involve spectators and recreational participants.”

The Copenhagen Half Marathon, which was then established as a legacy event in 2015, achieved IAAF Silver Label status in 2016, before being promoted to Gold Label in 2017.

In November last year, the Copenhagen Marathon received the IAAF’s Road Race Bronze Label, recognising ‘superior standards in event organisation, safety and runner experience.’

“Our local running club, Sparta, and the Danish Athletics Federation have assisted us in developing a clear strategy in terms of hosting major running events,” says Lars Vallentin Christensen, senior project manager of sport events at Wonderful Copenhagen. “With our 2014 World Half Marathon we set new standards for future World Half Marathons and several new running events have materialised from that one event.”

In keeping with Copenhagen’s broader goal of involving the public, Sparta is also increasingly used by conference organisers to arrange running activities for delegates visiting the city – allowing them to mingle in more informal surroundings.

Similarly, the Arthur Hotels chain has even launched its own running club, which brings together locals and guests for a jog through the city’s streets at 6.30am most mornings.

2011 UCI Road World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Grand Départ

Arguably the most high-profile event to engage the public is still to come.

In 2021, the Tour de France’s Grand Départ will travel further north than ever before, when Copenhagen hosts the iconic curtain-raiser to cycling’s most prestigious race.

Pitching up some 1,200km north-east of the extravaganza’s traditional finishing post on the Champs-Élysées may appear an unusual move, considering the obvious logistical challenges for the Tour’s organisers at Amaury Sport Organisation.

Equally, it would be easy to assume the slogan for the Copenhagen Grand Départ – ‘The greatest cycling race in the world meets the best cycling city in the world’ – is typically hyperbolic.

But Copenhagen’s enviable track record in cycling suggests that the Tour-opening spectacle has found an appropriate home in just over two years’ time, when the peloton will weave through the streets of Copenhagen and four other cities.

“The Tour de France separates itself from many other sporting events as it doesn’t take place in an arena, but unfolds on the streets, allowing for beautiful pictures of cities and landscapes,” Lykketoft says. “At the same time, cycling is core to Copenhagen, so the Tour de France will function as a natural extension.”

Cycling is a part of daily life in Copenhagen. More than four-in-10 commutes to and from work or school in the city are made by bicycle and some 379km of cycle paths dissect the picturesque Danish capital.

In 2011, Copenhagen hosted the International Cycling Union (UCI) Road World Championships for a sixth time – more than any other city. Four years earlier, Copenhagen became the first destination to be granted the ‘UCI Bike City’ label by the sport’s governing body, rewarding the capital for its commitment to hosting major events and investing in community cycling.

It is little surprise that the Tour’s general director, Christian Prudhomme, underlined the city’s cycling heritage and culture as a decisive factor when Copenhagen was unveiled as the 2021 Grand Départ host.

(Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Event schedule

To support its original pursuit of the 2011 Road World Championships, Copenhagen established a schedule of cycling events in order to fine-tune its approach and nurture relationships with the sport’s leading decision-makers, ultimately paving the way for a viable future tilt at the Grand Départ.

“Since the mid-1990s we have focused on UCI events,” Christensen says. “We targeted the Road Worlds with a range of UCI events leading up to 2011 and over the years we also hosted several UCI meetings and gatherings of related organisations. This helped us to form close bonds with the UCI.”

In terms of the Tour de France’s marquee event, Copenhagen’s courtship with ASO was a long-term affair.

Wonderful Copenhagen began working on a bid campaign for the Grand Départ back in 2014, discussing the idea with the country’s Ministry of Industry, Business and Financial Affairs; the municipalities of Copenhagen, Roskilde, Nyborg, Vejle and Sønderborg; and Sport Event Denmark. The target was hosting the Grand Départ in 2019, 2020 or 2021.

“Several attempts to bring the Tour to other parts of Denmark had failed, but with the capital city we were convinced that we could succeed,” Christensen adds.

The city’s formal campaign to host the Grand Départ was launched in June 2016 and the 2021 edition was awarded to Copenhagen in February this year.


Even though the three-day Grand Départ will be considerably shorter than the six-day 2011 UCI Road World Championships, the economic impact promises to be significantly greater.

The Tourist Economic Impact Analysis and Evaluation for the 2011 championships found that more than three-quarters of the total spend came from international visitors.

A total of 545,000 spectators watched on, with approximately 40 per cent being non-local Danes and international tourists. Most of the spectators were under the age of 25. Ten years on, though, 900,000 spectators are expected to attend the Grand Départ.

Moreover, a study by Deloitte following the 2017 Grand Départ found that the German city of Düsseldorf – which has a smaller urban population than Copenhagen – enjoyed a €64m direct economic boost from the event, as well as €443m in marketing value.

Shared system

Wonderful Copenhagen has worked with VisitDenmark and Sport Event Denmark to develop a model for estimating tourism-related return on investment, while the funding for events is generally generated through co-operations between the city, the Ministry of Business, Sport Event Denmark and private partners.

“By creating a shared system, we can establish a national baseline for evaluating the tourism-related economic effects of events and we also look at the overall satisfaction of both spectators and participants,” Lykketoft says.

The model was used for last year’s Ice Hockey World Championships, which generated nearly DKK1bn (€134m/$150m) in tourism-related expenditure.

“Our evaluations show that large international events generate a lot of tourism-related income from visitors, participants, from new workplaces and from tax revenue,” Lykketoft says. “However, we don’t have a complete overview of expenses related to hosting events, just as we don’t have a precise model for estimating the brand value for the city or the value for locals to live in a vibrant city where you can experience large international events.”

Christensen refers to Copenhagen’s “event triangle” between national federations, host cities and Sport Event Denmark.

“The three parties have an equal say around the table as we have a common goal – to secure events for Copenhagen. We have succeeded in winning over 80 per cent of our international bid campaigns,” Christensen adds.

2018 ISAF Sailing World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark (Richard Langdon/Getty Images)


Copenhagen’s success in being selected to host the Grand Départ in 2021 has been celebrated way beyond the boundaries of Denmark’s capital city.

According to Lundov, it provides further evidence of the event appetite and capability to be found in towns and cities across the country.

“It is a great achievement and certainly strengthens the already strong relationship which Denmark has with cycle sports,” he says. “And it is a success that we all share because when one Danish city is successful, we all benefit from the buzz and the profile it creates.”

Sport Event Demark has enjoyed significant success since it was launched back in 2008. Since then it has attracted more than 350 events to the country, spreading the benefit across the nation rather than focusing on the capital alone.

And a pipeline that includes badminton’s Thomas & Uber Cup in 2019 [Aarhus], the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in 2021 [Copenhagen], the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships in 2022 [Haderslev] and the BWF World Badminton Championships in 2023 [Copenhagen] provides a snapshot of the diversity of the offer.

“For us, success is built on collaboration and co-operation between all the different stakeholders involved in the bidding and delivery process,” Lundov explains.

“We only target events where the facilities are already in place, where there’s a strong traditional or interest in the sport and, to a lesser extent, where there is the prospect of medals being won by Danish competitors – that’s not the most important factor but it is in the mix,” he said.

“We know the entire domestic landscape, the interests and capabilities of the cities and are able to identify the events which are best suited to individual cities. That’s how Aarhus has been able to build such a strong reputation as a destination for major sailing events and last year hosted the sport’s Crown Jewels, the World Championships.

Sport Event Denmark’s ability to combine individual interests and capabilities for the greater good is also evident when events make requirements that a single Danish city is unable to meet.

“It happens with indoor sports where there is a requirement for significant indoor arena capacity,” Lundov explains. “We have only two major arenas – one in Herning and the other in Copenhagen so when it is appropriate, we will submit a bid based on both cities.  That has been the case with major ice hockey competitions and will be the same for the 2019 Men’s Handball World Championships.

“It’s an example of how we look at all our cities as assets and figure out how to make the most of them – either individually or together to benefit the country. We have fantastic support from the Danish government and reflect their mission to promote the entire country. That’s why it is so important that we identify and take advantage of opportunities not only for Copenhagen but for all of those on our roster.”

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