Many of the events in the 2018 Winter Olympics will be in a place familiar to local leaders: Gangneung City, South Korea, one of Loudoun’s sister cities.
The county’s Olympic team will be a small delegation of business, government, and tourism leaders looking to bring gold back to Loudoun—or at least green.
“It is a very exciting opportunity,” said Visit Loudoun President and CEO Beth Erickson.
Loudoun’s delegation to the Olympics will include Erickson, county Department of Economic Development International Business Development Manager Bob McCollar, and businessmen Luiz Taifas, a former Olympian, and Leesburg’s taekwondo Grandmaster Eung Gil Choi, a Gangneung native.
“I think from the business case, there are a lot of opportunities for meetings that wouldn’t happen otherwise…the organizations are there in Korea for the same reason, and it gives us access to get all the right people in the room,” said Visit Loudoun Vice President of Marketing Jackie Saunders.
Visit Loudoun is arriving in Korea with a suite of promotional materials, all in Korean—including a promotional video featuring Choi, an itinerary for travelers to Loudoun, and a traveling display case to set up in the Olympic complex in Gangneung City.
“I think the best way of looking at it is this is the development of what is an exciting and rapidly growing market for Loudoun County with a lot of perfect fits for the audience and for the destination,” Erickson said. She said Koreans traveling to the U.S. like to go shopping, golfing, to restaurants and wineries, and to parks—all of which Loudoun has. Loudoun is also a draw simply because it sits 30 miles from DC.
This will be Visit Loudoun’s third visit to Korea, including to one of Loudoun’s other sister cities, Goyang City. Erickson said the sister city partnerships have given her organization leverage abroad.
“I will tell you that they were excited by the prospect, and very proud to help promote Loudoun County, and they are very proud of that partnership,” she said.
“The sister city relationship allows us exposure during the Olympics that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to unless we were a major sponsor or destination sponsor of the Olympics, and those are pretty expensive partnerships,” Saunders said.
One thing Erickson hasn’t yet done: bought tickets to see any events. She said she hopes to see Maame Biney of Reston compete. Biney is the first black woman to compete for the U.S. Olympic speedskating team.
Taekwondo Grandmaster Choi, who grew up in Gangneung City, will in another sense be going home when he travels with Loudoun’s delegation. He moved away after college and, in 1987, founded the USTMA Taekwondo center in Leesburg. Choi has encouraged the partnership between his home town and Loudoun County; he said the people, the business community, and even the weather is very similar.
He’ll serve as a bit of a tour guide for Loudoun leaders. “This will be a good chance for them to see everything that’s going on, and it will make it much, much easier to get ideas on how we can partner,” Choi said.
His long-term goal is to set up a kind of student exchange out of his USTMA Taekwondo center, so young people from Loudoun can share experiences with young people from South Korea. “That kind of relationship is the very beginning of what I want for the future. So when they grow up, whatever they do during their lives, they still have a global connection,” he said. “These connections bridge cultures, which makes for a better future.”
Luiz Taifas, CEO of the proposed ION International Training Center in Leesburg, is a former Olympian. He said there are two reasons for his interest in joining the delegation: promoting Loudoun County to the rest of the world and, by extension, encouraging international athletes to come train at the ION facility he is hoping to open later this year. The center hopes to be a mecca of sorts for athletes to train in disciples such as ice skating, speedskating and more, as well as providing the local area with an ice rink and auditorium for performances.
It will be the second Olympic Games for Taifas, who served as a substitute on the Romanian team at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
Another Loudouner is looking forward to the Olympics as well, but the organizers will be putting him to work when the games open next week.
Daniel Kaseman, a partner with Middleburg Real Estate/Atoka Properties and treasurer of Nova Parks, is joining a delegation of volunteers from Shenandoah University where he teaches business courses.
Twenty-eight students and five faculty members from the university will spend most of February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as volunteers for the host Korean Olympic Committee. They’ll be at the Alpensia Resort, the location for alpine events including ski jumping the biathlon, and cross country events. The invitation to participate came through a former student of SU Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Fritz Polite who is a member of the Olympic committee.
None of Loudoun’s elected representatives will be going. County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said the delegation couldn’t get any one-on-one meetings to recruit more companies to open shop in Loudoun, only group meetings with large corporations.
“After realizing that there were no new real economic opportunities for us, after knowing that we could not set up any one-on-one meetings, then we made a decision that it wasn’t worth it,” Randall said. “Whenever I decide to go to a meeting, my first question is, what is the benefit to Loudoun County citizens?”
Randall said she did not see that benefit to Loudoun’s business base or taxpayers of sending elected officials.
“Traveling to Korea is not inexpensive, especially during the Olympics,” she said. “I couldn’t at all justify that money to the taxpayers with no return on investment that was foreseeable.”
Randall, who has each year asked the county staff and fellow supervisors to scrutinize Loudoun’s sister city program, said when the Olympics are over, it may be time for Gangneung to come off the list. She also said the county may want to look next in India and South America, where Loudoun has no sister cities.
Danielle Nadler and Kara Clark Rodriguez contributed to this report.