Swiss companies are hoping to strike gold at the Beijing Olympic Games by using the world's largest sporting event to market their products and services.
The House of Switzerland public meeting hub will serve both as a gathering place for Swiss athletes and as a marketing platform for enterprises as diverse as UBS bank and the Lucerne tourist board.
The Olympic Games, to be staged in the Chinese capital between August 8-24, represent an ideal opportunity for many companies to showcase their talents and strengthen links with one of the world's largest and fastest-growing markets.
The House of Switzerland first appeared at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, as a focal point for Swiss athletes to gather and meet the public. Athletes will celebrate medal successes there and give interviews.
Now run by Presence Switzerland – a federal agency that promotes the country abroad – it has expanded its remit to marketing Swiss firms and tourism. The Lucerne tourist board will be the star guest in Beijing along with 12 business partners that will be present at the Expo Park section of the complex.
"Companies can take this opportunity to present Switzerland as a tourist and business destination. They can use it for hospitality events and for company presentations," Manuel Salchli of Presence Switzerland told swissinfo.
"One very big selling point is that the House will be open to the public to meet Swiss athletes such as Roger Federer. This will contribute to Switzerland's image as an open and welcoming country."
Lucerne-based lift manufacturer Schindler wants to use the Olympics to further cement its links with China that began in 1980.
"There will be the opportunity through contact with Chinese politicians, entrepreneurs and businessmen to enlarge and expand the image of the company in China," spokesman Riccardo Biffi told swissinfo.
"It represents a neutral platform for business exchanges – a bit like playing golf."
The Beijing Olympics have also created opportunities for other Swiss companies. Luxury watch label Omega will again be the official time keepers for the Games and Swiss educational enterprise EF Group will supply language training.
On the construction side, engineering firm ABB has landed several contracts to help provide power supplies to Olympic sites while Schindler have fitted elevators into buildings.
In addition, star Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron designed the showpiece Bird's Nest national stadium that will host the major events.
However, smaller Swiss companies have shown little interest in being present in Beijing in August because of logistical reasons and the short timeframe of the Games.
"There are certainly firms that have been able to supply specific equipment, but as a whole there has not been overwhelming interest from Swiss companies," Beat Bürgi from the Swiss business hub in Beijing told swissinfo.
"Most probably, Swiss companies have judged the investment as being too high for the short timeframe available for showcasing their products."
The decision to award the Olympic Games to Beijing has been criticised in some quarters because of China's poor human rights record. But Schindler's Riccardo Biffi said this negative publicity should not affect business links.
"China is the biggest nation in the world and will soon have a huge impact in Europe," he said. "China has experienced recent difficulties as it goes through massive changes, but Europe has also had negative aspects during its evolution. Westerners look at these things in a different way than the Chinese."
swissinfo, Matthew Allen
2008 Olympic Games
The 2008 Olympic Games will be hosted by China from August 8-24. The Paralympic Games will take place from September 6-17.
The Games will be centred in the Chinese capital, Beijing, with six other venues hosting certain events, including Hong Kong (equestrian) and Shanghai (football).
Some 10,708 athletes will compete in 302 events in 28 different sports. In the Paralympics 4,000 athletes will take part in 471 events encompassing 20 sports.
The decision to award the Olympic Games to Beijing has courted controversy, however, due to China's poor human rights record, particularly in Tibet.
There have also been concerns about bad air quality at Olympic venues leading to the Swiss withdrawing their equestrian dressage team from the Games.
House of Switzerland
The House of Switzerland first appeared at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. It was primarily a facility for Swiss athletes and to allow the public to meet the stars.
Presence Switzerland took over the running of the House for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in the United States. Four years later, the tourist board for canton Valais was invited to participate during the Turin Winter Olympics.
This year the Lucerne tourist board will showcase the canton's attractions as a tourist destination. They will bring 12 Swiss sponsor companies along with them to the House in Beijing.
The 4,000 square metre facility, situated just outside the city centre in an artistic district, is open to the public and will continue to be a focal point for Swiss athletes. There is an overall budget of SFr4.6 million ($4.5 million).
It will house a restaurant, lounge and an Expo Park showcasing Switzerland's strengths. Big screens will show the events for people without tickets for the stadiums.
The House of Switzerland will also be home to the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, swissinfo's parent company, during the Games.
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