Finding sponsors for the Millennium Project has been proving very tricky. Dominic Midgely asks why it is that only certain companies are attracted to this form of sponsorship.
If anyone can claim to be the father of the millennium it is Dionysius Exiguus the Little, the Scythian monk who devised the BC-AD chronology in AD525. Few appear to care that, according to contemporary estimates, he put the birth of Christ between five and seven years too late, which means that we are now somewhere between 2002 and 2004. Yet here we are counting down the last 1,000 days to the millennium, with each one hundredth of a second that passes faithfully recorded by the Accurist Countdown Clock at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. And the city dubbed by some shrewd marketing man 'the home of time' wants to take full advantage of the head start offered by the presence of the Greenwich Meridian.
Millennium Central, the body set up by the government to milk the event for all it's worth, is expected to raise no less than £150 million of the £580 million cost of the Millennium Exhibition from private-sector sponsors. On the face of it, this is an eminently achievable target. After all, the plans for the exhibition are on a breathtaking scale. The centrepiece of the event, the Millennium Dome at Greenwich, is a construction the like of which the world has never seen before. Covering an area of 80,000 square metres, it will dwarf Atlanta's Georgia Dome, which, though half the size, is currently the biggest building of its kind. What's more, its translucent roof with a circumference of one kilometre, will become to Londoners a sort of earthbound competitor to the aurora borealis when it illuminates the night sky with an eerie glow.
Yet attracting sponsorship has by no means been straightforward. A survey conducted for the Independent ahead of the recent election showed that of Britain's 40 largest companies, only 11 said that they would definitely be making donations. Few companies, it seems, see anything in the project of obvious benefit for them. Some, such as Guinness, have already said that as most of their business is conducted overseas, it would be inappropriate to support events based only in Britain. And even most of those offering support are making only small donations. A dozen major banks and city institutions are contributing to the project - but only to the tune of £6 million between them.
For those companies that have given a firm pledge, the benefits of this particular form of sponsorship tend to be clearer. British Airways is the principle donor and is well positioned to cash in on London being the place to go in the year 2000. The exhibition promises to attract 10 million - many of these from overseas. According to BA's Dave Wilson, £6 million has definitely been committed to the project. And just to make sure that the project is to its liking, BA chairman Bob Ayling has taken on the chairmanship of Millennium Central. Cynics suggest that BA's steadfast sponsorship for the project will also do BA no harm at all in seeking a relatively easy ride from the new government in its plans to form an alliance with American Airlines.
Over at BT, there has been talk of a £12 million millennium budget, but firm commitment has been less forthcoming. BT has tied in its contribution to its own needs. It has asked that none of the money goes towards the Greenwich dome or any other London project. Instead, a spokesperson for the company says: 'Our interest is very specifically with the broader national celebrations. One of the key missions is to make a fitting contribution to the community.' But despite having a representative on the Millennium Central board - corporate relations director Ian Ash - BT has shown a worrying unwillingness to close the deal.
Other sponsors are even less sure how committed they are. Susan Cunnington-King at the British Airports Authority says: 'We have, I think, pledged £3 million to the Millennium Exhibition.' BAA's motives are similar to BA's. Says Cunnington-King: 'It will boost travel and tourism in general and economic regeneration in east London where we own and operate Stansted Airport. We have sound business reasons for investing £3 million.'
Only time will tell in the new post-election environment whether Millennium Central will succeed in convincing enough businesses that they, too, have 'sound business reasons' for committing to this form of sponsorship. Meanwhile, the clock counts down relentlessly.
Even at this late stage, one wonders whether Dionysius Exiguus the Little's woeful arithmetic should be put right. At least then we would instantly find ourselves in the new millennium ... and spare the poor organisers untold anxiety over the next few years.