Destination Sport: The Team Behind West Ham's UEFA Europa Journey

There are certain European cities that instantly spark memories of euphoria for football fans. For Liverpool’s fans, it’s Istanbul and that famous comeback over AC Milan. For Chelsea’s, it’s Munich and that penalty shootout with Bayern. And for fans of West Ham, it’s Prague – the scene of Jarrod Bowen’s injury time winner that secured the club’s first trophy in 58 years.


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But for every European final, there’s a journey across the continent to get there. That journey is filled with logistical planning to the finest detail, from aircraft arrangements and hotel bookings to organising the travel of the players’ family and friends. Clubs competing in Europe have the support of dedicated travel managers who work tirelessly to ensure the team can focus on their performance, with any worries off the pitch taken care of.


When West Ham landed in Prague to compete in the 2023 Europa Conference League Final, they had already won games in Denmark, Romania, Belgium, Cyprus and the Netherlands as part of their journey to conquer the continent. Ahead of the club’s next European campaign, we spoke to Ben Illingworth, Head of Operations at West Ham United, and Rob Slawson, Managing Director of Destination Sport Travel, one of Europe’s leading sports travel providers and the team behind West Ham’s European travel operations, to find out more about the Hammers’ journey to becoming European champions.


How does Destination Sport Travel support West Ham with its European travel operations?

Ben: “We have a very good relationship with Destination Sport Travel, largely thanks to our travel manager Steve Parry. Once the group stage draw was made, we briefed our requirements to Steve for Romania, Denmark and Belgium. Steve then began to work with his team and local counterparts to pull together a shortlist of hotels and training facilities for us to review. Before each fixture, we undertake a recce that covers the airport, stadium, hotels and training facilities before finalising our choices. Destination Sport Travel support with the arrangements for all our travel for any recces and the fixtures themselves.”


Rob: “The easiest way to describe it is essentially we take care of pretty much everything other than playing the game or training for the club. In European competitions, that will include everything from sourcing the right aircraft, the hotels, sometimes the training grounds, meeting rooms, restaurants and event spaces.


Why is it important for clubs to work with experienced travel operators when competing in Europe?

Ben: “It is imperative you have a good travel company behind you when you are in European competitions. For each fixture, we travel with around 75 personnel including everyone from the first team and coaches to ticketing and supporter liaison staff. Each member of staff has different requirements and requires bespoke care to ensure they can deliver their job efficiently whilst we’re overseas.”


Rob: “We take the stress and hassle away from the club. The key thing for the club is to focus on the result on the pitch and how the game plays out, so if we can take the hassle away from organising and delivering travel it’s just one less element of their lives that they don’t need to worry about. We are trusted to take care of that and deliver that to a standard that a big club like West Ham needs.”


What issues does playing abroad in Europe present, and how does having an experienced travel operator onboard to support help clubs find solutions?

Ben: “There is a huge amount of organisation required to transport the team around. We must not only consider the first team but also auxiliary staff, minimising the impact of midweek games on the existing Premier League schedule.”


Rob: “There’s quite a lot that you might not think of. For example, certain parts of Europe are trickier to travel to than others. That could simply be distance, but it could also be that the city the club is playing in has periods of the day they have restrictions in place for flying, whether that be taking off or landing. Or it could even be geopolitical or environmental issues that make travelling more difficult, and they’re all issues we must factor in and plan for.”


How specific is the level of detail that goes into planning a club’s European travel?

Ben: “There are challenges around sourcing appropriate accommodation and training facilities in some European cities. However, working with Destination Sport Travel means we have reputable and experienced personnel on the ground in most locations that make recommendations as to appropriate facilities for the team. The recces we undertake ahead of each fixture also help to reduce challenges on the ground and Destination Sport Travel are aided by native speakers in each territory which helps eliminate further challenges.”


Rob: “Something that really sets Destination Sport Travel apart from other providers is that we wholly own the end-to-end solution. We have a team out of the UK that works directly with West Ham and when we take our clubs into Europe, we have a destination management business called Amaze on the ground that supports our UK-based team. So it could be that we take West Ham from London into Belgium, and when we land on the ground in Belgium, we have our own colleagues who speak the language and have their key contacts locally. That could be key airport personnel or even the local chief of police, and then we work together as a Destination Sport Group team to deliver that end-to-end solution. So, from leaving the UK, landing in Belgium and coming back to London that travel element is seamlessly delivered by Destination Sport Group and that is something that is incredibly unique, having the ability to own that end-to-end solution without using third-party providers.”


The Europa Conference League Final was one of the biggest games in West Ham’s recent history. How did the two organisations approach a game with such magnitude from an operations side?

Ben: “Destination Sport Travel assisted in organising transport and accommodation for all personnel for the final. As well as the usual travelling party of players, coaches, and ancillary staff, for the final we were also responsible for the players’ families, partners, corporate guests and additional support staff. Destination Sport Travel helped to source overseas travel, accommodation, and ground transportation for all personnel in Prague and dedicated additional staff on the ground to ensure the experience was efficient for all guests.”


Rob: “Clearly, we have very little impact on West Ham’s success on the pitch, but I would like to think our ability to deliver a seamless travel process is something that played a small part in helping them to progress to the final. It’s our aim to get them from A to B in as stress-free a way as possible. Like all of us when we go through airports or check into hotels, we don’t like waiting around, and waiting around has a particular knock-on effect on sports professionals’ schedules. As much as the game is their focus, they have quite strict schedules around eating times, rest times and training times, and we’ve got to ensure travel fits into the itinerary seamlessly and isn’t a hindrance to their preparation for any of their matches, let alone a European final. We almost pride ourselves on being in the background and making things happen for them behind the scenes.”


The 23/24 season brings another European campaign for West Ham United, how have preparations been going?

Ben: “Following the UEFA Europa League draw, and with Destination Sport Travel’s support, we are already looking at our travel, accommodation and transport arrangements ahead of the upcoming group stage games in Germany, Greece and Serbia. Each destination presents its own challenges and we rely heavily on Destination Sport Travel’s support to ensure everything is as seamless as possible. We are all looking forward to our third successive campaign in Europe and thank Destination Sport Travel for their ongoing support.”


Rob: “We’re several years into our working relationship with West Ham now so that makes things undoubtedly easier as we have a solid understanding of their requirements. Don’t forget that it’s not just Europe, we also work to support the club’s domestic travel requirements so are in near constant contact. As soon of the group stage draw is made, our team are busy sourcing appropriate aircraft and hotels, plus arranging site visits. It’s an extremely busy period but we wouldn’t have it any other way and look forward to working with the club closely as part of another European campaign.





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