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Breaking Ground and Moving Forward: Orlando Shares Its Strategy

26 Apr, 2021

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When Orlando hosted the AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships last summer, the sports business world knew a comeback was in the works. But how does a destination go from the flatline that was 2020 to the booming success it is now? Not without a lot of planning, preparation – and more than a little willingness to make the leap.

Mark Tester, executive director of the Orange County Convention Center, and Jason Siegel, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission, sat down with SDM to discuss how it happened and what made the comeback work.

Sports Destination Management: Your venue was one of the first to hold a sporting event during the pandemic. How did your team do that?

Mark Tester: Well, it didn’t happen right away! We started calling our director of sales the Grim Reaper for a while; everything was being called off. After a while, we decided we couldn’t live with it. We wanted to host and then AAU basically raised their hand and said, “We’ll do this.” And suddenly, our conversation was about return and recovery guidelines.

Jason Siegel: COVID really wiped the calendar clean for the first month. Around June and July, we started seeing things return. Then the question became, “How far out can we push this event and still have it?” It was like playing Tetris – the blocks kept kept moving. The game kept going as the blocks kept moving and we were trying to keep up.

SDM: What changes did you make in the Orange County Convention Center in order to host AAU – and subsequent events?

Tester: From a facility standpoint, we had 3,000 signs throughout the buildings, window clings and decals, hand sanitizer stations, we required masks, physical distancing – everything we could do to lower the risk, we did. Early on, we heard about the Global Biorisk Advisory Council’s GBAC STAR accreditation and we jumped on that right away. We received our certification in June; it was one more thing in our favor.

SDM: What other plans did you put in effect for the AAU event?

Tester: We were working with a medical concierge program, Orlando Health, and they continued to work both with us and AAU to develop plans. We had onsite temperature scanning and we had limited occupancy – 8,600 people came through, in waves. People entered through one door and left through another. In many ways, we were lucky; we have a very large facility. We were able to space the courts far apart, and to clean and disinfect each court as it was used. We had a mask mandate and I think everyone felt really comfortable.

SDM: One of the really positive things the Greater Orlando Sports Commission has done is establish great outbound communications in the form of an e-newsletter, showing not just events that are going on (and their projected economic impact) but community interest items like COVID testing and vaccines as well as other news.

Siegel: It’s something we really pride ourselves on. Originally, we were publishing once a week but we jumped it up to twice weekly in order to be an aggregator for all the information people need to know. We are in a virtual world in many ways, and we wanted people to know all the health and welfare information, as well as the opportunities available to them.

SDM: Are we starting to see widespread recovery?

Tester: We have been moving forward. We had the first business-to-business trade show in July and I don’t mind saying it was a slow climb from July into the fall. We had a few events, but business really started to pick up in December. I would characterize it as a stairstep recovery. Since July we have had 60 events. The sports industry is the first market to come back.

SDM: What kind of ongoing work do you do in order to keep the momentum?

Siegel: We have a working group for all of our local and regional venue management teams, and we hold meetings with our best practices group. It is really a collaborative effort.

SDM: Are you seeing differences from previous years in the trade shows?

Tester: It’s interesting – we did the Surf Expo in January ad while it was much, much smaller than usual, the buyers that came were ready and the really bought. Some of the bigger companies didn’t come and as a result, the smaller mom-and-pop businesses did really well. We saw a mega sunglass company not show, for example, and the small companies that were there really got a lot of business. The Men’s Apparel Guild, who came in February, had 5,000 attendees. They were the first b2b show to do rapid COVID testing on site.

SDM: The pandemic has shaken up the supply chain.

Tester: We see things reflected in trade shows. The boat show had incredible attendance in Manufacturers can’t keep the boats in inventory and the vendors said the show was even bigger than it was in 2019.

SDM: Orlando pioneered the “bubble” format for leagues, and that was picked up by other organizations in other areas.

Siegel: We’ve always prided ourselves on being a collaborative community and tough times test all the pillars and platforms that you rest your reputation on. People asked us whether Orlando could host things like the NBA bubble and the MLS bubble. Our sports tourism community really stepped up and it just kept going from there. We hosted WWE, four LPGA events – we were able to get through it together.

SDM: Do you think the new normal, as we’ve come to know it, will replace the old way of doing things?

Tester: There are definitely some protocols that are here to stay. I think we’ll be keeping the hand sanitizers and I think we’ll keep the GBAC STAR accreditation. There have been other advancements, including automatic misting. Something we really noticed was that before the pandemic, you’d normally have your housekeeping staff behind the scenes but now you want them in the high-occupancy areas. People feel much safer seeing them. If they shut the bathroom down for cleaning, people don’t complain; they feel confident.

SDM: What about with Orlando as a whole?

Siegel: I think a number of the procedures we’ve instituted will become permanent. There are so many examples of success that have come out of what we now see as one of the worst environments in 100 years. Overall, there has been a feeling we could make the change safely and thoughtfully. Hosting is in our DNA and it has been great to know we were able to meet this challenge as well.

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