Events Are on Track at Orange County Convention Center
Mark Tester was excited about starting his new job as executive director at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC). His plan for the first 60 days was to immerse himself in the operation and determine how the facility operated, how the team provided service to customers, and what improvements he might be able to make at the helm.
That was in February. Within 30 days, that plan came to a halt when conventions, meetings, air travel, hotels and theme parks shut down. The COVID-19 pandemic called for a new plan.
“It’s been very hard,” Tester said. “I’ve been here seven months and have not really seen the operation in operation. It changed my strategy from seeing how we operated to figuring out how we’re going to recover — and certainly how to get our arms around a very different financial situation we’re facing along with everyone in our industry.”
Tester’s whole career — and, in fact, his whole life — has prepared him for this challenge. He previously held leadership positions at the convention centers in Austin and Chicago. The son of a man who worked in destination marketing organizations and ran association conventions.
Tester grew up traveling to event venues with his family and decided to follow in his dad’s footsteps. His father passed away in 2015 and would have been especially proud to see his son leading one of the largest and most state-of-the-art facilities in the world — especially through a global emergency.
“There’s a variety of different things that can happen that put you in a situation where you’ve got to quickly and maybe under stress make decisions that will help the organization move forward,” Tester said. “You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to react and get to it.”
Tester and his team came up with a three-pronged approach for handling the recovery phase. The first step was to understand the guidelines. What would recovery look like? How would OCCC modify its operations? The team looked at how to limit the capacity in meeting rooms and ballrooms by 50%, set up one-way aisles, and split groups in two so half could attend educational sessions while the other half walked through the exhibit hall.
The second step was to obtain a third-party validation on cleaning, disinfecting and disease prevention through the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) and its Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC). The convention center was one of the first in its industry to receive the GBAC STAR Facility Accreditation.
The third step was collaborating with Visit Orlando and Orlando Health to offer a “medical concierge program,” the first of its kind in the industry. The initiative involves working with customer organizations to develop a customized health plan based on their unique needs. This includes working out the details of personal protective equipment (PPE), marketing messages, temperature check stations, and 24/7 virtual visits for any guest who isn’t feeling well and wants to speak with a physician.
During this trying year, Tester and his team have discovered that with preparation, proactive strategies and a positive outlook, OCCC has been able to hold events safely and plan for new ones. These events might look different than they did in 2019, but they’re still effective. The convention center has introduced a very different marketing campaign with a new tagline: “Meeting Safely Today for a Stronger Tomorrow.”
In its first large event since the pandemic outbreak, the convention center welcomed the American Athletic Union (AAU) Junior National Volleyball Championships, which brought almost 10,000 student athletes, chaperones and coaches to Orlando in July.
The event was a fraction of its original planned size but held in the same amount of space to allow for maximum physical distancing. Only the athletes, coaches and chaperones were allowed inside the convention center. Parents had to watch the games on TV.
The convention center was scrubbed down and ready for the event. Each person entered from one side of the building and went through a temperature screening. Everyone wore a mask indoors except players actively engaged in a game. Balls and masks were cleaned between matches. Everyone left the building from the other side of the facility so they did not cross paths with people entering.
Other events have included the Florida Wedding Expo, which attracted 1,200 brides-to-be, and the Together Again Expo, which brought in 1,400 event planners in person and another 8,000 virtually in a trend Tester said will be around for a while to come. He anticipates many of the events booked for 2021 will be hybrids of both in-person and virtual attendance.
OCCC is looking to bring in other smaller local events that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get space at the facility because of its popularity as an international conference destination. New markets include arts and cultural groups, weddings and corporate business. It is also pushing ahead with bigger events and their new needs. Those booked way in advance for 2021 are pivoting and offering hybrid conventions for virtual and in-person meetings. The center plans to launch its new virtual studio this winter.
“We’ve been very consistent and proactive in portraying ourselves as optimistic for the future of our industry,” Tester said. “Now that we’re open and ready to host events, we want the word to be out and we want it to be positive. Orlando has a lot of advantages with our reputation as a very clean city, with a clean airport. Our theme parks have always led the league in cleanliness, and the fact that they’re back open has helped.”
Photography by Julie Fletcher
As seen in October 2020 i4 Business Magazine