The business model for running Orlando’s venues underwent a seismic shift on March 11, 2020. Allen Johnson, the chief venues officer for the City of Orlando, had just driven to St. Augustine to watch The Players Championship golf event at TPC Sawgrass. While having dinner with three friends, Johnson received a text saying a National Basketball Association game had been canceled. “Uh-oh, that’s not good,” he told his friends.
Johnson watched the first round of the golf tournament the next day and then came home to a new world order taking shape. The COVID-19 pandemic was encroaching on everyone’s lives, and it was particularly challenging for someone whose job entails staging events and putting people in seats, usually thousands at a time.
“Nobody knew exactly how long it was going to be,” Johnson said. “I remember them saying, ‘Three months, right?’ Shows what we were dealing with. What we were supposed to have that weekend, we just said, ‘We’ll move it three months down the road.’ So we started doing all that. We call it ‘moving the workload.’ And we just kept moving the workload.”
The workload has kept moving and shifting for more than a year now, but Alan Johnson is as busy as ever. Most of the traditional events Johnson stages at the Amway Center, Camping World Stadium, Tinker Field, Harry P. Leu Gardens and the Mennello Museum of American Art have been redesigned to meet COVID-19 mandates: Social distancing. Reduced attendance. Plenty of hand sanitizer stations.
Of course, there have been cancellations for safety and logistical reasons. But challenges have also brought new opportunities:
For 44 consecutive days during the pandemic, Johnson partnered with AdventHealth as the Amway Center became a distribution hub of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies for the state and beyond. The arena floor was stocked with all sorts of critical supplies, including face coverings and face shields, surgical gloves, hand sanitizers and ventilators.
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) established a four-month residency at the Amway Center to produce and televise 35 live shows without fans. The first show aired August 21 and the last one wrapped up December 7.
Camping World Stadium has been used as a site for COVID-19 drive-through testing and for staging numerous food drives.
Leu Gardens converted to a cashless system and featured a number of outdoor events that drew strong numbers.
“We’ve been doing this for 40 years. But there’s no class for this,” Johnson said of the pandemic. “There’s no book. There are no professors. In our lifetime, there’s no example of how to deal with this. I mean, hurricanes disrupt you for a week or two. Other things that come are small disruptions, but not on the scale of this.” – Allen Johnson
Like any effective business executive, Allen Johnson is good at improvisation. And this pandemic certainly has challenged him to think outside the box in many ways.
He also made sure to take care of his own, so to speak, when opportunities like the WWE partnership came along. Like everywhere else, people were concerned about losing jobs. Allen Johnson had their backs.
“You need to give our employees first crack at it,” he told WWE executives. “They used our audio guys and our ribbon boards. It was a godsend as far as revenue coming in because I can safely say I don’t know of another arena in the country that had commercial money coming in.”
There was work to do at other venues, specifically Camping World Stadium. The stadium is in the midst of a $60 million construction upgrade and enhancements funded by the Orange County tourist development tax. The City of Orlando and Florida Citrus Sports are running point on the renovations, designed to enhance the fan experience, keep the venue competitive with other top-tier stadiums, and attract more marquee events. If Orlando is selected as a host city, Camping World Stadium could be the main local venue for 2026 FIFA World Cup matches. The soccer competition held every four years by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association brings in fans from all over the world.
“We started it almost right after the January 1st bowl game,” Allen Johnson said. “We will be replacing the turf. We’re still going to be synthetic. And we’re also replacing our video boards and our ribbon boards.” The stadium is also upgrading its point-of-sale systems to speed up its processes for customers looking to pay for food, beverages and merchandise by credit card.
All the while, Camping World Stadium has been open for business. The stadium recently hosted two American Motorcyclist Association Supercross weekend events, each with a strong COVID-19 capacity of 9,000, followed by three Monster Jam truck competitions over a third weekend.
And then there is the magic of Leu Gardens, and innovative ways to take advantage of its beautiful 50-acre landscape. “Not all exhibition-driven, because it’s still a beautiful place without it, but adding more of those as we can,” Allen Johnson said.
Leu Gardens added Cole NeSmith’s “Dazzling Nights” from December through early January, featuring lights, music and interactive elements to transform the gardens into a stunning holiday wonderland. Standard features like plant sales and movie nights are in the mix. A dinosaur exhibit runs through April 18.
“We’re getting close to five, six months of the year having special exhibits, which drives foot traffic over there,” Johnson said. “It also drives memberships. Families join. So we’re looking at doing things there. We’re big on potential for Leu Gardens because of how big the place is.”
The business model certainly has changed for people like Johnson. There are fewer events, so that nocturnal time clock of his has needed readjusting. But he is working as hard as ever. A lot of that time crunch is during the day, mostly on Zoom meetings.
Allen Johnson is telling business associates, colleagues and peers from other states what everyone wants to hear: Orlando remains open in the events business. And business is good.