Wellington Equestrian Partners Managing Partner Mark Bellissimo and Palm Beach County Sports Commission Executive Director George Linley were the featured speakers on sports tourism and the impact of the equestrian industry at the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday, April 6 at the Wanderers Club in Wellington.
Linley said the impact of the equestrian industry is not easy to pin down in terms of one day or the entire season.
“Equestrian sports represents the largest sporting discipline in terms of economic impact and tourism impact in the Palm Beaches, and equestrian sports represents many different disciplines,” Linley said.
He explained that the anchor of equestrian sports is the Winter Equestrian Festival, which takes place over a three-month time frame from the middle of January through early April at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington.
“That’s 200 acres of land, 12 show rings and amazing amenities for equestrian sports,” he said. “This is why Wellington grows. We are very fortunate to have such a dynamic venue and amenities for sports, including a world-class equestrian venue in our back yard.”
Equestrian sports comes with a 37-year history in Wellington and, in its infancy, was just a three-week series with about 300 horses, Linley said.
“Today it’s one of the longest-running and largest equestrian events to be found on the globe,” he said.
Linley noted that since Bellissimo and his team took over, he has expanded the venue and the event, drawing national recognition for the county. “Because of this, the increase in spectators and visitors and participants, the economic impact has also increased,” he said.
Although equestrian sports includes numerous disciplines, including polo, hunter-jumper and dressage, the Winter Equestrian Festival is the nation’s premier event for professional and amateur riders, which features many age groups, and is a proving ground for the United States Equestrian Team.
Today there are almost 7,000 horses and 20,000 out-of-state participants, including riders, trainers, officials, vendors and other equine sports representatives and workers, Linley said.
“We don’t have all the data for the 2017 event, but in 2016, there were riders from all 50 states and more than 40 different nations competing,” Linley said.
About 250,000 attend or participate in equestrian events during the 12-week period, generating many hotel bed nights for the county.
“We’re not talking about visitors coming and spending a weekend at a sporting event, or even a week,” he said. “We’re talking about an event that spans three months, so we have equestrian-related visitors… and they are staying anywhere from 60 to 90 days in hotels, seasonal rentals, condos and many of them end up investing in real estate. They purchase homes here in Palm Beach County because they are staying here with us for about a quarter of a year.”
The sports commission has outsourced studies to the Sports Management Research Institute, and the 2016 study reported more than 150,000 overnight stays related to the Winter Equestrian Festival, with about 30,000 more overnight stays with friends or relatives or homes that were purchased.
About 120,000 of those stays were in a hotel or seasonal rental in Palm Beach County, Linley said, adding that the average party coming to WEF spends just under $30,000 in horse-related expenses, generating more than $110 million in economic impact, which is about a third of what the Super Bowl generated when it was in Florida in 2007.
“However, the Winter Equestrian Festival is an annual event for Palm Beach County and the State of Florida, so this is something that is generating revenue and creating tourism for our county on an annual basis,” Linley pointed out.
Bellissimo said that the Wellington equestrian universe is broken into three pieces: the Winter Equestrian Festival, which represents about 75 percent of the economic impact; dressage, which is about 15 percent; and polo, which is about 10 percent.
“If you ask anyone about Wellington, they will first mention polo,” he said. “That was the genesis of Wellington. In many ways, Palm Beach Polo was the first footprint for equestrian sport in this area, and it’s the name that people remember.”
He agreed that polo is important, but its economic impact is more limited than the other disciplines.
Bellissimo said that he and his family moved to Wellington in 2004 as a byproduct of his wife’s and daughters’ involvement in equestrian sports.
“When I came here, the Winter Equestrian Festival was short, it was losing money and it was on property that was leased,” he said. “I had just bought the last piece of land in Grand Prix Village, and the way that operation was working is they were subsidizing their losses by selling property, and that’s a great strategy, until you run out of property, and I bought the last piece.”
At the time he bought the property, Bellissimo said, the venue was muddy, it was mostly in tents and temporary structures, and the food was not great.
“It was not a great experience, and the fundamental vision that I shared with my wife was, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if this was a place that was a great place for families to come,’” he said. “It was a small private club. If you went to an event on a Sunday, it was a small group of people, and it was $20 admission from Wednesday through Sunday, and if you had 500 or 600 people there, it was a big day.”
Transforming Wellington from a horse show to an industry met with a lot of resistance because there was a group of people who considered the equestrian venue as their private world, he said.
“My view was there were hundreds if not thousands of people who had a different opinion, and like any great business, businesses exist to seek and retain customers,” Bellissimo said. “The best metric for success is the growth of customers and the retention of customers, and what has happened since we invested in 2008, we’ve invested more than $350 million in Wellington, and that is the largest single investment in the equestrian world.”
Bellissimo added that he has invested about $150 million in an equestrian venture in Tryon, N.C.
“In reality, that is one of the largest investments in all of the equestrian sport worldwide, and that has given us a great platform to be able to be a leader,” he said.
When Bellissimo bought the Wellington venue, some people asked him how much he was going to charge for admission, because they considered admission as an opportunity to keep some people out, he said.
“Once I understood why they wanted that charge, I made a comment that, from my perspective, it’s the opposite of what I want to do,” Bellissimo said. “As long as I own that venue, it will be free.”
He said the festival has grown to be the world’s largest horse show by a factor of two or three.
“On any given day, we may have 3,000 horses that are competing,” he said. “Dressage, we can have up to 500.”
He said the passion for horses goes way back in history.
“This country was discovered on the back of a horse, so that connection has never disappeared,” Bellissimo said. “The connection is the core of our business and our philosophy and our passion. It’s not real estate, it’s not hotels, it’s not fighting with local neighbors.”
He said he was asked at a recent Wellington Equestrian Preserve Committee meeting why he invested at Tryon, and he answered that it was due to a set of circumstances that existed in Wellington where he was being fought at every turn.
“As much as we have a passion for growing it, the reality was that we were in a position that we had a council, and from our perspective, people disagreed with our vision,” Bellissimo said. “And that’s OK, that happens, and in lieu of continuing what I would consider a fruitless battle, I’m going to look elsewhere and find a place where I can be very engaged and build something else. I spent $150 million there, [but] I love this community. It’s my primary residence. I will continue to fight for it when it makes sense to fight. When it makes sense to yield, I will yield.”
ABOVE: Mark Bellissimo of Wellington Equestrian Partners with Central Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce CEO Mary Lou Bedford and Wellington Projects Manager Mike O’Dell.