Michael Stone, president of Equestrian Sport Productions, was the main speaker at Wednesday’s Wellington Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Wanderers Club.
Stone shed light on plans for the upcoming Palm Beach International Equestrian Center season, while updating chamber members on the Tryon International Equestrian Center, located in rural North Carolina. The new show grounds opened last year and shares common ownership with the PBIEC facility in Wellington.
“People say, ‘Where is it? Where is Tryon?’” Stone said. “The horse show is actually in Mill Spring, which is about 10 miles from Tryon, but Tryon has a huge history in equestrian sport.”
The area is centrally located, approximately 30 miles from Asheville, 60 miles from Charlotte and 30 miles from Spartanburg, S.C. There are direct flights from West Palm Beach to Asheville two or three times a week, making it convenient to bounce back and forth between both locales.
Equestrian Sport Productions CEO Mark Bellissimo and his partners started clearing the area in the fall of 2013, which was mostly hills, valleys and ravines.
“By March, 2014… millions of tons of earth were removed,” Stone said, pointing out the convenience of the location’s proximity to the highway. “The state of North Carolina has actually agreed to redo this junction for us, to make it more accessible. During some of our big events, we’ve already blocked the highway.”
Tryon’s equestrian venue will eventually be home to six all-weather rings and four grass arenas. The lighted main arena is to have 6,000 seats, and there will be 1,000 permanent stalls for horses. The resort is built on 1,400 acres at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A hotel will open in 2017, and will drop into the show grounds, Stone said. It will be two stories at the top of the hill, and then drop down six or seven stories.
One of the key features to the plan was to have the location accessible with barns all across, and climate-controlled viewing areas.
“There’s no need for golf carts,” Stone said. “People can walk everywhere. The other feature is that there are very few tents; almost everything is permanent. We built permanent vendor booths and permanent stalls — permanent everything — just to get away from the look of tents. It’s much more attractive.”
There are 12 vendor buildings, all air-conditioned, Stone said, broken into groupings of two or three spaces each.
From October 2013 to July 2014, the focus was on building the main arena. By April 2015, the elevated areas leading to the barns were created, allowing spectators to see multiple rings at the same time. A great deal of parking was created, as was a VIP club.
“The interesting thing about the VIP club is that we got all that built in that short space of time with full-scale catering kitchens,” Stone said. “We have a grill, a diner, a sushi bar, a coffee bar, a café for the riders and a Mexican restaurant, all permanently on the show grounds. For the big nights, we also bring in barbeque and pizza. We regularly do beer festivals.”
Luncheon sponsor Victor Connor has visited Tryon and was eager to tell of his experience.
“I just went up there because I wanted to see it,” Connor said. “They have a huge video-tron there, that not only can you see it from all over, right under it is the stage where you have the bands.”
Connor was impressed by his visit to Tryon. “It was breathtaking; it was absolutely spectacular,” he said. “I had to comment because I was just amazed at the video-tron and how everything worked together.”
Part of Stone’s presentation at the chamber meeting was how Wellington residents and businesses can be connected to Tryon.
“Basically, it’s follow the horses. If you have a business that can work with horses, or work with the people who work with horses, we’re very open and we’d work with you to do special rates to come up for three or four weeks at a time,” he said.
In North Carolina, Stone said, the equestrian schedule is different from Wellington’s nonstop activity. There, the horse show runs for four weeks on, two weeks off, three weeks on, two weeks off and so forth.
“There are opportunities to come up and dip your toe in the water,” he said. “It’s a beautiful and gorgeous place, but it’s in the middle of nowhere. There is very little to do there. That’s why we have restaurants and bars and a lot of opportunities for entertaining on the grounds.”
They’ve created a balance for local residents also, offering eateries and entertainment year-round.
It’s 20 minutes to the nearest gas station, he said, so there are plenty of opportunities available for various businesses wanting to serve the equestrian industry.
By June 2015, Tryon brought in a carousel, similar to the one in Wellington. There are 16 log cabins, fully operational, and 140 fully operational RV sites. A gym is open and operational, and most of the stores are already full.
On Saturday nights, there is a big horse show that attracts about 6,000 people. “Tryon is growing, without a doubt, and I think it will be a major center,” Stone said.
Stone also projects growth for the PBIEC facility in Wellington, along with its signature Winter Equestrian Festival.
“We seem to be getting a lot more interest from the west coast of the U.S.,” he told the Town-Crier. “More and more people are coming from there, and they are bypassing the shows in California to come and show with us.
California’s loss is Wellington’s gain.
“It seems that more and more people have bought property and barns here in Wellington. We’re very excited. It’s going to be a lot bigger and more people,” he said, noting that his company also has a new equestrian location in Parker, Colo., the Colorado Horse Park. “We’re nonstop.”
Stone said that each week, PBIEC attracts somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 horses, with the season kicking off on Thanksgiving weekend. This year, he said, it will be an even larger event than usual, with larger prizes, and will run in conjunction with the Wellington Chamber of Commerce’s WinterFest event, taking place Nov. 28.
“We’re hoping that will encourage people to come down earlier, and stay in Wellington for that period,” he said.
ABOVE: Equestrian Sport Productions President Michael Stone describes the Tryon International Equestrian Center.