By Callie Sharkey
The Wellington Chamber of Commerce hosted its 12th annual Kickoff to the Equestrian Season luncheon on Wednesday, Nov. 14 at the International Polo Club Palm Beach.
The event included presentations by guest speakers Mark Bellissimo and Michael Stone of Equestrian Sport Productions, Noreen O’Sullivan from the Gold Coast Dressage Association and sponsor Victor Connor of the Connor Financial Group.
The event provides a unique opportunity to meet the people who make the equestrian season and its various competitions a success. Between the venue and speakers lined up, the event hosts a full house.
“We sell out this event every year,” Wellington Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michela Green said. “Anywhere from 125 to 135 people come to the luncheon.”
The chamber works closely on the event with Equestrian Sport Productions.
“We look forward to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce events and work with them regularly,” ESP Event & Operations Manager Ashley Erwine said.
After lunch, Chamber Vice President Lisa Banionis welcomed guests and introduced Pastor Josh Mauney of NewSound Church. Mauney delivered a prayer of thanks before the meeting began.
Before the keynote speaker and other guests, the newest President’s Circle members officially received pins commemorating their induction.
Banionis introduced Connor, founder of the Connor Financial Group, a local branch of Raymond James Financial Services.
“We are here because the equestrian industry is the single largest economic impact in Wellington. It defines Wellington,” Connor said.
When discussing the ups and downs of the economy in Florida over the past 15 years, Connor commended Wellington on its resilience.
“We recovered first,” he said. “Wellington provided seeds for the three largest equestrian businesses in the country.”
An equestrian himself, Connor spoke of moving to the area in 1979, drawn by the horse community in Wellington.
“Wellington today is what Pebble Beach is to golf, what Wimbledon is to tennis and what the Connor Financial Group is to business,” he said.
Connor introduced guest speaker Michael Stone, president of Equestrian Sport Productions. ESP manages the Winter Equestrian Festival, the largest and longest-running horse show in the world.
Stone, in turn, introduced special guest Mark Bellissimo, the CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions and the managing partner of Wellington Equestrian Partners. He predicted a record year for polo in Wellington.
“This year, we have 16 to 18 teams competing, the most ever in the history of the U.S. Open,” Bellissimo said. “Before that, we had five teams.”
The increase in engagements on social media is also a record. According to Bellissimo, the most actively broadcasted equestrian events received 4.3 million visitors online.
“We are changing the sport,” Bellissimo said. “We are reestablishing interest in polo and reenergizing the sport.”
Bellissimo also took the opportunity to affirm his company’s dedication to a long future in Wellington, dispelling any rumors to the contrary.
“Wellington is a community we love and have $350 million invested in,” he stressed. “We aren’t for sale.”
Stone returned to the podium with detailed information showcasing the success of FEI’s recent World Equestrian Games, held at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina, sister facility to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
“There were eight events in the FEI World Equestrian Games that had 68 countries represented, 16,000 accreditations and 7,500 volunteers,” Stone said.
Stone also went over his company’s upcoming 12 weeks of dressage competition and 17 weeks of polo competition in Wellington.
“Our venues give businesses an opportunity to connect with people,” he said.
The next guest speaker was Noreen O’Sullivan, president of the Gold Coast Dressage Association.
“I was so honored to be invited back to speak again,” she said.
O’Sullivan showed a short video summarizing the dressage events, including para dressage.
“Gold Coast Dressage has 35 years in supporting the sport,” she explained. “When it comes to dressage and world competition, the road to success goes through Wellington.”
Throughout November and December, ESP runs seven weeks of hunter/jumper competitions during its Holiday Series. Competitions include the Holiday & Horses CSI4 and USEF Under 25 Show Jumping National Championship.
The 2019 Winter Equestrian Festival at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center will then run from Jan. 9 to March 31, 2019. Gladiator Polo will also return to Wellington for the 2019 season.
For more information about future equestrian events, visit www.pbiec.coth.com.