by Andrea Doyle | November 01, 2015
Mark Bellissimo, CEO of International Equestrian Group (IEG), had what he calls a "very busy New York week" to contend with in producing his second annual Rolex Central Park Horse Show this September. Bellissimo orchestrated the transformation of Wollman Rink in Central Park into a world-class equestrian facility. The challenges he was able to overcome offer lessons for meeting planners hosting their own large-scale gatherings.

The horse show was in full gallop on Friday, Sept. 25, the same day Pope Francis visited Central Park via motorcade to meet and greet New Yorkers. The next day, Bellissimo shared the park with Beyoncé, First Lady Michelle Obama, Coldplay, Vice President Joe Biden, Ed Sheeran, and Pearl Jam -- just a few of the stars who joined 60,000 concert-goers on the Great Lawn for the Global Citizen Festival.

"This all occurred within a week that hosted the United Nations assembly and President Obama's visit during our busiest night," says Bellissimo. "We were able to overcome all of that and put on what I believe was a great event."

The Rolex Central Park Horse Show is an outdoor five-day equestrian sporting event that showcases some of the best show jumpers and dressage riders in the world as they vie for top prizes, held against a backdrop of skyscrapers in one of the world's most iconic settings.

Putting on the show involved some Olympics-level logistics, requiring first that Wollman Rink's 33,000 square feet be filled in with 1,500 tons of synthetic dirt.

"Once we got the initial approval, which was less than six weeks prior to the event, we then had to figure out a way to build two world-class outdoor arenas, including the warm-up area complete with custom horse footing and drainage systems, as well as on-site stabling for the 48 horses that would be rotated in each day from Gladstone, NJ," says Bellissimo.

Twelve-hundred seats installed over uneven terrain, a two-level tented VIP pavilion constructed for 400 guests, vendor pavilions, and a television infrastructure were also built within eight hours, all with supplies coming in and out on one 12-foot road.  

"Luckily, we have a great team with a track record for accomplishing very difficult tasks within tight timeframes under great pressure," says Bellissimo.

A Family Affair 
Bellissimo's wife Katherine and daughters, all active equestrians, participated in the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Palm Beach, FL when it was a temporary six-week event held in a leased facility, which was falling into disrepair and struggling financially.

Mark Bellissimo,
International Equestrian Group
"I was a tech sector CEO and had just merged my most recent company with a company in Colorado. I planned to take a year off to spend time with the family," explains Bellissimo. "I believed that with the right strategy and investments, WEF could be transformed from a high-profile temporary horse show into a thriving equestrian industry for the community."

That is exactly what has happened.

"We have created what is now the premier winter equestrian lifestyle destination that attracts over 4,000 of the wealthiest families in the world from 50 states and 43 countries with 7,500 horses competing over the circuit. As many 3,000 horses show in any given week," he says.

Rolex is the title sponsor and 32 different sponsors of varying levels including JetBlue and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have signed on. Many companies also hold functions in conjunction with the show. Rolex, Canadian Pacific, Land Rover, Axel Johnson Group, and Visit Florida held events against the backdrop of the New York City skyline.

"It was very unique and memorable for their customers and there is great interest in expanding the footprint to support more organizations next year," he says. "So many people commented that it was so different from the baseball, tennis, golf hospitality/corporate events they had been to and were intrigued by the sport."

These experiences have given Bellissimo valuable insight into managing large-scale events with more moving parts than many meeting planners must handle.

"It is critical to expect the unexpected when planning events of this scale," he advises other planners. "You are only as good as the team you have in place and I have such experts and specialized vendors working with me on the Rolex Central Park Horse Show. Try to anticipate every what-if scenario and create a team where every member is committed and hardworking."

Bellissimo is in the process of building a resort in the foothills of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains in Tryon. That will be anchored by a new equestrian center with several riding arenas, including one with 6,000 seats, as well as lodging, restaurants, entertainment, sporting clays, golf, mountain biking, nature and fitness trails, and an on-site sports complex, making it an ideal destination for corporate groups. Bellissimo envisions a "lifestyle destination with a Disney-like experience for those who love horses or are just interested in getting some exposure to the magic and majesty of the horse."