OCCC’s Mark Tester Hopeful for Busy Fall Events Season, Citing Pent-Up Demand
Talk about baptism by fire. Mark Tester had only been at the helm of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando for three weeks when disaster struck in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, the new executive director of the country’s second-largest convention center was undaunted. As a 26-year industry veteran who previously served as director of the Austin Convention Center Department and on the Executive Committee of Visit Austin in Austin, Texas for 12 years, Tester understands the art of staying flexible and making quick, level-minded decisions on the fly. TSNN talked with Tester from the safety of his home to learn what it’s been like to lead the OCCC during this health crisis, what prepared him for the challenge and what he’s looking forward to post-pandemic.
Since starting your new role in early February, what has it been like leading the OCCC during COVID-19, and how did your previous experiences prepare you for this situation?
The OCCC has a great team, so when faced with this challenge, our staff was ready to provide whatever was needed. I’ve always thought the OCCC did a great job and was one of the best-run convention facilities, and they all embraced me as the new executive director and gave me whatever I needed to help make the right decisions.
In the convention industry, stuff happens, and you have to be ready to make moves and changes. In Austin, we had the opportunity to be a shelter operation for hurricane victims of Gustav and Ike [in 2008], and were preparing for Harvey. I’d already gone through scenarios where you get a call from the city manager saying, “We’ve got 1,200 people coming to Austin in four hours, can we be ready for them and promise them a hot meal?” You work with your partners to get it done, just like with shows – things are always fluid and rapidly changing, and you have to be ready to go with the flow.
Does adaptability come naturally to you or is that a skill you learned over the course of your career?
Change in this world is something you have to adapt to and every job is different, so you have to be ready. My personality allows me to not get too flustered and to think clearly [about] what we need to do to make the right decisions, along with getting input from teammates. I grew up in the industry and my dad ran convention bureaus, DMOs and trade shows, so I’ve been around the industry my whole life. I’ve got tons of friends I’ve made over the course of my career, and to see so many furloughed and struggling with their income right now is incredibly sad and worrisome.
In Austin, I oversaw the convention center department and also the city-owned Hilton Austin. In both cases, we had the foresight to prepare and plan to have enough financial reserves to weather a bad storm. While both are struggling right now, they’re paying their bills and will be able to continue to do so, so I feel good about that. In the case of the OCCC, we also had the pre-planning to have reserves [to keep employees working] if there was a need, so that’s been a fortunate thing.
What is your specific communication plan with event planners right now?
As the crisis began, we were communicating with them about what we were doing to keep the facility clean and safe. Now that events have cancelled or postponed, we’ve been working with them on a case-by-case basis. Every event has different contracts and cancellation policies, so we’ve been working to strengthen our relationships [with event organizers] to make sure that is occurring while finding out what they need and want us to do. Our goal, if possible, is to get them to reschedule for later this year or in 2021, depending on what they’re looking to do. Most of our employees now are teleworking, so we’ve had a lot of time on our hands to talk to customers and help them prepare, both on the sales side and on the event planning side. We’ve even been offering to help them with marketing to ensure they’re generating enthusiasm and excitement around their rescheduled event so it’s well-attended.
How are you being a resource to them and adding value during this time of need?
A lot of planners, and certainly the ones that had events scheduled for March or April, are looking for a smooth and non-acrimonious negotiation without any controversy. We’re asking what we can do to put them in the best situation that we can, then getting rid of cancellation penalties by moving them later in the year or adding multiple years, depending on where they’re at in their planning phase. Visit Orlando has been a great partner by working with the hotels and seeing what else we can do [to help] cancelled or rescheduled events. Shows are worried about their budgets and about keeping employees working, so we’re working to strengthen those relationships. Whatever they need, we’ll help to provide.
With so many events having cancelled or postponed, what does your convention calendar look like right now?
We have a couple of local consumer events that are rescheduled to late May, then we’re jam-packed from June on through [the end of the year]. Depending on what happens, things could change, but we have our first trade show set to take place at the convention center in early June.
Last month, the OCCC set up COVID-19 testing sites in its remote parking area. How is that going?
Really smoothly. During the first couple weeks of testing, the National Guard and the Feds were limiting the number of tests to 250 per day, only for first responders or people over age 65 who had fevers. Now the state of Florida is taking it over and they have significantly more tests, so they’re [removing] those requirements and will be able to test up to 400 people per day. [The testing site] is in a very large, remote parking lot away from our facilities, so even if we had a show it wouldn’t impact it at all.
Like other convention centers around the U.S., is the OCCC prepared to turn into a makeshift hospital if needed?
It’s on our radar and we’re looking at it, but it depends on the surge [in COVID-19 cases in Florida], which from what I’ve heard is going to be around April 20. If we’re called upon, certainly we’ll be ready to help provide the space and whatever services are needed, but nothing has been determined yet. I don’t know if it’s because of testing, but we’re feeling hopeful that the number of cases in Orlando are starting to ebb, that many with non-life threatening infections are recovering at home, and that our hospitals aren’t at capacity right now. It helps that our Mayor, Jerry Demings, had the city transition to only essential workers two weeks before the state of Florida did, so while [the quarantine is] not good for our industry, hopefully we’re ahead of that curve and flattening it sooner rather than later.
Other than COVID-19-related issues, what kinds of projects are you working on?
Right now, I’m focused on our massive $605 million North-South building expansion coming to fruition, which will expand the OCCC’s exhibit space to 2.3 million square feet. This will provide our clients with increased flexibility and the opportunity to host a variety of events, especially those that have outgrown the current exhibit space. We have our groundbreaking set for fall 2020 and our entire region is looking forward to that.
What do you envision for the OCCC and the events industry overall in the aftermath of this pandemic?
Everybody is wondering what the world is going to look like after June 1. Are we going to be back [in business]? What will we be doing at that point? From the supplier side, I think there’s going to be pent-up demand. I remain extremely optimistic about our industry and the need for face-to-face [events]. I can’t wait to go to IAEE’s Expo! Expo! in December and PCMA’s Convening Leaders in January . We’re not going to cut back on those face-to-face events that are putting us in front of our customers, and I think that’s going to be the case [for others]. People need to get back to business, and trade shows and conventions are the way to do it. I’m hopeful that we’ll have a great summer and fall.