Photo courtesy FEI/Richard Julliart

With the FEI World Equestrian Games set to begin at the Tryon Equestrian Center in less than 30 days, organizers promise that they’ll be ready for the tens of thousands of visitors they’re expecting. Here are highlights of my conversation earlier this week with Sharon Decker, the chief operating officer at Tryon Equestrian Center.

More about Decker: She’s a former North Carolina Secretary of Commerce under the administration of former Gov. Pat McCrory. She’s also a former marketing and communications exec at Duke Energy in Charlotte. She and her husband have lived in the foothills for 19 years, she says.

How the games got to Western North Carolina: “The great thing is we weren’t starting from zero,” Decker says, recalling the equestrian entrepreneur Mark Bellissimo and a group of well-heeled partners started building the center in Mill Spring, just outside Tryon, in 2014. A Canadian resort town that was named the WEG host couldn’t get all of its funding together, and Bellissimo and Co. swooped in to land the ’18 games in 2016.

The final construction push: The center closed to the public recently so that organizers could make a final push to get the facilities ready. Record rainfall in the region this year has slowed construction – crews lost at least a month, according to Decker. Getting cross country and endurance trails built and grass grown has been a recent focus, she says.

Ticket sales: “We are right where we thought we would be with ticketing,” Decker says, with organizers knowing that close to 40 percent of ticket sales will be sold in the final days leading up to the World Equestrian Games. Early estimates were that some 500,000 people would visit Western North Carolina for the games. Decker says organizers are preparing to host 25,000 people a day for the 14-day run.

The WEG audience: A typical visitor is a woman, age 45-64, with a household income of $250,000, according to the center.

The facilities: The privately owned Tryon Equestrian Center encompasses 1,600 acres of land. There are some 1,200 horse stalls, 13 competition arenas and a large arena that seats 5,000. A temporary stadium that will seat 17,000 is being built by Seating Solutions out of Landrum, S.C., Decker says. That stadium will have VIP, air conditioned seating offering views of both arenas. There are cabins, restaurants and and four hotels on the center’s property. Investment in the project has reached an estimated $200 million. The goal is to offer year-round events.

The WEG events: The World Equestrian Games have been dubbed the Olympics of  equestrian sport.There’s an amazing variety of horse-and-rider events, from “horse dancing” dressage to Western-style “reining.” There’s an event called “vaulting” that’s essentially acrobatics on horseback. There are cross-country events that will have people walking along to watch, much like they would walk a golf course during a tournament. And much more.

Equal playing field: “One of the things I love about equestrian sport is that men and women compete on the same level,” says Decker, noting that the rules are the same for every competitor. Also, age is really not a factor, she adds, noting that competitors will range in age “from 18 to well into their 60s. That’s really awesome.”

The Expo: For a $20 ticket, visitors can bypass the official games, but still get their fill of horse-related experiences. The event Expo that will include exhibitions, educational seminars, local craftspeople and more, Decker says. A variety of breeds of horses will be on exhibition, and there will be demonstrations to teach points of horsemanship. Also, the Equus Film Festival will be screening equestrian films during the World Equestrian Games.

Economic impact: Somewhere between $200 to $400 million, says Decker. The FEI, the governing body of the games, will conduct an economic impact study to get hard data, she adds. The only time the World Equestrian Games have been held in the U.S. was in 2010, when Lexington, Ky., hosted. A state study reported $202 million in overall economic impact, with $128 million spent directly on hotel rooms, meals and other expenses, the Charlotte Business Journal reports.

More on the economic impact: Decker notes that the Tryon Equestrian Center has already begun redefining the area’s economy. Polk and adjacent Rutherford counties were experiencing tough times as North Carolina’s textile industry began to wane in the 1980s. Move into 2007 and ’08 when the Great Recession hit, and Rutherford County was seeing 17 percent unemployment, with Polk not far behind, Decker says. The equestrian center will draw tourists, she says, and begin to create an “economic cluster” of related businesses. The center has already spun off a construction company, and others are building hotels, restaurants and more, she notes.

Spectatorship: Organizers claim total spectatorship for WEG will rank the event fourth for major sporting events this year behind the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament in Russia and the Tour de France, Decker says. Two events will be broadcast on NBC, while other events will be broadcast live in Europe, Decker says.

Celebrity factor: There will most certainly be celebrities on hand, both in terms of star riders and star horses, as well as high-profile politicians and more, though Decker says she’s not naming any names. The daughters of Bill Gates and Bruce Springsteen have already trained at the center, and TV host Kelly Ripa and her family are well-known equestrian sport lovers.

2 Comments

  1. Sounds like they won’t get near the 500K spectators they were touting months ago.

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