Written by: Nancy Jaffer
“We’re trying to be very thoughtful in long-term thinking in a world that values short-term satisfaction.”
Mark Bellissimo has devoted considerable energy toward a variety of projects that have expanded the horizons of U.S. show jumping and dressage under the auspices of Wellington Equestrian Partners. His vision guided Palm Beach International Equestrian Center to become one of the world’s greatest facilities for horse sports, and he created the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in the face of serious opposition. Although he is no stranger to criticism, he continues to expand and prevail. As the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival ended at PBIEC, he sat down with Horse Sport International to discuss the season and plans for the future.
What are your ultimate goals for the Wellington properties?
MB: Our goal is to combine a top sport with a great business model. Fundamental to a great business strategy is to create a model that works.
What we’ve provided is an opportunity for the world to come here and participate in a way you can’t do in Europe, where you’re restricted by the top 30 domain.
We created a product that is unique. You can have an Audrey Coulter, who’s not ranked internationally high come in and compete and win two major Grands Prix in one day. That’s part of the American model. Anyone can have a great moment and ascend to greatness. We’re not trying to create an extension of the European model necessarily; we’re trying to create a version that increases the interest in the sport, in participation, in sponsorship and spectatorship.
Seeing a college student going out and beating the number one rider in the world; that’s what sells the sport. That’s what is aspirational.
There are playgrounds for the top 30. This may not be one of them. Our goal is to build the sport and build the facility and the interest.
We’ve put a tremendous amount of money into prize money. This year it was $8.6 or $8.7 million, which is unprecedented. When we took over, the numbers were $2m to $2.5 million.
What is your investment philosophy?
MB: We are continuing to invest and not return capital to the partnership because we believe in five to 10 years we can develop a sport in the U.S. that’s self-supporting.
The problem is there’s a culture of wanting instant gratification, of buying the $5 million horse to get into the ring. That’s great for people who can do that, but if the sport develops into you needing a $5 million horse to compete, the sport loses and we’re nowhere.
The bottom line is you’re going to see some of our shows focus on young horses and young riders.
We’re trying to be very thoughtful in long-term thinking in a world that values short-term satisfaction. We’ve created a place for people to go to satisfy all their interests in the sport, whether it’s at amateur, junior or Grand Prix level.
If we just try to create a product that was purely top sport and that’s all it is, good luck. I’ve studied it and it’s not doable now because you don’t have sponsorship and spectators and the interest level to create that product in the short term.
After spending so much money and exerting so much effort, what is your reaction to criticism of conditions in the stable area, to lack of schooling facilities and classes that are too large?
MB: Emotion can drive commentary that isn’t based on facts. For every one person (who complains) there are 100 coming up and thanking us for the things we’re doing each year. I’m not concerned by one, two or three public comments.
We’ve been able to accomplish unbelievable success with very well-funded opposition, both on the personal side and on the political side. I think that’s changing. I think 95 per cent of the people are very excited about what we’ve done and where the sport is going. I think it’s the vast majority that are excited about Wellington and this facility. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to improve.
Every negative comment we get is on a list and we’ll address it and systematically go through it to make sure that each year there’s fewer and fewer people who are upset.
When we started, probably 20 per cent of the people were supportive and we went from that to 80 or 90 per cent. It will never get to 100 per cent but there’s no organization that will spend more money to make…a better place for riders, horses and families.
Anyone who’s paying attention and compares this facility to six years ago…it’s very different.
Next year, you’ll see a lot of improvements across the property. We want to make it look as good when you go through the exhibitor entrance as when you go through the main spectator entrance. As far as parking is concerned, there’s a solution in that there are 100 or so spaces within the FEI area. The FEI competitors could park there and not take away the spaces from the general population. When all the bathrooms are finished we will have five major population centers on the grounds with world-class bathrooms.
What about the stabling area?
MB: We’ve had a challenging time. We’re going to renovate a number of the areas, especially barns 13 through 17. We’re going to try to make those pads more efficient and higher quality in terms of raising the elevation and changing the landscape. Those become a problem in the rain, so the quality of stabling I think will be greater.
What about places to school and hack?
MB: We’ve got space; but if you change (topography) and bring in any material, you have to get a land development permit. People don’t understand that. There’s a far greater level of complexity that exists in doing what we do.
There are opportunities to expand the footprint. The FEI area is a perfect example. We spent $9.5 million for an FEI property that we had to de-annex from Grand Prix Village. Show me another company in the world that would make that investment that will never return. We don’t want pats on the back; that’s part of our business strategy. We’re saying we’re going to make that investment to make it a better experience. Does it offset that investment in the short term? No.
That’s a very long-term investment by people whose focus is to make the sport better.
Do you ever see a need to control entries and say, ‘We’re only going to have 2,000 horses on the grounds’ or whatever?
MB: We sat down with the riders on a very constructive basis and talked about ways where we can better manage the class sizes. This year we had 12 entries for the Nations Cup. Are we going to have 13 or 14 entries next year? No.
The Nations Cup probably will be restricted to eight teams. Could we do that in the middle of the entry process this year? No.
We had a very significant increase in the number of entries overall this year, which is because I think the product is good, the money is great, the footing is great, the lifestyle is great; the hospitality, the food, the experience — that’s what I think people are very, very excited about.
What we need to do is take the growth that is there and manage it in a way that is productive.
We have many constituencies. The goal as a good businessman is to understand all the customer issues and create a product that serves the best needs of that constituency. That’s what we’re focused on.
Growth is something that is managed. We have the facility across the street (the Adequan Global Dressage Festival grounds) to expand capacity. You get times when dressage isn’t going. In those open periods, we can potentially allocate some of the demand into different classes.
We’re exploring creating a micro-circuit with young riders and young horses. We had amazing success with the Artisan Farm Grands Prix. The Zieglers have been very passionate about trying to create a platform for developing young riders. This gives the people who may not be ready for the 1.60 meter Grand Prix a chance to get into a high profile Grand Prix without having their only option as the Grand Prix that evening. Does that limit entries? Redistributing entries is a better terminology.
Could you go into detail about other ways this might be done?
MB: Every year, we’re going to continue to adjust to our customers. But what you don’t want to do is grow to a point where it’s not controlled.
You’ll see some changes in the format of some of the classes, the qualifications in the classes. We had to split the $125,000 WEF (Challenge) twice, which was unprecedented.
We’re evaluating getting to the point where we can run a parallel 2-star/4-star, or a 2-star/5-star…with a different number of tracks.
Here we created a product that would allow people from all over the world to compete at a level that is very open and very accessible. When you get someone like Audrey Coulter who competes against the best and does an amazing job, we don’t want to lose that energy by creating an environment that’s too restrictive. We’re going to try to strike a balance.
But could there come a time when the PBIEC grounds just can’t handle any more horses?
MB: At some point, we might have to say here’s where we’re going. But we have a lot of land here. Part of the challenge has been getting approval from the different bodies to use that land. I’m confident we can manage the business and growth in a way that is respectful to customers and the competitors and all the other constituencies that value this experience.