Mark Tester became Orange County Convention Center’s executive director on Feb. 10 this year. He is responsible for overall operations, planning, marketing and all activities at the OCCC, while ensuring its positive economic impact for the community. Tester was previously the Austin Convention Center director from 2008-2019 and led all aspects of the Austin CC and Palmer Events Center. In addition to managing the Austin CC department, Tester was on the Executive Committee of Visit Austin and was the president of Austin Convention Enterprises—the board that oversees the City-financed 800-room Hilton Austin. Prior to Austin, he spent 13 years working in the Chicago convention community holding senior positions at both the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau (now Choose Chicago) and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the owner and manager at that time of McCormick Place—the U.S.’s largest convention facility. Tester grew up in the convention industry. His father operated destination marketing organizations and later, convention and tradeshows. Tester earned a B.A. in communication from Purdue University.
What have the last 5 months been like for you and the staff at the OCCC?
When the crisis first began, we were in constant communications with clients and planners about our procedures to keep the campus clean and safe for our employees and guests. Each client is unique so we have worked individually on a case-by-case basis on rethinking and scheduling their conventions for the future.
We continue to work with our meeting planners based on rescheduling their events to strengthen our relationships with event organizers and to accommodate their needs. Our goal, if possible, is to get them rescheduled for later this year or in 2021, depending on what they are looking to do.
Our team has great relationships with our clients and we talk to them regularly to help them prepare for their return. We have been offering to help them with marketing to ensure they are generating enthusiasm and excitement around their rescheduled event so it is well attended. Whatever they need, we are here as a resource to help.
Additionally, one of the first things we did in the spirit of Orange County Mayor Jerry L. Demings’ guiding principles of innovation, collaboration and inclusion, we committed one of our remote parking lots as a COVID-19 drive-through testing site in partnership with the Florida Department of Health, the National Guard and the Orange County Government.
How has the pandemic caused you to re-think the way you do business?
Sanitation measures in convention centers will change and will remain for the foreseeable future. We are one of the first and largest convention centers to commit to participation in the Global Biorisk Advisory Council STAR accreditation process. There will be a series of rigorous guidelines on both the sanitation and social distancing fronts, among others, and we are moving forward on that.
The GBAC STAR Accreditation was created by the International Sanitary Supply Association—the premier sanitation association in the world. Experts in those fields are developing these guidelines, which will evolve as the world changes. The accreditation will put us on the cutting-edge of the industry. It ensures the health and safety of our guests, attendees and employees.
We are also talking to a large Orlando-based health system to help supply a number of different services to our planners including tele-health visits, best practice measures, medical marketing materials, videos and other and tools to raise awareness and enhance the Orlando experience for guests and visitors.
What is the Global Biorisk Advisory Council and why is the accreditation important?
The Global Biorisk Advisory Council’s STAR Accreditation is recognized as the gold standard of safe venues by providing third-party validation to ensure the implementation of rigorous protocols in response to biorisk situations.
The OCCC is committed to adhering to the GBAC cleaning protocols to provide a clean, safe, and disinfected building environment. We will complete 20 program elements with specific performance and guidance criteria in order to receive the GBAC STAR accreditation.
The accreditation is important in establishing employee, client, visitor, and public assurance and confidence on the safety and health of the OCCC. In addition, it provides professional training to in-house and service partner cleaning professionals for outbreak and infectious disease preparation and response.
What other types of cleaning procedures have you in put in place?
An essential element of our new health sanitation strategy includes the introduction of an innovative solution, the use of ultraviolet UV light. The OCCC will implement this through the use of Violet Defense, an Orlando-based company recognized for bringing clinical-level UV disinfection to everyday spaces.
Ultraviolet Germicidal Light can kill bacteria, germs and viruses, and this product will be used to sanitize offices, meeting rooms and restrooms throughout the OCCC.
As part of the Center’s ISO Certification, the OCCC is also committed to using ozonated water as a cleaning agent. With 13 systems on hand, the OCCC’s green cleaning ozonated water system utilizes oxygen as a disinfectant.
The OCCC Environmental Services staff conducts daily cleaning of all door handles throughout the campus. The frequency of cleaning and sanitizing has been increased in all public spaces with an emphasis on frequent contact surfaces including elevators and elevator buttons, vending machines, door handles, public bathrooms, ATMs, stair and escalator handrails, dining surfaces, all seating areas and tables.
Talk about the importance of the signage being installed with tips and guidelines.
Approximately 1,300 signs and decals have been placed at building entrances and throughout our campus for a clear understanding of the thoughtful, deliberate and methodical strategy to ramp up modified operations. These signs help communicate, remind and encourage adherence to our health and safety protocols.
Can you talk about some of the other screenings launched at the OCCC?
Employees are temperature screened when entering the facility and are required to wear a mask, in addition to filling out a pre-work screening survey. Show management is encouraged to do temperature checks for attendees and exhibitors.
How important is it for convention organizers to implement “handshake-free” meetings at OCCC? Committed to our on-site preparedness plan, the OCCC strongly encourages conventions implement handshake-free meetings and conventions for the foreseeable future. This is in line with the CDC guidelines and recommendations.
How do you see the economic impact of the newly scheduled shows when it comes to local surrounding businesses bouncing back? Orlando is well positioned relative to many other regions. The strong support of the tourism, leisure, hospitality sector, and International Drive District, coupled with our world-class theme parks, places our community at an advantage.
In the face of this unprecedented situation, the OCCC remains committed to doing what’s right. That said, there is a lot of work left to do, but we have faith that we are up to the challenge. By working together and supporting one another, we will come through this a stronger and more united community.
What are some creative resolutions you have worked on with a client who was forced to cancel/postpone their event due to the pandemic?
Realizing that our events are all unique, we try to address each situation individually. Our first priority has been to work with each client to try and assess both their immediate and their long term needs in response to their individual situation. We let them know that our goal is to be a partner during these unprecedented times by looking at long-term success rather than focusing only on short term performance. As such, we look at all available options like rescheduling to future dates, suitable housing options are available and options for downsizing or relocating their current event. Cancellation comes if no other options make sense. Examples of creative solutions include adding non-contracted space, which allows the client to implement social distancing measures like wider aisles on the tradeshow floor, additional spacing for general sessions and food and beverage service areas.
What does 2021 look like in terms of occupancy for the OCCC and how challenging has it been to work to accommodate postponement requests while balancing the business that is already booked for next year?
Many of the events that have requested to reschedule are doing so in 2021, which is adding to an already promising year for OCCC. Accommodating postponement requests remains a thorough and strategic process that includes communications with our partners at Visit Orlando and our hotel partners which make up the Orlando Convention District. In general, when 2021 dates are not available for rescheduling, we look at future years for other possible opportunities to host these events. We prioritize booked events first, with postponed events layered into available space on the calendar. We also are actively soliciting new business, as well as receiving inquiries from events looking to move from other cities.
What are you thinking in terms of how to book space for groups with social distancing?
In the immediate future, we are working with each client to assess their space needs as a result of downsizing and social distancing. When possible, we are discussing additional space for general sessions, meeting rooms, and catered function areas, which allows for increased social distancing. This is not always possible due to currently booked business, so we take each instance on a case by case basis.
Will load-in/load-out times need to be supercharged?
It is too early to tell exactly how move-in and move-out will be affected. The OCCC and several of our industry partners are seeking GBAC Star certification. All of us in the process of learning what the new sanitation standards are and what it will take to implement them. We will support each other to make our work environment as healthy and safe as possible.
Will more groups be sharing the building?
Yes, we have done a tremendous job accommodating move requests from our clients. The OCCC’s exhibit halls and meetings rooms put us in a favorable position to host multiple events simultaneously before the pandemic. Our sales team and operations team have done an amazing job layering events to accommodate client move requests.
What does success look like in 2021 for the Events Team?
Success in 2021 means we are experts in social distancing, wearing masks and doing temperature screenings. Success means we have instilled confidence in the minds of our customers and attendees that their safety and well-being is our number one priority. Success also means executing face-to-face meetings while incorporating recommendations established by the CDC, the meetings industry and those issued by local and state health officials. We are confident that 2021 is going to be a great year as we look forward to hosting the International Builders’ Show and Kitchen and Bath during Design and Construction Week in February of 2021 and the Plastics Industry Association in May 2021 – just to name a few.
What will be the most cutting-edge features of the new spaces in terms of design and technology with the $605 million North-South Building expansion at the OCCC?
The OCCC’s North-South Building expansion will enhance connectivity and the guest experience with open and flexible lobby areas that will accommodate a variety of events, receptions, food and beverage experiences with increased guest comfort and convenience. There will be ample circulation spaces with dedicated areas that can host small impromptu meetings with breathtaking exterior views of Orlando and natural light. The unique meeting rooms are also built to feature natural light with improved technology features. The covered outdoor terraces will accommodate a range of exciting options for networking events with Orlando theme parks and attractions as the backdrop.
The highly flexible ballroom, with ample circulation, will be able to accommodate multiple simultaneous events. The 200,000 square feet of column free multipurpose space will be capable of subdividing into four divisions to host standalone events or flexible components of larger exhibitions and conventions. Strategically located servicing and support features will facilitate simultaneous conventions with dedicated truck access and egress.
Additionally, integrated digital signage and wayfinding strategies will create an improved customer experience as well as an integrated OCCC campus. Marquee LED boards will assist in show branding and guest wayfinding and controllable exterior and interior lighting solutions will increase flexibility and highlight facility branding.
What kind of input did you receive on the project from meeting planners on your Client Advisory Board?
The OCCC performed a Market Feasibility Study and developed a Campus Master Plan program in 2017 based on firsthand feedback and engagement with the OCCC’s Client Advisory Board and stakeholders. At the beginning of design, during the program validation phase, OCCC and the design team hosted over 25 scope validation sessions to confirm continued interest and direction on the project.
Can you provide examples of how the expansion will allow some existing clients to grow their conventions?
The Capital Improvement Plan for two the Campus Master Plan projects includes the Convention Way Grand Concourse and the Multipurpose Venue expansion, which will bring total exhibit space at the OCCC to 2.3 million square feet.
The Multipurpose Venue brings an additional 200,000 sq.ft. of contiguous exhibit space in the South Building. Overall, the South Building will have a total of 675,141 sq.ft. of exhibit space for a grand total of 1.15 million sq.ft. of exhibit space in the North-South Building. The Multipurpose Venue will also incorporate connectivity between the North and South concourses.
The Convention Way Grand Concourse expansion includes an additional 60,000 sq.ft. of meeting space and an 80,000-sq.ft. ballroom along with a new entry to the North-South Building along Convention Way. The column-free Multipurpose Venue will be used for special events such as general sessions, concerts and sporting events. It will act as an extension of an exhibit hall to serve existing client needs for more booths, vendors, banquets spaces. On the west side in the Grand Concourse, the design includes additional meeting rooms for more sessions for client engagement opportunities. The 80,000-sq.ft. ballroom will be used for banquets and special events.
The Orange County Convention Center is the second-largest convention facility in North America and provides approximately $3 billion in economic impact to Central Florida annually. In recent years, the convention center has averaged nearly 200 events, including 115 conventions and tradeshows that attract more than 1.5 million attendees to the region each year. For more info, visit, www.occc.net.