A case study of a successful face-to-face international event
What do you do if you plan a show a year in advance, and then a pandemic hits? Maybe you postpone the show to a later date. Maybe you change the venue. But what do you do, when new state regulations—six weeks prior to the show —drastically limit attendance numbers? Here’s what one show did.
Olympia Fitness Weekend: December 17-20, 2020
Joe Weider’s Olympia Fitness and Performance Weekend has been the fitness industry’s signature event for more than 50 years. The first show was September 18, 1965; and, today, it is considered to be the World Series of body building. Athletes from all over the world travel to compete for the millions of dollars in prize money, and to win the argument, “who’s the best.” The show has been held in ten different countries, as well as in seven different cities within the U.S. It has been an annual September Las Vegas event for 21 consecutive years.
Arnold Schwarzenegger won the event six consecutive times in the 1970s, and Phil Heath won seven consecutive times, starting in 2011. Shaquille O’Neal has called the male and female competitors “the greatest athletes in the world.”
In addition to multiple body-building competitions, the event is a fan festival and a tradeshow exposition. Although the association has a social media presence of nearly 17 million followers, this is not the type of event that can be handled virtually.
In 2019, the show was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. In 2020, it was again scheduled to be held at the LVCC on September 12-15.
The pandemic caused changes. Changes in the dates. Changes in the venue. And then, a month and a half before show opening, it looked the show might not happen—or if it did happen, it would be without any fans.
On May 7, 2020, the upcoming September show was postponed. Dates and locations were changed. Over time, the show was switched from the LVCC to the Sands, and finally rescheduled to December 16-20, 2020, at Planet Hollywood. Plans had changed, but the city was still Las Vegas.
On October 26, 2020, Governor Sisolak of Nevada, held a press conference stating that capacity at live events would be increased to 50 percent, effective January 1, 2021. Unfortunately, about a week later that announcement was rescinded. Worse, it was announced events could have no more than 250 attendees—no matter how large the meeting space—and there was talk of potential quarantine for people coming to Vegas.
Show management believed that limiting the audience to 250 spectators was totally unacceptable. The fans were part of the experience, and wanted to be there; the fans energized the competitors; the competitors wanted family members present; and companies wanted their brands to be visible on the show floor.
The solution required: 1) finding a venue large enough to hold the competition and the tradeshow; 2) finding a venue that could do it safely; and 3) finding a contractor and a partner that could pivot quickly to a new location and make the show work.
On November 18, 2020 (exactly one month prior to show opening), Dan Solomon, the president of Mr. Olympia, posted a video on Instagram, announcing that Mr. Olympia weekend would move from Las Vegas to Orlando. A distance of 2,306 miles—of course the distance was the least of the problems. Equipment and exhibits had been shipped. Flight and hotels had been booked. Tickets and VIP packages had been purchased. And the show would have to be produced in a whole new location.
Solomon explained, “These have been incredibly challenging circumstances, but we’ve remained focused on making sure the best athletes in the world have the opportunity to compete in front of their fans. The news out of Las Vegas in recent days has become highly concerning. We will not risk the possibility of being forced to cancel the Olympia, so we are grateful to the city of Orlando for welcoming us, while providing a safe and expansive home for all phases of the event.”
Olympia owner, Jake Wood, added, “These are challenging times, but we owe it to the entire industry to do whatever it takes to create a safe and exciting weekend. As part of our commitment to these elite athletes, we will also be giving away record prize money.”
The dates remained the same. The location changed to Orlando; the venue became the Orange County Convention Center. And the General Services Contractor remained Willwork Global Event Services, the same company that produced the event in Las Vegas the year previously.
A resounding success! The show had ten competitive categories. Competitors numbered 93 men and 103 women with approximately 6,000 fans attending. The largest single prize money, $400,000, was awarded to Mr. Olympia, Mamdou “Big Ramy” Elssbiay. The show had an economic impact of $7.7 million for Orlando.
Willwork was involved in all facets of the Orlando show: from pre-planning, to warehousing and trucking, material handling, rentals, deco, graphics, audio-visual, registration, safety, exhibit installation and dismantle.
Mr. Olympia had the biggest stage in the history of the event.
Shawn Ray, the editor-in-chief of Digital Muscle, commented: “The event couldn’t have turned out any better. It was very smoothly run, very smoothly organized. It was great to be able to pull the show off as both a live and a pay-per-view event and that was due in large part to Willwork doing their part and making this a safe and successful show.” Ray has been involved in the Mr. Olympia competition for 33 years, and a Top 5 Mr. Olympia finalist 12 consecutive times. For the 2020 show, he was in charge of talent and personnel, and hosted the event live on pay-per-view.
Ken Flynn, an industry veteran with 20 years of experience, has produced Mr. Olympia for the past 16 years. He states, “2020 was by far the most challenging, yet most rewarding production … moving from Vegas across the country to Orlando, three weeks prior to show time, with a major holiday in the middle, was ‘quite the challenge.’ A full team effort within Willwork’s Vegas-Boston-Orlando team along with all the full Olympia team, too many to mention, along with the team at the OCCC. It was only successful because of the can-do attitude of all. The event concluded—if not the top—as one of the top ‘finals’ events in my 16 years producing the show. Thanks to all involved.”
Kudos to the state of Florida, and to the Orange County Convention Center for leading the way to a return of live events —a return of clean, safe, and healthy live events! The OCCC was one of the first (July 9, 2020), and is one of the largest convention centers to earn the Global Biorisk Advisory Council STAR accreditation: GBAC STAR is recognized as the gold standard for safe venues.
Willwork, the General Services Contractor, was equally concerned with safety of the competitors, attendees and employees. Some of the protocols Willwork implemented onsite, included: temperature checks, safety graphics, one-way aisles, social distancing, masks and sanitation stations. Willwork is serious about safety. The company works to establish safety protocols, and then to communicate and execute those protocols. Consistency is critical in order to make attendees, exhibitors and others, comfortable and have trust that they are present at a safe event.
A big shout-out to Steve Martin, Mike Vega and Shannon Cushing of Willwork, and to Carlos Mora and Hannah Starner of the OCCC for their expertise and hard work in making this show happen. And of course, to the association, staff and competitors of Olympia Fitness Weekend.
Mr. Olympia was determined to move forward with a strong, safe and successful event. The transition to Orlando was made possible with the help of the Orange County Convention Center and Willwork Global Event Services. The team at Willwork was able to quickly, efficiently and effectively transition from planning the event as a Las Vegas one, to an Orlando event The show was smooth, professional and hybrid.
Even in this time of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it is possible to create a safe and healthy tradeshow.
Bob McGlincy is director, business management at Willwork Global Event Services. He can be contacted at Bob.McGlincy@willwork.com. Willwork creates engaging, energized, and exceptional event experiences.