Equestrian sports festival a $110 million boon for county tourism

When the Winter Equestrian Festival opens this month, the annual event will bring more than horses and riders to Wellington.

More than 200,000 spectators are expected to attend the 12-week-long festival, generating about 119,000 nightly bookings at local hotels and short-term vacation rentals and pumping roughly $110 million into the county’s economy.

In terms of total economic impact, the festival is the top sporting event in the county. Tourism officials say the economic boost it brings to the region is on par with the Super Bowl.

“Equestrian sports is one of the largest economic and tourism drivers for any sporting event and for any event that takes place in the county,” said George Linley, executive director of the Palm Beach County Sports Commission. “The Winter Equestrian Festival, in terms of economic impact, is comparable to our Super Bowl.”

An economic impact study of the 2010 Super Bowl, which was held in Miami Dade County, found that the event pumped roughly $300 million into South Florida’s economy. About $20 million of that was spent in Palm Beach County, Linley said.

“The Winter Equestrian Festival is one-third of the Superbowl,” Linley said.

But unlike the Super Bowl, the festival is held here annually — drawing out-of-town spectators and boosting the local economy year after year.

“It flies under the radar a lot,” Linley said. “There are probably people in Wellington who don’t realize the enormous event they have going on in their own backyard.”

The festival’s weekly show jumping events on Saturday nights draw as many as 8,000 spectators, including both locals and out-of-town visitors. The “Saturday Night Lights” events are free and open to the public.

Combine the festival’s reach with that of the village’s two other equestrian sports — polo and dressage — and the economic impact exceeds $200 million, said developer Mark Bellissimo, the CEO of Wellington Equestrian Partners, which owns the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, Equestrian Village, and the International Polo Club.

“We have been seeing 10 to 15 percent growth because the opportunity here and the attraction of Palm Beach is so significant,” Bellissimo told members of the county’s Tourist Development Council at a meeting this month. “The people that are coming are off the charts.”

Many of the tourists who come to Wellington for the equestrian festival and other horse events stay for weeks, if not months. The long-term stays have helped boost the county’s tourist tax collections — money that is ultimately used to help promote the county vacation destination for both domestic and international travelers, Linley said.

The tax, also known as a “bed tax,” of 6 cents per dollar is levied on all hotel stays and vacation rentals of six months or less.

Adding to the economic boost — tourists and show participates who bring their horses with them.

Year round there are roughly 7,500 horses in Palm Beach County. But during the equestrian season, that number swells to more than 15,000, a study conducted on behalf of the sports commission found.

For tourists, the greatest cost of participating in the festival are horse-related expenses. The average group of visitors spends $28,858 during their stay on horse-related items, including stabling, feeding and training, the study found.

That has caught the eye of two South Florida entrepreneurs, who recently launched a new mobile app designed to help horse owners find stalls and stable space at equestrian competitions in the United States, including the Winter Equestrian Festival. The company likens the service to “AirBNB for horses.”

Wellington’s core horse events typically run from January to early April, but Bellissimo said he hopes to grow the season so that it will run for half of the year.

My vision has always been to make it a six-month market, getting it to October through the May/June time frame,” Bellissimo told the tourism group.

To do that, there is a need for more hotel room in the county’s western reaches, Bellissimo said.

Wellington Equestrian Partners’ sporting venues have been passed over by groups simply because there aren’t enough nearby hotel rooms. There are only a handful of hotels in the Wellington area that have more than 100 rooms.

Bellissimo points to the county’s convention center, which has seen a surge in business since the 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach opened its doors next door. Before the hotel opened earlier this year, the convention center had struggled to attract larger groups.

Event planners, especially those organizing large national conferences, look for meeting space that also offers convenient lodging for their guests. That’s because it can be difficult and costly to transport hundreds of meeting-goers from off-site hotels, local tourism officials have said.

The same logic applies to equestrian facilities, Bellissimo said.

“The reality is we will never reach our potential because the hotel situation prevents it,” Bellissimo told tourism leaders. “There are hundreds and hundreds of people who will not come.”

Meanwhile, Linley hopes to use Bellissimo ’s equestrian properties, particularly the International Polo Club, to help attract other sporting events that aren’t related to horses.

The polo fields have been used to host youth and amateur soccer, field hockey and lacrosse events, and Linley hopes to bring more of those events here.

The push would draw even more tourists to the county during the summer months, when the county’s tourism industry is at its slowest point.

“It is such a versatile venue,” Linley said. “Right now, it does have the potential in addition to equestrian to be a sports hub. A sports village.”

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