September 18, 2013--With its fancy hotels and amazing nightlife, Las Vegas was a sensational venue for five FEI World Cup finals between 2000 and 2009. Everyone lucky enough to have attended one (or more) of those finals can attest to that.
I was at all of them, and having done a bunch of Cup finals elsewhere on the planet, I can say that no one did it better than Vegas, with its savvy blending of sports and entertainment. Showgirls, Elvis impersonators, fireworks and acrobats balanced the competitive thrills of the best horses and riders show jumping and dressage had to offer. You screamed, you cheered, you caught your breath in amazement and you applauded.
But the 2015 renewal, announced today by the FEI, should be even glitzier for the Longines Show Jumping and Reem Acra Dressage indoor championships.
Ticketholders can expect not just a show, but an experience, starting with a host of offerings on the plaza of the Thomas & Mack Center. Some hotels are expected to join in the celebration with VIP parties and other features yet to be decided; perhaps including an equestrian art show and sale, or a gift show, or maybe even a separate horse show leading up to the finals.
Although word circulated that Vegas was a definite for 2015, it was hard to count on that until it became official. When bids first went out, Vegas also was said to have a lock on the show -- only to have it go to Guadalajara, Mexico. Whoa! That was a shocker, and the Vegas folks certainly were shaken.
But the money involved was a problem for Mexico, and in December, bidding for the finals was reopened. At that point, few doubted Vegas would get it. But we didn't hear anything for awhile, and doubts began to creep in again.
"The process was slow," agreed Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, which bid for the show. Although he had hoped for an announcement during last April's finals, that didn't happen. Yet he was probably less nervous about it than I was.
"We were confident all along. It was just a matter of working at the nuances between the FEI and us," said Pat, whose organization is involved with a variety of successful events in the city, including December's National Finals Rodeo that is always a sellout.
The Cup finals, he noted, aren't "as easy as the NFR, where you do it every year and you can build on it." But he expects expanded programming at the arena, saying, "we will do a lot more than we've done in the past."
Debbie McDonald, one of only two Americans who have won the dressage World Cup finals, has special connections with Thomas & Mack. It's named after her sponsor, Parry Thomas, the owner of Brentina, Debbie's mount that was the country's top dressage horse for several years. In 2000, when the show jumping World Cup made its Vegas debut, Debbie and Brentina performed an exhibition ride at Thomas & Mack. She competed in the Cup there and nine years later, the mare was retired at the arena in an emotional ceremony.
Asked for her reaction to news that the Cup is heading back to Vegas, Debbie said, "I think it's fantastic. I know Parry will be thrilled."
Having it in this country means "fans in the U.S. get to see some of these riders they've only heard about, like Edward Gal (the former rider of Totilas). The atmosphere is electric, she noted, adding, "It reminded me of the old Madison Square Garden days," referring to the former home of the National Horse Show.
"For us here in the U.S., I just can't think of a better venue for a World Cup than Las Vegas."
Detailing what will be different in 2015, Pat noted that the trade show will be more of a "plaza party" extending into the building, where the concourse is slated to be enlarged as part of $40 million-$50 million in renovations.
"We have so much demand from different exhibitors and sponsors that want to exhibit but we've never been able to take advantage of that with the old building. The upgrade will give us the ability. We're going to expand the on-site experience," he said.
Pat expects Thomas & Mack to be "a much broader experience for the equestrian fan" and hopes there will be "an all-day experience as part of both events," so people have something to do between classes.
The Cup's best attendance in the past was 85,000 for the week, and Pat is hoping for big numbers in 2015.
"There's a lot of pent-up demand. People are anxious for the World Cup to return," he pointed out.
Tickets won't go on sale until the beginning of next year, but Las Vegas Events will reach out to "people who have been loyal to us the last five times" with a pre-marketing initiative.
Since the last time the World Cup was held in Las Vegas, the organization has "an enhanced ability" to reach fans through marketing partners and social media.
"We've got more than a year and a half to really 24/7, 365 days to be communicating what's going on in the equestrian world. Certainly there is an environment here to do better, and the ability for us to communicate directly with our fans has so much more improved in the last two or three years," he commented.
"The World Cup is a means to connect all of them."
In Longines, Las Vegas Events is working with a new sponsor of the show jumping.
"Longines has really stepped up and has aggressively branded this. Our goal with them is how we make that experience meaningful for them here in Vegas, and how do we extend their brand into what we're doing," Pat said.
Vegas originally was going to stage the 2011 finals, but with the uncertainty of the economy, LVE decided against going forward.
"It seemed to me people who got hit the hardest during that time were people who were coming to this event. That's why we backed off," Pat explained.
He noted the "event economy" has picked up, and so has the "retail messaging" of Las Vegas.
"I'm not so sure we wouldn't get into another two-year pattern (with the Cup). We're very interested. We have the ability to knock it out of the park with this one. On a regular basis, I think we can draw 70,000-80,000 people.
"Vegas likes to stretch it a little bit when it comes to production. Our goal would be to create something a little different and unique for the World Cup fan, very entertaining, but I think we'll wrap all of the other things into it too, and that will be compelling."
I asked if there ever had been a moment when the Vegas folks wondered why they were doing this, after the setbacks in 2011 and with Guadalajara.
"I'm a very patient person," Pat responded.
"Things happen for a reason. It didn't work out in '11, we were frustrated when we lost the (2015) bid, but in the end, Vegas is such a compelling destination that it speaks for itself. When you look at the experience it had here in the past, compared to whatever they (the FEI) were going through with whoever the other bidders were, it was just a matter of being patient and waiting for it to fall in place, and it did."
What's important for LVE is the big picture.
"Our mission is, we want to secure events," said Pat.
"The best way to secure events is to insure their success. We work hard on not just getting an event like getting the World Cup to come to Vegas, but are intimately involved in its success. That's how we get the next event."