When Tampa’s Saddlebrook Resort was asked to host an international tennis event that would draw a crowd of thousands, involve the FBI and Homeland Security, and require construction of 3,000-seat temporary stadium, its answer was naturally “yes.” Though hosting the United States Tennis Association event was a unique opportunity, making preparations for such a large-scale event was, in many ways, business as usual for the award-winning resort. An iconic part of the tennis landscape, the 480-acre resort is already an expert in hosting large meetings and events for corporate clients.
“For us, it’s not that big of a deal. This is a big place. We have lots of places to hide cars,” Kevin O’Connor, Saddlebrook President of International Sports, told the Tampa Bay Times. “Overall this has been a matter of our kind of expertise for staging big events, combined with the USTA.”
We recently sat down with Robert Riehle, Saddlebrook’s Director of Media, to talk about the experience of hosting the 2017 Federation Cup Semifinal event, and what made Saddlebrook a perfect fit for the event.
Q: Constructing a 3,000-seat temporary stadium for the event was an amazing accomplishment. What can you tell us about that process and how Saddlebrook’s event experience played a role?
A: Building the stadium was a large project that required a lot of planning. The first step was choosing a site that would complement all of the other components of the tournament. Luckily, we have 45 courts here on property, with a large portion of them grouped together on what’s essentially a giant Har-Tru surface. However, given the size of the stadium, to maximize space we needed to build an entirely new court in between courts, rather than around an existing court. This required tearing out four concrete surfaces with water fountains, awnings, and all of the fencing around and in between those courts.
While we already had a Har-Tru surface, the International Tennis Federation has very strict specifications on tournament courts. Meeting those requirements meant tearing up the court, resurfacing it, and building an entirely new court from scratch — for which they provided all of the top-of-the-line materials. Between those materials, the stadium equipment, and everything in between we had over 20 tons of equipment delivered to the property, all of which begun arriving 6 weeks in advance of the tournament and needed to be put in place in order to build the stadium in a 2-week time frame before opening day.
As you can imagine, this was enormous effort, but one in which our experience was really able to shine. As a meeting resort, we are constantly hosting large corporate conferences, many of which have big productions like music performances or showrooms. Having that professional experience in logistics and organization was something that really stood out, and was echoed by the USTA and ITF once the event had ended.
Q: What else did you do to prepare the property for the event and create an exceptional experience?
A: Besides the main project of building the stadium there are many other components to hosting an event like this. There are many obvious things like increased F&B preparations, hiring additional vendors, or detailing landscaping and signage around the resort. But the most important things go on behind the scenes. For example, we worked closely with the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and USTA on the sports production and marketing aspects. Past that, we worked with the county as there are many safety regulations and inspections to adhere to. Furthermore, this being an international event, we even had FBI and Homeland Security on property overseeing the project for everyone’s safety. Lastly, given that this was a globally televised event with reporters and journalists from all over the world, we needed to create a Media Center with increased internet bandwidth and security for all of them to work out of and broadcast from.
Q: Why was Saddlebrook the right choice for this opportunity?
A: Saddlebrook has a long history of creating and training top professionals for the last 30 years, and continues to this day with players like John Isner and Alex Zverev. That reputation is what lead to the USTA reaching out to us, which is an accolade in itself since it’s usually the other way around. Other than our experience in tennis, Saddlebrook is a unique venue in that we have centralized parking, meaning you can walk everywhere and everything you could possibly need is on site — essentially making it a little tennis town. There are a number of media functions and dinners that happen in the days leading up to the event. Being able to do all of those things in one secure place simplifies the entire event.
Q: What does hosting the Fed Cup tell the world about your expertise and capabilities to successfully host large events?
A: Now that they’ve seen what we can do, we hope this proves Saddlebrook is an ideal place to host tournaments. With this being such a successful event, our wish is to get more and even bigger tournaments in the future. Furthermore, we hope businesses see this endeavor and consider us for future conferences. If your meeting isn’t big enough for a convention center, but is too big for a hotel, we may be your perfect location.
Q: How does the Fed Cup compare to other large events you’ve hosted?
A: This was certainly our biggest event in recent years, although it’s tough to say if it was the “biggest” since different events demand different projects. For example, we hosted a portion of the Republican National Convention when it came to Tampa back in 2012. That took months of preparation and extreme scrutiny on every aspect of the resort, and particularly security, given its magnitude. We also hosted a meeting for Bombardier Recreational Products which required a giant stage with screens, pyrotechnics, and two ramps for stunt men to do backflips on snowmobiles — quite a sight to see in sunny Florida!
Q: Overall, how was the experience as Fed Cup host?
A: Hosting the Fed Cup was a phenomenal experience in every way. The highlight would have to be Team USA taking home the victory, making it to the finals for the first time in 7 years. We would have been proud of that achievement regardless of where it took place, but for us to be some small part of it was truly a great honor.