An Attraction of a Different Color - July 2017

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The modern equestrian center has become a destination for riders and non-riders alike

by Stephanie Janard

For the newly initiated, a competitive equestrian event, like show jumping, is surprisingly riveting to watch. Both rider and horse exhibit entertaining—and highly practiced—showmanship. The riders cut stylish figures in their fitted riding clothes, and the horses look like powerfully muscled statues come to life as they leap over one obstacle after another. Still, the shows aren’t a pastime that has historically brought out the masses; the equestrian lifestyle has long been considered reserved for the wealthy. 

That dynamic is steadily changing, however, with the entrance of equestrian centers like the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina and SenTower Park in Belgium. An ocean apart, both are effectively democratizing the world of equestrian sports by adding entertainment, shopping, dining, and promoting their facilities to the public at large. 

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TIEC retail and attractions are front and center. (CREDIT: Erik Olsen)

A New Attraction Rides into North Carolina

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina is a pastoral oasis of rolling pastures intermittently divided by rustic two-rail fencing and silvery darting trout streams. In spite of this abundance of natural beauty, and a rich history as the site of several battles fought during the American Revolution, the region has been economically dormant since the Great Recession, only recently waking up with the arrival of a new attraction perfectly suited to the area’s geography—the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC).

“This is horse country. It’s what the community has been known for over 150 years, so the whole TIEC concept definitely belongs here,” notes Sharon Decker, COO of TIEC and a former secretary of commerce for the state of North Carolina. 

Since breaking ground just a few years ago, TIEC has become one of the world’s premier equestrian parks, with 1,200 stalls, 12 competition arenas, multiple restaurants and shops, VIP areas, lodging, a cross-country course, and more. It has also grown into one of the region’s most well-known attractions, in no small part by executing a formula that emphasizes family-friendly entertainment at the lowest possible price. Free admission includes almost every equestrian event, free parking, free rides on a colorful carousel, and, of course, free pony rides for the kids. It even includes the chance to watch national acts like Lee Greenwood perform.

As a result, the public is responding. On any given night, especially on the weekends, the immaculately clean and brightly lit venue is bustling with families and others drawn to such an entertaining attraction in the heart of rural North Carolina. TIEC makes sure there are plenty of attentive staff on hand to welcome guests. Parking attendants guide the visitors to available spots, ushering those who have parked on the outer perimeter into golf carts, where they will get a (free) lift to their destination. 

With so much to do that is free and open to the public, how does TIEC monetize the attraction? “Sponsorships, stabling rentals, lodging, and hospitality,” Decker says. “We have eight restaurants with more to come, many concessions, and 200 rooms on property, also with more to come.”

According to Decker, eventual hotel space will accommodate corporate retreats, weddings, family reunions, and TIEC’s expanding calendar of craft and holiday festivals. “Our vision is a year-round resort built around equestrian sports. We are capitalizing on the equestrian events that we have in place, but there is also room to grow our non-equestrian events in both the open arena and the covered arena,” Decker notes.

1707_equestrian_jumperBelgium Facility Breathes New Life into Europe’s Equestrian Scene

An expansive equestrian center in Belgium’s own horse country is also wooing a broader public by making dining and a variety of entertainment part of the experience. In addition to world-class facilities for professional and recreational riders, SenTower Park, located in the province of Limburg, boasts a hotel, walking and riding trails, cycling paths, and more. 

Laurens Meynaerts, managing director of SenTower Park, notes the same formula winning crowds across the pond is compelling a broad public to visit SenTower Park. “The sport already has a big number of participants, but adding extras such as shopping, a pub, and different events interests the ‘non-horse lover’ in making a day trip with the family. Once here, they tend to check out one of the competition shows,” says Meynaerts.

They may even register their children for riding school at SenTower Park. From there, their children might end up participating in one of the many competitive events available. 

“We actually have a good number of local riders competing,” Meynaerts says. “SenTower organizes competitive events for many different levels, regionally as well as internationally. This gives everyone the chance to compete in our facilities.”  

Meynaerts goes on to explain why this strategy is an important one for SenTower Park: “We believe equestrian sports should stay open and attractive for everyone. The wealthy or the less wealthy all have a chance to compete at the level they want.” It is not a cheap sport to participate in, however. “It’s generally known the costs increase as you move higher up the sport,” Meynaerts acknowledges. 

Nevertheless, the sport is fairly easy to enter for area youth, a market SenTower actively courts with its youth riding classes. “The youth are the future of the sport, no doubt. We always keep this in mind when we organize events for them. And for sure, the youngest competitors bring more people, mostly family,” says Meynaerts. 

No matter their competitive level, all riders have access to indoor and outdoor arenas boasting geotextile and all-weather footing. Meynaerts says such premium arenas are practically mandatory now, as amateurs and professional riders have come to expect nothing less. 

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Equestrian centers use their facilities for non-equine events, such as concerts. (CREDIT: Meg Banks)

The Economic Potential of Equestrian Centers

Equestrian centers have proved to be a boon to the sport, and have added to the attractions industry’s reputation as a valuable part of local economies. Since breaking ground, TIEC has been welcomed by community and state leaders grateful for an injection of economic prosperity in rural North Carolina. The local college, Isothermal Community College, is offering a hospitality certification course and other equestrian industry training. The president of the school—who is also the former lieutenant governor of North Carolina—along with various state legislators, has been a guest at TIEC on different occasions. 

Put plainly, the place is a big deal—not just for western North Carolina, but the whole state. In Polk and nearby Rutherford counties, TIEC has been one of the biggest initiatives in recent history. According to TIEC, more than $125 million has been invested in building out the attraction so far, creating hundreds of construction jobs over the past two years. The equestrian resort also employs hundreds of full-time and seasonal staff, which represents a welcome job engine in the area. 

The financial case for building out equestrian centers into full-fledged event venues is twofold. Centers not only attract a broader public on a year-round basis, but they also accommodate the large crowds that show up for major equestrian events. Some of these can reportedly generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity for the surrounding areas, including the most prestigious event of them all, the FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG). 

Held at different sites every four years, the WEG are billed as the premier competitive events in the equestrian world. TIEC in Mill Spring, North Carolina, scored quite a coup in winning the bid to host the games. Plans are underway to erect a luxury resort at TIEC in part to accommodate the expected influx of hundreds of thousands of attendees for these games in 2018. In a press announcement, TIEC said the news was also a huge economic win for western North Carolina, noting that a previous WEG gathering had generated “a local economic impact of $400 million and an attendance of more than 500,000 spectators during the 14-day event.”

Meynaerts concurs that Belgium’s SenTower Park also plays a local economic stimulus role. “With the amount of shows and competitors that yearly travel to our small town, Opglabbeek, the economic impact is significant,” he says. Describing the ripple effect of these events, Meynaerts says, “All the riders who come over for a day, weekend, or even longer, all need a place to sleep, eat, shop, and hang out.”

Meanwhile, the public is increasingly primed to view equestrian centers as major destinations.

Meynaerts believes that bodes well for the future: “I am convinced that more and more facilities like SenTower Park will be built. And that’s a good thing for the equestrian sport,” he says. And what’s good for the sport is good for the hospitality industry that comes with it.