A good business marriage takes cooperation, patience and understanding. Meet the perfect couple: The Orange County Convention Center and the Amateur Athletic Union.
The 50th annual AAU Girls' and Boys' Junior National Volleyball Championship is picture-perfect proof. Recently completed during a 21-day run in Central Florida, the daunting endeavor featured quite a few impressive takeaways:
"When you take the number one sports organization in the United States, if not the world, and you add it to the number one destination in the United States, if not the world, which is Orlando, it's a marriage made in heaven,” said Jo Mirza, AAU President.
What's not to like about the world's largest volleyball tournament, which included teams representing 48 states, two U.S. territories, and six international countries (Canada, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Peru, and Sweden). The event also included ESPN's Wide World of Sports as an ancillary venue and Visit Orlando and the Greater Orlando Sports Commission as partners.
"Our organizations have partnered together for many years, and Visit Orlando and the Orange County Convention Center are the perfect hosts for this event as it continues to grow year after year," Jason Siegel, President & CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission, said in the run-up to the event.
"We’re excited to host the student-athletes and their families in our community, and we look forward to our continued partnership with AAU for years to come.”
The world has taken notice. This preeminent AAU event has been recognized over the years as a five-time winner of Sports Destination Management’s Champions of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism Award, Best Amateur Single-Sport Event by Sports Travel Awards, as well as the Best Amateur Sporting Event by Connect Sports.
The tournament still holds the Guinness World Record for the largest volleyball event in the world, which was first set in 2012, and continues its record-breaking pace on a yearly basis. "We break the Guinness Book of World Records every year," Mirza said.
Central Florida has been a particularly happy place for amateur sports since 1996, when the AAU left Indianapolis and relocated its headquarters to Orlando at the ESPN Wide World of Sports® Complex.
Today, more than 60 AAU national events are staged annually at the complex, but the magnitude of the volleyball event clearly called for more office space.
Enter the convention center.
"It's probably our longest event both in number of event days and total contracted days from move in and move out, so it's a significant event that's robust," said Mark Tester, Executive Director at the Orange County Convention Center.
For obvious reasons, it takes the proverbial village to make it happen. It starts with a parking operation that accommodates fans coming in shifts and waves, starting in the morning. (The estimated turnover is two and a half times a day). They streamed in at various times to watch an event that took up all of the north-south buildings and utilized all 950,000 square feet of exhibit space to accommodate 200 volleyball courts.
Housekeeping staff and the concession team brought their A-Game as well. Sodexo Live! pulled in a wide variety of choices for catering services -- from pizza to Dippin Dots to bottled water. Hotel managers were accommodating and easy to work with. The scope of the event magnifies the importance of the strong relationship with the AAU.
"They're great partners," Tester said. "To begin to pull off this event, we have to understand (their needs) and they have to communicate, and then they do communicate exactly what they're looking for so we can prepare."
Beyond the allure of sports is the Orlando marketing appeal as one of the best tourist destinations in the country. Players come with family and friends, and the economic impact keeps ticking upward. The analytics say that every person brings in 1.75 people with them to buy t-shirts, meals, souvenirs, etc. "A whole ecosystem," as Mirza calls it.
Although other conventions may bring in more high-end business clients who will stay at fancier hotels and eat more expensive dinners, the cumulative effect of the volleyball community is powerful.
"A high-end corporate event is filling Capital Grille and Eddie Vs, and a lot of the restaurants on Sand Lake and restaurant row," Tester said. "And then AAU will be coming, or they'll come and order 30 subs from Subway, and a bunch of pizzas. And Denny's is doing breakfast to capacity and everybody is enjoying it.
"You've got the high end and then you've got the family business dove-tailing right into each other, which is just a win-win for everybody."
No wonder the relationship between the AAU and the convention center spans five decades and counting, dating back to the first tournament, which included only 19 teams.
And AAU's footprints in Central Florida will continue to expand. AAU is currently working on a national training center in Orlando, encompassing 42 sports.
"Obviously volleyball and basketball are quite large, but we have a huge track program, and a huge wrestling program," Mirza said. "We have a huge gymnastics program. We're running basketball championships and we've sold out in Orlando. Next year, hopefully we're going to make it larger, bigger, and open up to more teams. We turned teams away for basketball."
Get in line, buy a ticket, and grab some popcorn. It's going to be a fun ride.
"We're in the business of sports, and Orlando is in the business of bringing people in and we want to bring people in, “Mirza said. "I think it's perfect marriage, put it that way. If I ran it in another city, it would be very successful, but I think it wouldn't have the diamond ring, the blingy diamond ring appeal that it has right now."
Put a ring on the finger. It’s official.