H&H interview 2018 WEG host and tycoon Mark Bellissimo
As the American business tycoon prepares to host the 2018 World Equestrian Games, Madeleine Silver heads to North Carolina to talk million-dollar projects and why the equestrian world needs a shake-up
“WHAT you’re looking at here is the ballroom,” says businessman Mark Bellissimo, pointing to a vast expanse of flattened mud — and a digger in action.
As far as the World Equestrian Games (WEG) go, ballrooms, we imagine, are fairly low priority. But then so are infinity pools, fivestar hotels and spas, all of which were sketched out by Mark on the back of a piece of paper — “My daughter has kept them and calls them the Markhives!” — and are now swiftly swinging into production.
“We want this to be, literally, an almost Disney-like experience,” he says, surveying the 1,600 acres at Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina that he bought in January 2014 with his wife Katherine and five other families.
Dressed in a crisp open-collar shirt, preppy loafers and a white cap brandishing the Tryon logo, he is everything you’d expect from a likeable cartoon character of an American entrepreneur. Thanks to success during the dotcom era, as well as in the health and manufacturing industries, he has hit the big time, having had a modest upbringing — something he is keen to emphasise.
Conversations are littered with talk of his “vision”, “community” and “you’re kidding?” — the latter when he finds out we haven’t yet been shown the latest cluster of cabins to help accommodate the expected 500,000 spectators at the games.
“WHEN we went to build this originally, our vision was to create an equestrian lifestyle destination,” he says — a process that began by moving three million square foot of earth, where there was once just a bankrupt golf course and rolling hills.
What did the locals make of what is, if horses are not your priority, something of a blot on the landscape at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains?
“This has become the largest employer in this region, which was decimated by the transition of the textile industry out of this community. We employ over 500 people during the season, which runs from April until October,” he says.
“As many people have shared with me, they were just looking for some hope and this was almost a bit of a gift to the community.”
Reminiscent of a city in the Middle East that rises out of nowhere, the equestrian centre sprung to life in just 18 months. By the summer of 2015 there were 1,200 stables, a cross-country course, Derby course, 12 arenas and eight restaurants.
Tryon only won the bid last November to host WEG, after it was mutually agreed to pull the games from Bromont, Canada, due to money troubles. And so, as Mark says, “the timeline is not what I’d particularly want, but we’ve had great success as a team already”. Before next September there’s a sizeable to-do list; hotels need to be built, there are plans for an underpass and overpass to be built off the highway to ease congestion, a 20,000seat stadium, 360 accommodation units for grooms, 400 more stables…
But even before the looming WEG deadline, Mark was working to a timeline most people’s blood pressure would struggle to cope with.
“People didn’t believe that this would work in this area,” he says. “One of my partners had tried to do something up here, but it didn’t grab the attention or the imagination. But when this thing popped up overnight, enough people were curious just to come and have a look.”
And then there is his secret weapon for accelerating the building work. Last year Mark bought a nearby factory — “I just went in and made a great offer” — facilitated it with 20 robots and set them to work building the remaining facilities needed for WEG, which can then just be transported to the site ready-made.
TRYON is just a slither of Mark’s monopoly on the US equestrian industry; together with his partners he has invested over $500million (£380m).
To date, his portfolio includes Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida (home of the Winter Equestrian Festival), The Colorado Horse Park (a 200acre competition venue near Denver), The Chronicle of the Horse magazine, Central Park Horse Show in New York and most recently the International Polo Club of Palm Beach, which he bought for a reported $74m (£56m) last year.
This immersion into the horse world is especially surprising when you consider that one of his first times on a horse wasn’t until a family holiday to the Dominican Republic with his wife — who showjumps and is heavily involved in the business — and their four children.
“Actually, it’s a funny story, given that I survived,” he says, recounting how his horse “sort of sensed the barn was around” and took off at a gallop, through housing developments and crossing roads, with the gaucho desperately chasing him.
He now sticks to trail riding on his quarter horse Easy, a Christmas present from his wife. Easy has become an oversized pet for Mark — he’s trained to come to his whistle.
But his lack of experience in the saddle hasn’t stopped him seeing the bigger picture.
“My two girls and wife rode, and my two boys didn’t and it really split the family going to competition venues,” he says. “So we wanted to create an environment where the whole family could enjoy it, regardless of whether they’re competing.”
It’s free entry for spectators at Tryon
(apart from for WEG), and families flock in on the Saturday night we visit, the car park overflowing with pick-up trucks. There’s face painting, a carousel, women on stilts and a bucking bronco. The crowd whoop and cheer as the grand prix gets under way; this is a far cry from the stuffy horse world that locals may have at first feared.
“If you walk around the carousel on a Saturday night, which is something I do, you see the families, and they’re becoming converts,” says Mark. “I think in this country, more so than in Europe, the sport isn’t as easily accessible.
“WEG has the potential to present a breakthrough. We want to connect to those 200 million people on Facebook who have ‘horses’ as an interest.”
You can’t helping thinking that this is the sort of man who fires off emails in the middle of the night — there aren’t enough hours in the day to keep all of his plates spinning — or who lies on a sunbed on holiday, cocktail in one hand, phone in the other. But to put on the world’s biggest equestrian spectacle, with less than two years’ notice, this sort of work ethic must be at the top of the job spec.
What is for sure, is that in this rural corner of the States, the American Dream is very much alive.
Tryon International Equestrian Center won the bid to host WEG a year ago. ‘We want this to be an almost Disney-like experience’
Mark and his partners have invested in excess of £380million in the equestrian market