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Off-Piste Planning: How to organize a world-class sporting event in a pandemic

Situated at the top of the Valle del Boite, the Northern Italian resort of Cortina is blessed with 360-degree views of the Dolomites. In February 2021, the alpine town played host to the FIS Alpine Ski Championships, one of the first competitive winter sports events to take place this year.

CWT Meetings & Events was appointed technical partner for the live sporting event and ensuring it passed off safely during a global pandemic. Fast-forward to February 2021 and the alpine town became host to the FIS Alpine Ski Championships, one of the first competitive winter sports events to take place this year.

Working alongside the event’s organizing committee, the Cortina 2021 Foundation, CWT M&E managed and coordinated on-site accommodation for over 2,400 event attendees, comprising competing athletes and their teams, media professionals, and sponsor representatives, who traveled from over 70 countries.

A few tips then to ensure that no matter what roadblocks you may encounter behind the scenes, your attendees can live la dolce vita for the duration of the event.

  1.  Build a team with specialized skills
    A core group of ten CWT Meetings & Events staff with experience working on events including the World Figure Skating Championships and Giro d’Italia were brought on board to handle every stage of the event journey from preliminary stakeholder analysis through to carrying out a needs analysis with teams, sponsors and the media and developing technology to automate processes and support decision-making.

    It’s critical to partner with a team who is experienced in managing sporting events. They should have first-hand knowledge of the needs of sporting federations, be able to anticipate dietary requirements for athletes, and be able to cost out last-minute changes to itineraries.

    Learning to deliver a major event during a pandemic – a world-first no matter the industry or type of event – is no mean feat. When there’s no history and best practice to influence decision-making, rules change by the minute, and decisions get postponed, time compresses. What normally takes a month, you might have to pull off in a week. Putting together or hiring a strong team is the foundation for success in these extraordinary times.

  2. Create strong local relationships
    An approach based solely on revenue can leave event planners stranded when they need support. These are unprecedented times, and we’re all doing our best with the information we have. Teamwork and empathy are essential.

    The night before the championships took place, one of our partner hotels flooded. Thanks to strong local relationships and helpful hoteliers, attendees were re-accommodated.

  3.  Be agile from the start
    Any event planner knows that flexibility is key but a sporting event in a pandemic requires extreme adaptability, to know when to sit tight, when to renegotiate and when to think outside the box.

    Not only can Covid-19 regulations change by the day, but you don’t how many athletes will need to stay or leave based on their team’s results. Additionally, teams are contractually allowed to pull out of an event two to three weeks prior. CWT Meetings & Events negotiated a deal with the local hotel association three years before the championships and had planned several fringe events which had to be canceled.

    In the end, the agency pulled off a potentially high-risk sporting event in a small town with rigorous testing and Covid protocols. Engage your stakeholders in a Plan B for every scenario, and employ flexible tech at the start of the process and you won’t fail on the day.

  4. Cultivate resilience
    Resilience is critical. Work can last for many weeks and event planners on sporting events are required to deliver fast and at scale.  Changes and unexpected situations are the norm, and sometimes you’ll have to start from scratch which can be demoralizing without a resilient and optimistic attitude. You’ll need to stay calm under fire, troubleshoot, and make trade-offs regularly. By cultivating resilience and looking after your own health and wellbeing, you can weather the storm and make great things happen. 

  5. Stay sustainable
    Not only do eco-friendly events inspire change, they can also cut running costs, boost your reputation, and open up sponsorship opportunities. Numerous studies point to an increase in climate concern, post-pandemic. 

In 2020, we were rated with the newly introduced Platinum medal by EcoVadis, an independent and internationally recognized rating agency that assesses corporate social responsibility and sustainable procurement. This rating placed CWT M&E among the top 1% of all companies evaluated worldwide, across all industries. The certification gave us the opportunity to work directly with Fondazione Cortina to certify the whole event. The fact that we pulled this off sustainably was truly the best feeling and creates a legacy for future sporting events.

A version of this piece was originally published in Conference and Meetings World.