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By James Zoltak
Taking the helm of North America’s second-largest convention center would have been a tall enough order. Throw in a global pandemic and the challenge became something Orange County (Fla.) Convention Center Executive Director Mark Tester, who assumed that role in February, didn’t bargain for.
“It certainly wasn’t what I had planned when I took the job. I didn’t anticipate this happening 30 days after I started, but the one thing that was apparent from the very beginning is that we’ve received tremendous support from our elected officials,” he said. Plus, he added, “I get to be the quarterback of a very good team.”
Tester didn’t flinch, a testament to his can-do attitude born of years in the industry, some of them spent in the Chicago market at McCormick Place, the largest convention center on the continent. He arrived in Orlando after leading the Austin (Texas) Convention Center, where he had been since 2008.
Under Tester’s watch, the Orange County Convention Center may well have been the first convention center in the country to return to hosting in-person events when it welcomed 9,600 players, coaches and chaperones during the July 14-22 Amateur Athletic Union Junior National Volleyball Championships, an event that Tester said went off without a hitch under strict health and safety protocols. One of the complex’s parking lots was used as a COVID-19 testing site. The center has also hosted the Together Again Expo, a wedding expo and a few smaller events.
Tester was also tasked with helping shepherd a $605 million North-South Building expansion, which had been scheduled to break ground this year and finish in late 2023. The coronavirus shutdown and a steep drop in Tourist Development Tax revenue has put the project on hold.
Tester has a positive attitude that is reflected in the convention center’s new marketing campaign, which uses the tagline “Meeting safely for a stronger tomorrow.” The phrase points up new health and safety protocols and achievement of GBAC Star accreditation, as well as optimism for the future of the industry, “the need for face-to-face, and the hope to be back to business in full time relatively soon,” Tester said.