Stable View Oktoberfest: A Case Study in Running a Successful FEI Event Amidst Covid-19

Meaghan Marinovich and Riviera Lu. Photo by Shelby Allen.

This year’s global pandemic has taken its toll on our sport, including but not limited to the competition venues we depend on to play host. The North American eventing calendar was upended completely, with whole months’ worth of national and international competitions wiped completely or rescheduled. Elsewhere we saw giants around the world fall, including six out of seven five-stars and the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Events left standing were forced to get creative about how they approached things in order to remain financially viable while keeping everyone as safe as possible. Stable View in Aiken, South Carolina, is one venue that has continually impressed us with its ability to adapt and adjust to changing circumstances. Throughout the year they have been transparent about Covid-19 protocol (you can view their guidelines here) and sensitive to the uncertainty of the times, generously offering entrants a full refund should their horse trials get canceled for any reason.

The end result is a feeling of reassurance that Stable View always has our best interests in mind, a trust further heightened by its continual quest for self-improvement. From top-notching footing to expanded stabling and expert course design, the venue just keeps one-upping itself. That riders continued flocking there this summer and fall is a testament to Stable View’s commitment to safety and the sense of community that makes our sport special.

Stable View’s marquee fall event for 2020 was Oktoberfest (Sept. 24-27), which accomodated nearly 400 entries across horse trials and FEI divisions and was widely praised as a success — see EN’s live coverage here. We are pleased to share these debriefing notes courtesy of owner Barry Olliff in the hope that other venues may find them useful.

Sydney Conley Elliot and Commando D’ Osthuy. Photo by Shelby Allen.

What were the major differences between Oktoberfest 2020 and 2019?

“While entries were up, the major difference was that we had to treat those that entered differently.

“The normal Saturday evening Competitor Party was subdivided into four parties – Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. To defray the cost of potentially four parties, we offered a charcuterie board each evening with a smaller spare board being kept in reserve to take account of extra demand. As it was, over the four days, around 200 competitors, owners and grooms attended which was a similar number to last year. Social distancing was observed and drinks and food were consumed outside the pub with the cross country jumps being used as tables. No one was allowed to stay in the Pavilion or pub to eat or drink.”

How did you deal with issues associated with the Coronavirus?

“We had five Health and Safety personnel, six Nurses and a State Trooper. Nurses were positioned at all gates. Their job was to ask a few Coronavirus related questions, take non-invasive infra-red thermometer temperatures, provide all who entered with a colored wrist band – different each day — they ensured that an initial screening was achieved.

“The Health and Safety personnel’s job was to go around the Barns and Stalls and undertake “spot checks.” This involved not just taking temperatures, but also checking wrist bands. This was a second line of defense because many people stayed on property. In addition, their job was to transport visitors from place to place using their allocated golf carts. This provided both feedback and an additional opportunity for screening.

“The State Troopers job was to be seen, to provide legitimacy and to act as a final arbiter in the event that there were any problems … there were no problems and, in terms of mask wearing, we’d say we achieved 95% compliance.”

What would you estimate the additional cost of the Coronavirus was?

“In financial terms we’d estimate it was around $20,000. Hopefully this will be a one-off. Having said that, our gut feel is that this is here to stay.

“In terms of those coming on the property, we wanted our procedures to be as fast and as non-invasive as possible. Having run six equestrian events during the run-up to Oktoberfest, we had been able to stress-test our procedures and work out how to ensure that the virus did not get in the way of the competition.”

Was there a difference in the mix of riders who entered Oktoberfest 2020?

“At Oktoberfest 2020, many more riders came from the north west and north east. Our research says that this was to a great extent due to lock-downs and other restrictions in other states. Hopefully they will be back to see us, as according to social media many of them seem to have enjoyed themselves.”

Will Faudree and Caeleste. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Do you intend to change anything for Oktoberfest 2021?

“We’d like to open the Pavilion, the Pub and the Rider Lounges – they were effectively decommissioned this year. We’re going to continue with the complementary charcuterie / hors d’oeuvres / tapas idea. Not only is it more informal, it’s easier to mingle and seems to have attracted more riders and their teams. In addition, for a small fee, they can come more than once!

“Apart from potentially building three or four new Attwood Arenas, we don’t have any additional infrastructure plans. On 1st November, Hart Streubel will be joining Stable View from Trump National Golf Course where he is at present Assistant Superintendent.”

Are there any ongoing additional developments at Stable View?

“Foremost is our ongoing focus on safety.

“On the Tuesday before Oktoberfest, we took the false base of all of our Attwood Arenas down to 3½”. This had the effect of frothing up the footing, initially for dressage. During the event, the arenas were groomed eight times at ½”. By the Monday after Oktoberfest the false base was also back to ½”! Suspensory issues are a major concern and the management of synthetic footing is a critical component of horses safety as riders jump higher, move faster and make sharper turns. And they expect their horses to perform more regularly!

“The cross country courses are continuing to respond to the regimen that we have in place. With six fertilizing and pre-emergent treatments from spring through fall, we believe that we will have some of the finest footing available. The sand around Aiken is a double edged sword. After rain it’s soft, forgiving and produces very good going. During dry spells it can turn into concrete and that’s when it’s not forgiving. Our job is to irrigate, aerate and reduce concussion. Our weather station and ‘Going Stick’ program will we believe continue to turn our soil from good into excellent footing.”

Are there weaknesses (or strengths) in your business plan that you’ve identified as a result of the coronavirus?

“Today it looks as if we wasted a lot of money on our Pavilion. Our Rider Lounge[s] were also decommissioned for Oktoberfest. These investments could at present be considered a significant waste of financial resources. In the event that this is the new norm, we’ll have to work out how to integrate these facilities into the new environment in which we are going to practice.

“We obviously don’t have the benefit of tax dollars from States or Municipalities, and we are not a 501(c)3. This means that we are effectively on our own with little outside financial support or subsidy.

“While the above are weaknesses, having identified these weaknesses, we have [the benefit of] no outside investors and have zero debt. Another upside is that it takes ten minutes to make a decision.

“Also, at HTs the sum total of our rent bill is the odd toilet, and we have enough fixed and other assets to be very competitive from an additional overhead point of view – we might spend $1,000 on toilets, other facilities spend not only much more, but also on tents, hospitality and IT costs etc.

“We’d hope that the present infrastructure, with the ongoing improvements we are committed to, will enable Stable View to remain competitive. We’d also hope that our ongoing push for, and use of, leading edge IT software will enable us to reduce entrance costs to riders.”

Stable View has plenty more on its plate before year-end, including its Eventing Academy schooling days and events, USEF/USDF recognized and schooling dressage shows, schooling jumper shows and a hunter pace. Learn more about Stable View and view a complete calendar of events at the website here