After Art Basel: Miami Beach Convention Center's New GM Reflects

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

After Art Basel: Miami Beach Convention Center's New GM Reflects:

Freddie Peterson on his first three months and the City’s main event

In a little over three months on the job as the new General Manager of the Miami Beach Convention Center, Freddie Peterson has worked to bring the building’s $620 million renovation to a close and jumped right into the City’s largest event, Art Basel.
As the load-out and break-down of the four hall show was still taking place on Friday, nearly a week after the show concluded, Peterson (above) took some time to reflect with RE:MiamiBeach.
The volume and complexity of the show which requires set-up and load-in to begin 2 ½ weeks in advance was “a first” for him, Peterson said. “Traditionally, you see three days of move-in on average, then a two to three day show, then two to three day move out. It was curious for me to ask why 2 ½ weeks.” Then he saw the production side with “all these different moving pieces” including 10- to 12-foot walls built for each exhibitor.
The preparation work is so important, he said. “If you don’t get the back of the house right, the front of the house isn’t right.” In this case, there were 268 galleries from 35 countries. “The people, personalities, languages” and “a massive production” of what he guessed might be “millions of pounds of freight” and then “hundreds of hours of temporary labor.”
“So, it’s a very delicate dance,” he said. “Loading in two ways in the loading docks, how the sequencing works… It was an amazing job.”

Load out finishing up five days after this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach fair

The team from the City of Miami Beach “couldn’t have been greater,” he said. “Planning, traffic, transportation and circulation worked incredibly well from my perspective.”
“Everything looks beautiful on a piece of paper,” he said. It’s the execution that matters. “In the convention and meeting space, every event is different even if it’s an annual event.” The key, he said, is giving exhibitors, contractors, and customers, what they need
In his 20-year career in the industry being involved in “thousands of events,” he said  “This for me, by far, is the most unique event or fair that I’ve ever been a part of… The operational piece was extraordinary.”
“As I pause now and think about it, it’s an unbelievable learning experience,” Peterson said. “It was an unconventional event inside an amazing $620 million building.”
Peterson’s admiration for the building is evident. While it includes some of the “bones” of the old Convention Center, he said, “This is a new building, the natural light, terrazzo floor, steel, glass, lighting, technology.” The team from Art Basel also gave the building high marks at their opening press event.  
“Even for them, it’s a whole new shiny object,” one they had an impact on, Peterson said. “They had their imprint on what got built here because of the investment they’ve made.” Balancing all of the needs from the event side, ownership side, and operation side meant not everything on the various "wish lists" could be accommodated. However, one of Art Basel's requests that was accommodated by the City was to add an escalator to take visitors directly from the exhibit hall to the ballroom level. That, Peterson said, is turning out to be a good marketing tool for other event producers. It was also one of the keys in getting Art Basel to commit to a long-term agreement.
The "Art Basel escalator" leading from the main hall to the ballroom level

In addition to the operational side of the fair, Peterson said he was amazed by the Art Basel footprint from Design Miami to the pop-up restaurant in the Botanical Gardens and further through satellite fairs in both Miami Beach and Miami. Its economic impact reaches far and wide, “that Art Basel effect,” he said that puts “food on the table for everybody.”
But it starts with the Convention Center which he calls “the center of gravity,” “this gem, this jewel” on a “campus” that includes the Botanical Gardens, New World Symphony, the Fillmore, Miami City Ballet and the Bass. Add to that it’s on a “tropical island, four blocks from the beach.”
“A lot of destinations will never be able to replicate that,” he said.
After spending all of his life in the Boston area, Peterson is enjoying his first warm winter, though the move was a little bit of an adjustment. “I tell people I’m 50 years old, I lived 3 blocks from my mother, and four blocks from the Convention Center,” he said referring to the Massachusetts Convention Center where he worked for 20 years in various leadership roles, ultimately as its Deputy Director.
“Everybody has just been tremendous,” he said. He marveled at “how helpful everybody wants to be on a family and business side. I didn’t know anybody down here. Between Spectra,” the company that manages the Convention Center and which employs him, “and just the people, the employees in City Hall, the outpouring of support has just been phenomenal.” On Wednesday, his wife and dog were finally able to join him here.
On the business side, he said he’s been overwhelmed “in a positive way” by the support of City staff, the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, local businesses and hoteliers. “The Convention Center’s success is everybody’s success,” he said.
He singled out City Manager Jimmy Morales saying, “For an individual as busy as he is, the confidence he has put in our team and the Convention Center is tremendous.” And his team, he said naming Assistant City Manager Kathie Brooks, project director Maria Hernandez, and Heather Shaw, interim director of the Tourism, Culture and Economic Development Department, have provided an important connectivity for him to City Hall. “They always ask ‘what else do you need as you go to complete the venue?’”
In addition to a good working relationship with the contractors on the job, Peterson says the team of Spectra, food service provider Centerplate, and technology provider Smart City are all working very smoothly together. With about a month before the next show, the construction crews are back putting the finishing touches on things. Meanwhile, he says he and the team will take “time to refresh the venue.”
Construction workers are back on the job at the Miami Beach Convention Center after Art Basel

Asked to recount some of the challenges of the first three months, he said, “Whether a building is opening or been open for ten years, it’s always baptism by fire.” 
The business can be “like herding cats in an avalanche sometimes” but, at the end of the day, you just have to make sure the customer gets what they need.
There are long hours and a lot of hard work but he keeps it in perspective. “We’re in the hospitality and event business,” he says. “We’re not saving lives. We’re not curing diseases. It’s important having that view but being laser focused when you need to take action.”
“I’ll jump to anything,” he said. “I see traffic, I’m helping direct traffic, moving product into the building, cleaning floors, picking up plastic bags, whatever it takes.”
“There’s never a dull moment but it’s the team and the village mentality. We just make it happen.”
When asked if he’s having a good time, Peterson said, “I’m lovin’ it.”

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