Tasked with managing the Wimbledon Championships during a pandemic, with a full capacity audience, in her first year as operations director, Michele Dite drew on decades of experience in major sporting event operations to make it a success. She tells Access about the challenges involved.
A sports events industry veteran, Michelle Dite (pictured) had first-hand experience of the impact of the pandemic on freelance event professionals when in March last year she found her diary of upcoming events being swiftly wiped clean.
Running her own business, ThinkCanDo, Dite provided event consultation services to clients including The Boat Race, Rugby League World Cup 2021 and Invictus Games Foundation. With the lights suddenly turned out on the events industry, she spent April 2020 working as a volunteer at the NHS Nightingale London hospital. The following month her career path made another interesting turn.
On 5 May she took over as operations director of the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) who annually stage the Wimbledon Championships. It would not only prove fortuitous timing but present her with the challenge of her career – bringing the oldest tennis tournament back to life and staging it safely with full capacity audiences during a pandemic.
Whether it was Andrew Murray’s battle to get to the third round after hip surgery or Emma Raducanu’s unexpected brilliance and equally unexpected departure from the tournament, there was no shortage of excitement to get the Wimbledon fans on their feet, but behind the scenes there had been an equally skilful and determined performance by the AELTC team to safely deliver it.
With it being Dite’s first Championships as operations director, she made full use of the existing knowledge and expertise available at AELTC but as a newcomer she says her fresh perspective proved beneficial as new ways of working had to be achieved.
“Fresh thinking was needed, it was an unprecedented situation, but the really important thing was collaboration and teamwork,” she says. “Agility was key. We delayed a lot of decisions that in previous times AELTC would have made many months previously in order to provide the best possible guest experience for those at the Championships; whether that be players, members, debenture holders, partners or all the members of the public who come along.”
During a planning cycle filled with unknowns and shifting timelines, Dite says that numerous possible eventualities had to be considered before the AELTC found out on 14 June that the 28 June event would be part of the Government’s Events Research Programme (ERP) and would therefore be able to welcome full capacity audiences on Centre Court for the semi-finals and finals.
Dite’s lengthy sports events industry career began when as a graduate from Loughborough University she joined Alan Pascoe at Fast Track Events in July 1998 to work on the UK Athletics televised events. In subsequent years she was involved in the creation of The School Games with Youth Sport Trust, the design and delivery of the Paralympic World Cup and delivered many major sporting events including the feasibility of the Invictus Games and its inaugural event in London 2014.
As a result of her extensive experience, Dite says that when she started working on Wimbledon she felt very comfortable despite the challenge: “I’d been involved in a lot of start-up events whereby things happened very late. I tend to work on the 80/20 rule whereby if you get 80% of an event in place you just allow the other 20% to happen. It allows you to be flexible and adjust to the environment around you.”
Among the myriad challenges involved in staging the Wimbledon Championships this year, Dite says the biggest was managing the uncertainty around the spectator capacity which remained until two weeks prior to the gates opening: “We were following the government roadmap and had various ticketing scenarios based on the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) guidance, which would have given us about 25% of full capacity. We also developed a 50% capacity model and a 75% model.
“Our plans were based on the facilities and services we needed to provide. So, whether that be food and drink facilities, the scheduling on court, crowd dynamics; all sorts of things were built around the number of people that were going to come through the grounds.”
Dite says that some members of the AELTC team felt more comfortable than others about delaying decisions until as late as possible, and so a willingness to support each other throughout the process was key: “It was really important to keep calm. I said to everyone that they had to have three things; a smile, a can-do attitude and sense of humour.”
“Wimbledon is a really trusted event, so it was vitally important that when people walked through our gates they felt comfortable.”
The uncertainty around capacity and social distancing was a major factor when engaging with suppliers. Dite says the AELTC is fortunate to have trusted and long-term relationships with suppliers, but the circumstances meant it also had to engage with a lot of new service providers, including mobile ticketing, which had to be put in place for the first time.
“The long-term and trusted relationships are really important,” she says. “We had to make tough decisions, for example we work very closely with Keith Prowse who support our hospitality programme. We decided not to build one of the significant temporary structures for hospitality because we couldn’t see how we would be able to sell the hospitality in time if it was going to be such a late decision.
“It was about trying to keep things simple. Another early decision was to cancel the general public queue that finds people camping overnight. By doing that we released supply requirements.”
Despite the need to hold off on making some decisions for as long as possible, Dite says the AELTC was very aware that suppliers were facing major challenges around resources and needed clarity: “We tried to help as much as possible and by making early decisions as it helped them with recruitment and resources. We didn’t leave them hanging, we didn’t want people to be left either planning things that didn’t happen or planning things that materially were completely different to where we thought we might end up.
“Our relationships with suppliers such as Arena, CSP, RG Jones, Compass, Creative Technology, NEP were critical to ensuring our evolving planning supported both our internal and external teams.”
Focusing on performance
The AELTC operations director says a huge amount of work went into getting the Championships into the ERP, and that while it did not result in any financial support from Government the increased capacities meant the final pieces of the puzzle could fall into place.
In terms of entry requirements, it meant all ticketholders were required to show proof of Covid status upon entry, either in the form of double vaccination or a negative lateral flow test. Once seated, the wearing of masks was not required.
During the early stages of the Championships a 50% ground capacity was permitted across the grounds. As the Championships progressed the peak attendance was 75% of the grounds capacity which enabled AELTC to achieve full capacity in Centre Court for the Finals.
“One of the upsides of the delayed capacity confirmation was it resulted in us having a slightly different audience demographic come to the Championships because people were able to go online and buy tickets shortly beforehand.”
While there was no shortage of people wanting to attend the iconic tennis tournament this year, regulars aired concerns.
Says Dite, “We had a reduced attendance among our members than usual, and we knew there would be concerns among all guests who had not been out of their houses to attend major events for many months.
“Wimbledon is a really trusted event, so it was vitally important that when people walked through our gates they felt comfortable and if they didn’t they knew that they could go and speak to our guest services team and we would do whatever we could for them.”
While the focus was on making everything look normal for guests front of house, behind the scenes the team retained mask wearing and social distancing in workspaces in an effort to reduce exposure to the virus and enhance resilience
Another major focus for the event team was the creation of a minimised risk environment for the players and their close contacts.
Says Dite, “Players are used to staying in local houses and having family and friends around them, having a great time in SW19 and the surrounding boroughs, but we decided early on to create a dedicated player hotel – the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge.
“We made sure that it was a bit of a home for home, created a bigger gym space and worked very closely with the hotel on menus to make sure that everything was in line with performance requirements. We also provided all the transport, and so expanded our relationships with suppliers.”
The experienced events professional is naturally proud of the work achieved by the AELTC team but is also hugely appreciative of the support from Government, public health bodies, Merton Council and the many suppliers that helped make it such a success.
She says, “We worked really hard with all the local authorities, and we can’t give enough credit to Merton particularly and their public health team who worked hand in glove with us right from the very start to make sure that not only was the Championships environment safe for all those that attended s but the local community was considered and supported.
Michelle “It was just really fantastic to see the industry come back online. It was obviously a vibrant experience for ticket holders , but also for those people from the event businesses We are proud to have played a significant role in the event industry’s confidence and recovery.”