Q&A With EEM USA Event Director Matthieu GheysenBy Paula Parisi October 9, 2015
Matthieu Gheysen is an executive with a mission: Establish world-class show jumping in Los Angeles, on par with top events in Europe where equestrian sport is prestigious and culturally established (arguably for centuries). Two years into his assignment, Gheysen has certainly managed to surpass every expectation held by U.S. enthusiasts. Equestrian Events Management’s second annual Longines Masters of Los Angeles, which took place Oct. 1-4 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, was a who’s who of the world’s top riders, presented in a luxe, celebrity-studded environment unlike that of any other Stateside horse show.
Gheysen, Events Director at EEM USA, isn’t resting on his laurels just yet, envisioning future growth. A lifelong sports enthusiast, Gheysen has been planning major international golf, tennis and equestrian events for the past eight years. In 2006 he teamed up with Christophe Ameeuw to coordinate the Audi Masters Brussels International Showjumping CSI-5*. In 2009, Ameeuw launched EEM, based Belgium, and recruited Gheysen to help him get the new company off the ground. That year, its first show, the Gucci Paris Masters, landed on the map one of the most prestigious 5* indoor show jumping events in the world.
In 2013, EEM introduced 5* competition to Hong Kong, deploying a “Masters grand slam indoor” concept; riders who won at both events would receive a substantial bonus. In 2014, EEM debuted 5* jumping in Los Angeles, and this year, with a new worldwide title sponsor, the three events became the Longines Masters Series.
Gheysen relocated to California in the spring of 2014. From his current base of operation in Century City, he continues to guide EEM in partnering with the world’s toniest sponsors, expanding global broadcast coverage and producing elaborate, highly technical horse shows. He holds a degree in Marketing and Communication from the University of Brussels and an Masters in Event Management and Sports Marketing. The Equestrian News caught up with him ringside, as the Longines series touched down in L.A., Oct. 1-4.
The Equestrian News: Coalescing a group of people around a common interest is a challenge in itself, then you couple that with establishing a new sport, and the level of difficulty rises exponentially – as we’ve found with soccer in the U.S. and American football overseas.
Matthieu Gheysen: It does take time, but we are encouraged by the response so far. This year, we increased the capacity of our grandstands by 20% over last year. We had more than 23,000 spectators, and our maximum capacity was 30,000 over the four days. Last year we had 18,000 visitors. This year, we added quite a few new things – a whole kids facility, with drawing, make-up artists and a small course so kids can jump. We created a whole new hospitality area – a skydeck lounge – a large terrace, elevated about 12-feet, where guests can overlooking the competition ring and also, on the other side, the warm up paddock. We have that in Paris and it’s one of the best seats in the house.
The Equestrian News: I was interested to read on EEMWorld.com how in 2008, “in the middle of an enormous economic crisis” that spanned the globe, EEM launched what was then known as the Gucci Masters of Paris, expanding from its base in Brussels at a time the market was contracting. The record states “the challenge was gigantic for this small Belgian company.” And not only did you debut the new event, you helped in successfully reestablishing the Salon du Cheval, and also managed to hold the Audi Audi Masters in Brussels the week before the Paris event. So, this little company is not shy of a big undertaking.
Matthieu Gheysen: Yes, that was the last year we did both those events in Europe. In 2009 we focused on the Gucci Masters of Paris. And these indoor shows are indeed complicated to produce. We basically have seven days to build up, and three days to tear down.
The Equestrian News: I was marveling at that. Having been to the Los Angeles Convention Center many times, I was finding it difficult to imagine how you were going to turn it into a luxury sport venue. You really did an amazing job. The only thing missing was a chandelier! Maybe next year, over the warm-up ring.
Matthieu Gheysen: We start from scratch. We go in, and it’s just a vast slab of concrete floor. We bring in all the footing, all the seating, the stabling, the vendors. It’s a very interesting experience. We have a lot of people working very hard to make sure everything is ready to go for that first day of competition. We did a time-lapse video that we’ll share at some point. And it employs a lot of local people, between set-up, security and hospitality. We’ve gotten great support from the city. Many people know the scope and caliber of the event, and some of the feedback we’re getting is it’s great to see a world-class sporting event coming back year after year. L.A. used to have a major international tennis tournament, but it isn’t here anymore. And it really is a fantastic sports city.
The Equestrian News: Here in the U.S., when it comes to upper levels of the sport, the East Coast fancies itself more prestigious than the West – although we’ve managed to gain a lot of ground in the past few years. The appointment of a West Coast-based show jumping chef d’equipe, Robert Ridland, was huge for us in 2012. That same year HITS added a $1 Million Grand Prix on the Desert Circuit in Thermal, so we’ve been making progress. And last year you have brought the first FEI 5* to the West Coast – but this year you are getting a bit of competition in that regard from HITS as well; it looks like they’re adding two to the fall/winter circuit. So we’re making progress out here in the hinterlands. How did you identify Los Angeles as the next stop in your Masters series? Did you see a market opportunity? Or did the sponsors warm to the glamour of Hollywood?
Matthieu Gheysen: Two or three years before our first U.S. event in 2014, we were exploring the options. One of the first elements is launch in a capital city, a major international city on the caliber of Paris or Hong Kong. We looked at the East and West coasts, and saw there are quite a few nice events in the East, but we saw the West as a great opportunity. There’s a great horse community here, a great sporting community and Los Angeles, along lines of what we did in Hong Kong, is a good fit with worldwide TV coverage, entertainment and celebrity participation and luxury brands. So we thought it a good fit, not only for us but for our sponsors. And this is only the beginning. We hope to be here for many years and improve and grow each year. It takes a while to establish a new event. Similar to Hong Kong, we have to educate the audience. But here in the U.S. people are familiar with the sport and the media are getting to know it too. For us, contributing to the development of the sport is one of our priorities.
The Equestrian News: What was the horse and rider participation for the week?
Matthieu Gheysen: We had 230 horses, and more than 100 riders.
The Equestrian News: And you have some very nice sponsors. Hermes, Emirates airline, Airbus group, Canadian Pacific, Barons de Rothschild Champagne – which was yummy! They can count on me as a customer for life. And it’s nice that with the inauguration of the Gucci Gold Cup you were able to keep them involved at a high level, even though Longines has taken over as the title sponsor on the series.
Matthieu Gheysen: Gucci has been our partner since the very beginning, when we started in Paris, and we’ve developed a great relationship with them.
The Equestrian News: Do you think you’ll be adding a fourth leg to the series, or is three the magic number?
Matthieu Gheysen: We’re always eager to look into different opportunities. There are a lot of people guessing where we’re going to go next. Some of the continents that don’t have a showcase event like this are bidding and interested in becoming the next destination for the Longines Masters Series. We’re intent on keeping the future growth consistent with the reputation of the three existing events, and maintaining the same level of attendee experience. Currently, there are some things we’re looking at, but we are taking our time about expanding to a fourth destination. We have different options. Sometimes for a company growing so quickly it’s important to pay attention to the proper structure. Each of these shows is obviously quite a large undertaking.
The Equestrian News: Arriving in Los Angeles with your European background, what has it been like for you doing business here, and dealing with the U.S. riders? Has it presented any cultural challenges?
Matthieu Gheysen: First of all one of main reasons I moved here is we want to learn how things are done, how the business is run and things are managed in California. It’s a big learning process for us. People think everything runs the same around the world, but that is not the case. The launch in Hong Kong was real learning curve. But that’s what makes the job fun, to learn about new cultures, in new places. From the city to the media to the sponsors, everything is different and we want to meet the local expectations as well as those of our international athletes and sponsors.
The Equestrian News: So, you fine-tuned the show this year, and added some new things.
Matthieu Gheysen: Last year we had the CSI5* classes, and the CSI2*, which were 1.30m to 1.40m, and featured prestige and invitational riders. This year we had all that plus, at the invitational level, we added three 1.10m classes. We wanted to make it accessible to more riders. We have a good level of international riders participating, to showcase the top of the sport, but we think it’s also important to show that we are a local event by providing local riders the chance to compete in the same ring as the best in the sport. That’s how we think we’re going to grow the sport and develop new riders, by giving them experience at the highest level.
The Equestrian News: The streaming live video was nice. What are your broadcast plans?
Matthieu Gheysen: Fox Sports will telecast a 44-minute highlights version of the event in early November. Internationally, Eurosport will a 52-minute package in 63 countries, including Russia, the Czech Republic, Mexico and Brazil. We’ll reach of about 300 million households, not including the streaming. For Europe and the other countries we’ll produce a 52 minute highlights program.
The Equestrian News: The production values on the streaming were excellent.
Matthieu Gheysen: We had eight cameras rolling, and about 25 people working on the production. It’s a very professional crew that we put together ourselves, then we edit the shows and provide them to the networks.
The Equestrian News: Well, since we’re talking about production, and we’re in Hollywood, I have to ask, what is your favorite movie?
Matthieu Gheysen: I don’t think I’ve watched a whole movie for quite a bit. My wife is very interested to get me to go to a movie with her. What’s interesting to me is to watch global sports. I’m fascinated to see how they’re done — how many TV crews they have, the visibility of the sponsors. In the U.S. yes, it’s the city of TV and movies, etc… but also a seat for sports production. When I moved here one of my objectives was to go to sporting events and see how the audience behaves. For instance, in Paris we don’t allow people to eat when they’re watching a live sports competition live, and nobody’s getting up and walking around. They’re very quiet, out of respect. So it is very different.
The Equestrian News: What is your personal best memory from the Longines Masters of Los Angeles?
Matthieu Gheysen: For me, what I like is spending some time in the grandstand and seeing the kids enjoying themselves, as well as all the other guests. After working so hard for so many months, to see people enjoying themselves at our event is very rewarding.
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