Orlando-based Amateur Athletic Union President Jennings “Rusty” Buchanan thinks outside the box to organize mega-events for young athletes and their families.
Our third “Planner of Productivity” is Jennings “Rusty” Buchanan, president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Established in 1888, AAU once prepared athletes for Olympic competition—including Buchanan, a former Olympic hopeful in track and field. Today, the organization is more grassroots, with regional chapters promoting sports participation for kids through approximately 45 sports programs in 55 districts around the country, as well as annual national mega-events. When this year’s pandemic protocols required thinking differently about the organization’s flagship Junior National Volleyball Championship, Buchanan’s can-do attitude, established partnerships, and a world-class destination ensured a top-notch experience for attendees—without de-emphasizing the importance of safety measures.
VO: As one of the largest amateur sports organizations in the world, AAU runs mega-events that attract thousands of sports teams, families and spectators. How do you capture and keep the attention of so many different audiences and age levels?
RB: We prioritize opportunities that are good for the kids, good for the parents and good for the economy of Orlando and the state of Florida. Parents who work 50 weeks out of the year will gladly take a two-week break to bring their sons or daughters to participate in an organized activity that’s well-run and well-managed. If you’re going to take your kid to an event, why not see all that Orlando has to offer? We partner with Disney, and we run a large number of our events in cooperation. Putting on a quality event in the number one tourist destination in the world is simply a win for Orlando, the AAU and the families that we represent.
The Orlando experience is unique and one that people will remember for all of their lives. We’re excited that most of our kids have an opportunity to experience it at some point during their playing careers with us.
VO: How do you define innovation and how do you infuse it into the events that you plan?
RB: Our last two years have been nothing but innovation due to pandemic guidelines. Thankfully, we have strong partners who have helped us navigate the situation, keeping in mind that our mission is to create a good experience for kids and maintain a comfort level of parents.
We have a very good relationship with the team at Visit Orlando and they work hand-in-hand with the Orange County Convention Center staff. What we have been able to do this summer literally could not have happened in any other place in the country. Orlando just has such a nice marriage of partners and opportunities, with everybody stepping up to make quality events happen.
VO: The AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships is AAU’s largest—and, at 12 days, longest—event. What key changes did you make to the lineup this year, and how well did they pay off?
RB: This summer was a little different because of COVID-19. Like many sports organizing bodies, we faced several challenges. How do you address a safe return to sport? Are the teams going to travel? Are the kids going to come? Can we keep everybody safe? It was a bit of a roll of the dice. We made some very difficult decisions. For example, we moved the entire event to the Orange County Convention Center. We took a little bit of a gamble, hoping that the teams would show up. And they did—in indescribable fashion. This year, we had 3,445 teams, 56,000 participants, and 135,000 spectators. And the Convention Center estimated that the one event generated over $173 million in economic impact.
VO: The past year has forced planners to be more creative to deliver a seamless experience. What have you learned this year that you want to bring to future events?
RB: The phrase I’ve repeated over and over to our staff, volunteers and organizers has been: I don’t want 10 people to tell me why I can’t do something; I want one person to tell me how I can. Let’s think differently. Instead of coming up with all the reasons that we can’t, let’s find a way that we can. And we’ve been able to do that. We found a collaborative way to make things happen. It was all new, out-of-the-box thinking because we had to work so closely with our health departments and medical officials to ensure that we were as safe as possible while offering kids an opportunity to compete.
We have learned a lot in the past year about how to ensure that the safety of our participants is first and foremost. The second part is the experience. How can we separate ourselves from event operators that are simply trying to throw an event together? The takeaways are: 1. Offer your customer a sense of, “We are consistent, we’re dedicated, and we want a good customer experience.” And, 2. The athlete comes first.
VO: What advice would you give to peers about managing attendees’ expectations—and continuously surprising and delighting them?
RB: For me, it’s about making sure that we focus on the experience for the kids and the consistency of our platform. The rest will come—the parents will be wowed, thousands of teams will attend and we’ll fill the hotels. Everyone will have a wonderful experience since we’re in Orlando. As long as we stay true to our mission, we can be successful.
This article has been provided by Visit Orlando.
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