Q&A: Robert Pozo, Continental Event and Sports Management Group

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Robert Pozo’s life and career have revolved around competitive running. Always a personal interest, racing became a professional interest when he realized he could turn a passion into a career. Educated as an accountant, Pozo had the business acumen needed to start is own business, which he did in 1997 with Swim Bike Run Inc., producing triathlons and other races in the South Florida area. A few years later, Pozo got the opportunity to produce the ING Miami Marathon in his hometown. “People thought it was too hot and too warm to run racing events in Miami,” Pozo says, which is part of the reason the success of that first marathon—which had a Fortune 500 title sponsor and 5,000 runners—helped create a resurgence in the Miami running community. [caption id="attachment_180" align="alignleft" width="300"]Robert Pozo, executive director of events, Continental Event and Sports Management. Robert Pozo, executive director of events, Continental Event and Sports Management.[/caption] After a few other career course changes, Pozo started a new race production company, Continental Event and Sports Management Group. That was five years ago, right about the time the economy tanked. “What’s the worst time to start a business? In a recession,” Pozo recalls. “But I didn’t want to go back to accounting, so I asked, ‘How can we make this work when the economy is horrible and new events are being shot down?’” He did a quick industry analysis. “What I did know is running is on the upswing—half marathons in particular, especially among women.” He also noticed that fun runs and fundraising-oriented events were becoming more popular. Armed with that knowledge, he focused on those segments, planning some women-only events and half- to mini-marathons, including the Myrtle Beach Mini Marathon and the Divas Half Marathon Series. This year, Continental will host 12 races, and 16 are on the agenda next year. When two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April, runners and race organizers like Pozo fell silent, shocked. Why, they asked, and how? And what does this mean for future events? Connect talked with Pozo, who has run the Boston Marathon three times, about what went through his mind when he heard about the attacks and how the bombings at one of the country’s most iconic racing events might change the industry. Where were you when the bombs went off in Boston? I had been in New York a few months before when [Hurricane] Sandy came in, but when it happened, I was actually at home in Miami, working on races. Were you watching the race? The Boston Marathon gets carried on major television networks, and in the city, it’s a holiday, but everybody else in the country works on Patriot’s Day. I was working, so I wasn’t watching, but I follow it. I’ve run Boston three times, and I’ve also coached a couple athletes to the Olympics who ran in the race. So I know the race—I know right where the bombings took place. When it happened, a lot of people texted, emailed or called to ask if I was there. 2013DIVASNMB-2258So that’s how you found out? Yes, by text message. And what were your immediate thoughts? First I thought, “OK, here we go. Another terrorist attack.” Then, I wondered, what did happen? Did they get their facts straight? How many are dead? It was so shocking, because the Boston Marathon is such an iconic event in the United States. New York had just had a major natural catastrophe, then this. I thought, “What’s next?” Did you know anyone who was in Boston for the race? There were a couple people from one of the companies I work with, and later I found out this one individual was standing a couple feet away from where the bomb went off. That’s where he was an hour and a half before it happened. The Boston Marathon is a big networking event as well, so everybody’s there. What did you think of the initial emergency response? I thought it was great. You can never plan for these things. The interesting thing is that every race has to hand in a medical procedure and disaster plan, but when an accident actually happens, police and fire come in and say, “Stay away.” And the emergency plan doesn’t come into play at all. You have to have the plan and you’ve got to have shelter, but if someone comes in and blows up one of your bridges, they say, “We’ll handle it.” In Boston, I thought they handled it in a swift manner, given the surprise. They did as well as they can do. Tell me what the process is like when planning a race. How do you coordinate with the fire and police departments? You have two plans you have to come up with: one fire and one police. The fire plan is an emergency plan. So, for example: It’s really hot, people are dropping like flies, what do we do? Who’s got radios? What are we using for communication? At what point do you call the race? If someone goes down, where do you take them? What’s your plan? And if something is happening, who’s talking to the media? If John Peterson, No. 42, just died, you want to make sure a volunteer doesn’t get interviewed. He might say, “This person was waiting here for three minutes until somebody showed up.” Three minutes isn’t a long time, but in somebody else’s mind or for the media, that’s an eternity. For the police, you’ve got to make sure you have the right security, especially if you have elite athletes running. Remember what happened with Monica Seles getting stabbed on the tennis court? Where’s your security? Something like that probably isn’t going to happen, but you need to know where you’re putting your tents and equipment and how that’s going to be secured. You need to coordinate traffic areas and know what to do during a lightning storm. 2013DIVAS-SF-1128Are lightning storms what you’re most concerned with from an inclement weather perspective? Yes. If it’s raining, sleeting, snowing—we’ll run, kind of like oPop Warner games in football. But the minute that lightning hits or we read there’s an imminent strike, we call it. At your events, who handles the media? At my races, me and only me. Nobody else. The city then usually puts up one person on their end. Media is your best friend, but it’s also your worst enemy. I have been at many races where we’ve lost people, and not because the events [were poorly planned]. Today, everybody is getting into triathlons. It’s become a bucket-list thing. The athletes aren’t training. I’ve seen three or four people die, and all have died in the water. And they’re not drowning—it’s because of heart attacks. At all my owned events, I’ve never had a death or serious injury or a heart attack victim that needed to be revived. We can’t control when somebody is going to collapse and die, but we take every precaution. But if something does happen, the person who knows everything going on—in that case me—I’ve got to be able to get to talk to the media. [inlinead align="left"]Favorite sport: College Football Dream sports event to attend: World Cup Favorite music: Rock Travel Travel must-haves: iPad, headphones and backpack. “I’ve had the same backpack since the Olympics in Athens. It’s indestructible.” Can’t live without: His daughter How he relaxes: Going out on the boat What he loves about his job: “The fact that it mostly takes place outside, and I can come to work in shorts and flip-flops.” Biggest influence: His mom[/inlinead]   Most event planners don’t have to deal with the threat that one of their attendees might die, but you do. Does that put a lot of pressure on you? Races are like weddings. On the day of the wedding, you should sit back and enjoy it. There are things that go wrong, but you hope it happens behind the scenes. At our events, we’re prepared. Everybody has to sign a waiver, and in the event of an accident, insurance kicks in. We prepare for everything. After the Boston Marathon bombings, reports said medical tents set up near the finish line helped save lives and helped with triage. How do you handle medical emergencies at your events? We work diligently with local fire and EMS, and we make sure with the amount of people running on a hot day, we have enough professionals ready for them. As soon as you cross that finish line, we have a tent there if we have to carry someone or put them in a wheelchair. At the Miami Marathon, our biggest sponsor was Jackson Memorial, the largest hospital in the area. They brought all sorts of equipment. We made a few runs to the hospital, because no matter how stocked how that tent is, if someone is really hurting, you don’t have a hospital room. Our questions: Can they get stabilized? If not, we transport them to the hospital. If they mention those important words “chest pain” or “family history of heart problems,” don’t collect $200. Go straight to the hospital. How did the Boston bombings affect you as an event producer? With an event like the Boston Marathon—something that’s that high-profile—it was almost like one day it was going to happen. There are so many bad people in the world. Every big concert, every big game, every other event that went on after that was on heightened alert. But for me, I have to tell my team, “I understand what we’re all feeling, but that was Boston.” We were having an all-women’s half marathon in Myrtle Beach, but your runners wants to see a police presence. We had everyone check in bags and we brought in a couple of bomb-sniffing dogs. We had a heightened police force. When we had empty cardboard boxes, police asked us to instantly break them down. We turned all the empty trashcans upside down before the race. We’re doing more minor things like that. 2013DIVASNMB-3459What other changes do you think will happen as a result of the Boston incident? Bigger events will have to look to a lot more security. At smaller events, making major changes to security is not cost-effective. It didn’t cost me anything to break down boxes or check in bags. The city brought in the dogs on their time. You can’t be scared of everything all the time. Things happen, and if we react forever based on one incident, we wouldn’t be leaving our homes. If you were in training, would you run the Boston Marathon next year? Absolutely. I’m a true believer. And would I go to a race next year with 10 times as much security than ever before? Yes, I would do it.