Story and images by Carrie Beth Wallace
Graphics courtesy of Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens
The Race for the Arts is on!
Due to COVID-19, this year's Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens will see a marked reduction in attendance, reduced density and capacity in each area, increased safety protocols, and heightened sanitization across the board. What it hopefully won't see, is a reduction in support of its beloved local arts beneficiaries.
We sat down with Mitchi Wade and Caroll Pound, Executive Directors of Steeplechase, for an exclusive update on why and how the Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens will still happen in November. The truth? The beneficiaries it was created for need the Race for the Arts to continue now more than ever.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why have you and your team decided to move forward with Steeplechase this year?
Well, really, our thoughts on this are two fold: One, we know we can make the thorough adjustments needed to host the event safely. And two, our arts beneficiaries need the support more than ever.
We know that we can find a way to move forward with the event safely, and in doing so, we can raise some much needed funds for the arts in our community. It's going to be a unique opportunity for patrons to support the arts this season. Our team feels strongly that hosting the event helps meet the needs of our beneficiaries, and that's exactly why Steeplechase was founded in the first place.
Yes. The arts have been hit hard, and it’s going to take all of us to see them through.
Oh, absolutely. Each of our beneficiaries are working so hard to simply survive right now.
Definitely. The situation is dire across the board. Can you speak a bit more about your beneficiaries’ needs?
Sure. First, it’s important to remember that in addition to COVID-19 impacting daily operations, our arts organizations have had to cancel all events, performances, and ticket sales. None of them have been able to host their usual annual benefits - which typically provide surges of revenue to carry them through the fiscal year. With the exception of grants and donations, COVID-19 has essentially eliminated every stream of income for our local arts organizations this season.
We, as a team, feel as though Steeplechase has a unique opportunity to help our arts beneficiaries as they fight to survive this crisis.
What makes Steeplechase unique to this challenge?
With over 90 acres of land and 100% outdoor capacity, we really are in a perfect position to help. We have the space and the volunteers to make it happen. We just have to make the thorough accommodations necessary to keep everyone safe. We’re making a lot of adjustments. To ensure the safety of our guests, we’re having to be very, very thorough with our protocols and procedures.
Even with the changes necessary, we’re confident that we can still host a great event that is in keeping with the heart of our race. Then, at the end of the day, we can turn the funds we raise right back to our arts beneficiaries. We’re aiming to support them financially and also with an increased awareness in our community.
Each of the above organizations are beneficiaries of the Steeplechase at Callaway.
Wonderful. When you say you’re making a lot of changes for safety protocols, what exactly does that mean? Can you share the plan with our audience?
We’re looking at three main areas we need to adjust for safety reasons. The first is in regard to attendance. We’re really restricting attendance this year. We’re reducing the capacity of everything by half. All of our hospitality tents, Terrace Boxes, and just basically all tickets are cut in half. No individual tickets are being sold. Tickets are only sold as part of reserved seating packages. In all of the tents, the capacity is reduced by half. We’re just really having to limit the number of patrons at the Race.
The second thing we’re doing is that once our patrons are at the Race, we’re reducing the density of where people are. To achieve this, we’re spreading out all of the tents and ensuring we have space between Terrace Boxes, Reserved Rails, and eliminating anywhere people typically would gather in large groups.
For example, there will be a required space between Terrace Boxes instead of each being directly beside one another. We’re also having to reduce the number of boxes patrons can buy in a row before there is a mandatory space.
We’re also limiting the number of people who can gather in each seating area. Density is a major concern, so we’ve set a mandatory number of many people that can be in each location.
What about children?
In the past, we have offered free admission for kids 15 and under. We love to be able to do that, but this year, in order to be able to safely host the event, every patron has to have a ticket. This includes all children. They will also need to stay with their party for the day. We have to be able to account for the exact number of patrons in attendance, and where they are all located.
We also feel very strongly that we need everyone to have a place to be. The reason we’re not selling individual Infield tickets is because typically that is a place where everyone finds their own spot and tailgates. It is so fun, and we can’t wait to do that again in the future! But we feel like everyone needs to have a specific location to be this year. Everyone needs a place to be so that we can encourage and provide the ability for our guests to adhere to social distancing protocols all day.
We’re hoping people will go to the Reserved Rails and Terraces so that we can accommodate them by spreading everyone out. We want everyone who wants to be there, to come. But we simply have to know exactly how many people are in attendance and where they should be at all times.
We need to be able to do this for safety reasons, but also to be able to communicate this to our patrons so that they know we are doing absolutely everything we can to keep them as safe as possible.
Steeplechase 2020's Race Day will look very different this year. Image of a child in the Stick Pony Race (not happening this year) from Race Day 2019.
What about the traditional events throughout the day? Will those still happen?
No. Unfortunately, this year we just cannot encourage people to gather in large groups. This means that many of our traditional Race Day happenings have had to be eliminated this year. This includes the Hat Contest, the Stick Pony Race, the Kids Corral, the Jack Russell Terrier Races. We’re sad because we know these are things that people look forward to every year, but this year we just simply cannot have them this year.
What’s the third pillar of your plan?
In addition to limiting attendance and reducing density in all areas, the third thing we’re doing is a highly increased sanitization plan. We’re doing anything and everything we can to protect the health and safety of our patrons, athletes, volunteers, and staff.
To achieve this, we’re working very closely with all of our local health officials. We’re following the latest directives for health and safety in our city, state, and worldwide from the CDC. We’re paying very close attention to what’s happening in Columbus, but we’re also working closely with the Harris County Health Department. Everyone is working together, and we will do whatever they tell us that we need to do.
We’ve developed our own Race Day procedures that they’re helping us to refine. We’ll have more restrooms, require social distancing, there will be hand sanitization stations everywhere, and we’ll require anything we need to in order to keep our community and our guests safe.
This year's Race Day setup for Steeplechase 2020 will utilize more of the grounds in an effort to spread patrons apart. Image from Race Day 2019.
If a patron doesn’t feel comfortable coming to Race Day this year, what are some ways they can still help support your arts beneficiaries through Steeplechase? Will the Silent Auction be happening?
We’d love to have everyone help us raise support for the arts. The best way to do that if you’re not comfortable coming, will be to purchase a raffle ticket. We will not have the Silent Auction this year.
Really? No Silent Auction? That surprises me.
Yes, I know, but we’ve made the decision for two reasons.
First of all, the Silent Auction tent is typically one of the spaces where people gather the most throughout the day. We simply can’t have that happening this year.
Then, we considered hosting it all online, but at the end of the day, we felt like this was simply not the time to be asking our small business partners for multiple donations.
What a wonderful point. This is not the year. You’re right.
In place of the Silent Auction, we are selling more raffle tickets. We’re hopeful people will consider purchasing Race Day packages to attend, however if they choose not to come this year, we hope they’ll consider buying some raffle tickets.
Our 2020 raffle winner will get a $5,000 voucher for a trip planned by Frances Boyce at Columbus Travel to anywhere in the world. You can use the trip any time in the next 18 months, and Frances will help you plan the entire thing. It’s a phenomenal prize, and we’re thrilled to be able to raffle off such a great prize this year.
Are there other ways to get involved and help Steeplechase support the arts this year?
Yes! Outside of attending Race Day and purchasing raffle tickets, anyone can make a donation to Steeplechase. As always, all proceeds raised will be directly distributed to our beneficiaries after Race Day. Please consider helping us support these incredible and deserving organizations this year.
To Make Race Day Reservations, Purchase a Raffle Ticket, or Make a Donation:
Contact the Steeplechase office at (706) 324-6252.
Stay tuned for more coverage on Steeplechase 2020.
Next up? An interview with this year's Race Director to learn more about how Steeplechase meets the needs of the arts beneficiaries in our community.