Adaptability was the name of the game for the 2023 IWAS Wheelchair Fencing World Cup, the first major sports event in Loudoun County, Virginia, this year. While The National Conference Center in Leesburg is not necessarily a typical venue for athletic competitions, its staff is accustomed to meeting guests’ expectations.
“We've been rated the No. 1 conference center in Virginia two years in a row because we listen to our customers and we act on what their needs are,” beams The National Conference Center general manager John Walsh. “That’s what we’re known for.”
In the case of the parafencing championship, held Jan. 14-17, 2023, it was not simply about adjusting to meet attendees’ preference. The needs of the athletes were necessities. Indeed, the IWAS World Cup is the ultimate test in a venue’s accessibility—one of the sports tourism industry’s true points of emphasis.
As such, winning the right to host this event was a particular point of pride for Visit Loudoun, the CVB located in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Not only did the World Cup present a chance to show how welcoming the destination is, but Loudoun County was also the first U.S. host for the event since 2003.
Fortunately for all involved, the NCC is an ADA-compliant facility, but that didn’t mean adjustments were not needed. To begin with, the venue was moved from an area hotel to the NCC.
The boilerplate describes the facility this way: With 265,000 square feet of flexible function space, The National Conference Center is a meeting facility that can be rearranged, adorned or completely transformed into the ideal environment for any events. Sports isn’t listed on the website, so this was a rare opportunity that the host site and CVB reveled in.
“As Loudoun continues to be recognized as a sports and meetings destination, it’s exciting to see the flexibility in using the facilities available—in this instance the ballroom of The National Conference Center—to welcome USA Fencing to the first parafencing event on American soil in nearly 10 years,” says Beth Erickson, president and CEO of Visit Loudoun.
Here, we look at how the NCC rose to the occasion for an event that would test any facility.
When the NCC took the handoff for the IWAS Wheelchair Fencing World Cup, the first test was obviously meeting the needs of athletes with special needs. The ballroom and other meeting rooms met the test. Only some of the connected hotel’s bathrooms needed a retrofit to add benches and other accommodations.
With the proper setup, the chief task was driving athletes and fans in the proper direction. Pre-event communication highlighted routes to elevators where needed, and individuals and signs were on-site to keep the traffic flowing away from stairs.
While all of the athletes require wheelchairs to compete, they have little else in common. The 100 competitors represented 26 different countries. Dignitaries included three ambassadors and members of the Department of Veteran Affairs. Signs were in English and Spanish to cover most of the crowd, and those who spoke other languages were accompanied by a translator, Walsh says. Visit Loudoun and the NCC coordinated bus transportation from Dulles International Airport while USA Fencing assisted with the paperwork for visas and other documents needed to enter the country.
Beyond the language barrier, hosting attendees from myriad parts of the world also means they have different tastes in food. Midway through the World Cup, organizers suggested diversifying the menu. On a virtual dime, Walsh worked with NCC’s sous-chef, who is Hawaiian and accustomed to serving Asian-inspired cuisine, to create Korean and Thai meals for the event’s final two evenings. “It was a perfect match and perfect timing,” notes Walsh.
Says Erickson: “I’m very proud of the Loudoun hospitality community for preparing an outstanding welcome for these athletes, their coaches and families. We look forward to welcoming USA Fencing back and are ready to provide this level of attention to any group coming to Loudoun.”
Photos courtesy of USA Fencing and The National Conference Center