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Keeping the Show Wheels Turning at the Spectacular SunBet Arena

The thrill of a crowd and the experience of state-of-the art audio visual equipment, combined with an international artist – a recipe that has had Lara Portelli, Events and Entertainment Manager of the SunBet Arena at Time Square, hooked since joining Sun International in the 1990s.

From gala dinners for 1 400 people, to music shows for 10 200, Portelli, who grew up in Gqeberha, has seen it all. During the course of her 27-year career, she has rubbed shoulders with Tina Turner, Quincy Jones, Meat Loaf, Jackie Chan, Westlife, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sarah Brightman, among other international superstars and celebrities who have visited Sun International properties in South Africa.

 “My first role with the company was as guest relations officer at The Lost City, where I was involved in major events such as the Miss World pageant, and co-ordinating film shoots, adverts and movies that were filmed at Sun City,” Portelli said.

With ample experience in the entertainment and conferencing industry, Portelli worked as Group Events and Entertainment Manager, and also held this position at Sun City, before taking a short break and joining a sporting and entertainment industry company. “Here, I learnt about commercialisation of venues and how they run massive stadiums. But when the opportunity arose to come back to Sun International, I jumped at it.”

In late 2021, when the bright lights of the stage were still extinguished by the pandemic, Portelli joined SunBet Arena at Time Square in Pretoria, the biggest purpose-built concert arena in the Southern Hemisphere.

“I was recruited during the pandemic to prepare a Covid management plan and to get the venue ready to re-open after almost a year without any shows. On June 15 2022, SunBet Arena opened its doors once again to 5 000 people – 50 percent occupancy – for the All White Soul and Comedy Festival.

Not even loadshedding can dampen SunBet Arena’s enthusiasm – their show generator keeps the music playing and the lights on for uninterrupted entertainment. “We have to switch it on 10 minutes before loadshedding happens, and then the power runs seamlessly, and the team sets their watch alarms to remind us to flick the switch.”

With events such as the Time Square NYE Block Party, with 15 featured artists and thousands of people attending, means that the generators have to be reliable.

Hosting a show sees a minimum of 500 contractors employed in the precinct, including security, ushers, cleaners, health and safety and medics. “A big show has up to 650 staff, and the spin off for Tshwane and the restaurants and businesses around us is huge.”

International artists are flocking back to the world-class venue, with successful shows from Backstreet Boys and Counting Crows held recently, and UB40, Trevor Noah’s Live in South Africa, Westlife, Tamia, and Boyz II Men later in the year. Having luxurious accommodation at Maslow Time Square Hotel right next door means convenience for the artists. 

Portelli is proud of her team’s skillful production efforts which keeps the Arena in tip top shape and one of the country’s leading concert, conference and corporate event venues.

“Kevin Hart (the American comedian) said he had done 298 shows around the world, and only the two had started on time and had no cellphone infringements – these were both at Time Square.” The show was the first time in South Africa when guests’ mobile phones were placed into a magnetised pouch so that they could not be used to film the show.

Watching an audience laugh, hug or cry while they are engrossed in a performance is something Portelli will never stop loving. “I get huge enjoyment from knowing I have built a world class team who makes the magic happen.” Portelli’s advice to other women in the entertainment and conferencing industry is to “find your purpose in growing, building and supporting the team around you – their success is your success.”

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