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Nick Tuppen | The future’s still bright for mass participation events

Nick Tuppen, chief executive of Infront-owned Threshold Sports, an organiser of sports challenge events, predicts the mass participation sector will thrive as society emerges from the Covid pandemic

Photo: Nick Tuppen

In a year of horrific headlines, the mass participation events industry has faced its own unique test of endurance. The combination of a compressed summer event season, limited industry-specific support and changing guidance has pushed many events beyond commercial viability. However, with each new piece of data suggesting the vaccine roll out is delivering there is reason for optimism as we look to a post-pandemic world.

A fitness boom that dwarfs the impact of London 2012

The growth of the well-being industry has been well documented, with high-profile, digital-focused solutions grabbing the headlines with startling valuations. The stock of at-home fitness company Peloton was reported to be trading at a higher rate of projected revenues (8x) than Apple (6x).

However, with limited leisure options in the last 18 months, many rediscovered the simple joy of movement and outdoor exercise. Although stubborn demographic inequalities persist between those on lower incomes compared to high earners, outdoor activity in the UK outpaced expected growth by 82 per cent between March and May 2020, according to Strava – the app and tracking platform that connects millions of runners and cyclists online.

Furthermore, while running, cycling and indoor workouts saw a 1.5-to-2x rise in uploads to Strava, uploads of outdoor walks increased by 3x, suggesting a widening of engagement to more accessible pursuits away from the competitive worlds of carbon fibre and lactate thresholds.

As we emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic, we are seeing those who have been brought into the world of exercise through virtual and digital communities looking to meet up in the physical world. Now is the perfect time for brands, companies and events to engage with this new audience as they embrace their new active life.

UK events to benefit from fundamental changes to travel

The travel industry is rightly pushing for any opportunity to get back to ‘normal’. However, the reality is that even when the immediate threat of Covid recedes, the much larger challenge of climate change will take its place. Already there are talks of short-haul flight bans in Germany, BA pulling out of Heathrow and prices inexorably rising.

The challenge is that the events market was becoming increasingly international, with people willing to travel to showpiece events around the world with cheap flights often costing less than the celebration meal at the end. However, with air travel never likely to look the same again, eyes have turned to the landscapes of the UK, where active challenges are ideal replacements for mini-breaks.

Remote working isn’t enough without human connection

The debates around remote working are often framed in terms of well-being and engagement. However, it is undeniable that the overhead savings are a huge consideration for large organisations. Like all cost-cutting it comes with long-term risks and there is a growing group of companies saying the human interaction that comes with in-person contact is key to their future success.

The days of forging relationships through hundreds of small interactions around the coffee machine may be over, so companies are now looking for ways of fast-tracking engagement of their teams.

Shared physical challenges can forge lifelong bonds in a matter of hours. Preparing for a challenge also unites people behind a common purpose in the months before an event as they get fitter and potentially raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity. You put all those business benefits into one package, and you have a hugely valuable asset.

Heineken UK, for example, have been at the forefront of this with their sponsorship of the Race to the Tower and Heineken Race to the Castle trail events. This year, more than 300 employees joined 1,400 other runners and walkers as they took on a 100km event along the Northumberland coast. In doing so they brought their colleagues together in a Covid- safe endeavour that encapsulated all they stand for as an organisation.

Sponsorship opportunities in this space are limited

We are spoilt in the UK by the number of events to take part in, with grassroots organisations putting on hundreds of events each weekend. However, there are a limited number of premium assets to match the demands of the corporate market.

As budgets are loosened again, there are lots of options for organisations to create their own events. However, demand for the top assets is high as shown by Tata’s recent announcement of a six-year title deal with the London Marathon.

There is an opportunity for companies to emerge from the pandemic with sponsorships in place that showcase culture, raise money, engage employee and clients, and attract talent. But as restrictions lift, the race to secure them is now on.

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