After almost 5 months without events, participants have returned to a startline in the United Arab Emirates for the first time since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Having supported the first running event to return to the region we were keen to learn more about the participants motivations to return and feelings towards key operational changes. Combining data from the inphota platform, Race Result timing system and responses to a post-event participant survey to build a greater understanding of who and why participants returned.

Providing a glimpse of the ‘new normal’ the Yas Mall Indoor Run incorporated a number of operational changes as a precaution to maintain the health and safety of the participants including limited capacity, wave starts, contactless aid stations and removal of post-event medal ceremony.  

The first to return

Returning to real world events was a big step for many, particularly as there was widespread uncertainty regarding the likelihood of the event taking place and increase in entry fees to cover additional operational costs.

Our recent athlete sentiment survey provided a starting point for the research by highlighting that competitive athletes were 18% more likely to return to events than those motivated by health

Assessing data from the event’s timing system to understand if this hypothesis held indicated that the average finishing time for the 2020 edition of the event was 12% faster than the comparable event in 2019.

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There is also a noticeable difference in the distribution of finishing times, with an increase in the proportion of the audience running sub 30 minutes on the same 5km course.

Key insight - The significant shift in the average finishing time and the distribution confirms that competitive athletes are more eager to return to events.


For many the first event to return was an unknown quantity. Furthermore, previous research had suggested that many participants would prefer to wait and watch what happens to the initial events before making a decision to return post COVID-19. A participants’ decision to return in this context suggests a level of trust in the capabilities of the event organizer to successfully deliver a safe event.

Looking into the participants' relationship with the event organizer we noted that 64% of the attendees were known to the event organizer, having participated in at least 1 event in the past 2 years. What is interesting to note is the frequency of participation, on average those who participated had attended 14 events during this time period indicating that loyal participants were the first to return.

The correlation between frequency of participation and eagerness to participate suggests that advocacy will play an important role in driving registrations for the first wave of events to return.

It was noted that for this event there was a 2x higher Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) on paid marketing than recorded for the same event in the previous year. Understanding that trust is an important factor in securing registrations event organizers would be wise to consider how they can engage their existing audience base as customer relationship management will be key to building trust and encouraging advocacy among your event’s most loyal customers.

Key insight - Your first attendees post COVID-19 will already be known to you, 73% of attendees felt that the event organizers reputation was a defining factor in choosing to attend.

Registration trends

Trust not only impacted the CPA but also the rate at which participants registered for the event, although registrations in the region are normally 'last-minute' there was a higher than normal late rush with daily registrations 2.7x higher in the last week of registration.

The difference suggests that participants were unsure if the event would be taking place and as a result waited until the last minute to commit. As previously noted in The Return of Events study1, refunds are a hot topic among participants and clear policy in relation to this could help encourage earlier registrations.

Key insight - Participants are likely to wait until the last minute to commit to an event, considering how to build trust and encourage earlier registrations will be important.

Motivating Factors

Post event survey data conducted through inphota’s proprietary market research tool - a product that provides event photographs as an incentive for completing surveys - enabled us to look further into the motivating factors of those who returned. The insights gathered provided an understanding of why participants choose to come back and what operational changes were most important to them.

Participants were first asked how safe they felt with the safety measures that had been put in place, then asked to indicate which of the implemented safety measures was most important to them. It is important to note that participants felt that safety measures in place were adequate and 93% indicated that they felt very safe when attending the event.

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With staggered starts and specified arrival time the most important aspects it suggests that participants are not as concerned about the overall event attendance but the number of people they will come into close contact with.

Key insight - Participants are not as concerned about the number of attendees an event has, instead focusing on the measures to limit the number of people they come into close contact with.

Shifting expectations

Our previous study, The Return of Events: Athlete Sentiment Study, indicated that only 46% of participants were willing to attend an event of 250 or more participants. Repeating this question enabled us to understand how perceptions have shifted among participants who chose to return.

Noting that the number of participants happy to attend events larger than 250 people has increased to 77% of those surveyed provides positive signs for the industry's recovery. As participants see events returning their confidence will grow and with it a willingness to return to larger events.

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Key insight - Customer confidence is increasing, in two months there has been a 67% shift in favour of attending events larger than 250 people.


With immediate restrictions on the size of events, pricing is an important consideration when looking at how events can become profitable.

For this event prices were increased to compensate for reduced numbers with tiered price increases based on the contest entered. The price increases were as follows, however, it should be noted that the event was traditionally much more affordable than comparative events and that pricing was increased to bring it in line with market rates.

  • 2.5k - No Change
  • 5k - 100% increase
  • 10k - 200% increase

By switching from a flat rate of entry to a variable rate based on the distance, the event organizer inadvertently introduced a pricing technique known as asymmetric dominance or Decoy Effect.

The pricing ensured that there was an option to participate for those who were unwilling to accept a price rise whilst providing the opportunity to increase revenue from customers who were less sensitive to price.

The impact on the option that participants selected is highlighted below,

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There is a notable shift in the proportion of participants selecting the 5k run, an 8% swing from 2.5k to 5k, demonstrating the impact of the decoy effect. Considering the additional revenue that was generated from each 5k sale this was important to the overall profitability of the event.

Participants were asked if they would be willing to accept a price increase on future registration fees. The equal split in responses, 49% in favour and 51% against shows that pricing will always be subjective and that there is certainly not a single solution to pricing strategy that will work for all organizers.

Despite the split in perception of price rises, the event was a sellout and the post-event survey revealed a high level of customer satisfaction through a positive NPS score.

If you communicate the need to increase prices, explaining the operational changes put in place to ensure safety then participants are more likely to accept price rises. Furthermore, when making a decision on price rises it is worth considering the overall value proposition of the event. For example, providing free photographs to participants can be a very visible offering that helps customers accept any price rises.

Key insight - Consider pricing strategies to maximise revenue from a limited capacity, participants are likely to accept price increases if you are open and transparent with them about the lengths you are going to ensure their safety.

Increasing ‘capacity’

With the event facilities available for a limited time and introduction of physical distancing measures the event capacity was 50% of what it was in 2019. With restriction on the number of participants that could attend the event a virtual event that was held in conjunction with the in person event to provide two key benefits:

  • Maintain sponsor value - The event’s sponsors did not see a reduction in the total audience size.
  • Customer relationship management - Providing a virtual option limited dissatisfaction by providing an option for participants who did not feel comfortable returning to become a part of the event.

Key insight - Running virtual events alongside in person events can provide valuable benefits in terms of sponsor value and customer satisfaction.

Recognition and rewards

Considering the composition of the audience, with an increased proportion of competitive runners, it’s no surprise that the removal of prize giving was a hot topic. A clear theme from the feedback was that participants were not happy that the post-event prize giving had been removed from the event.

Rewards and recognition are a significant motivator for many participants so it is worth considering how you could manage a physically distanced prize giving and acknowledge those who value the recognition that a podium presentation provides.

This is another area where photography helps to increase customer satisfaction by providing a record of the participants achievement. Previous surveys have shown that 72% of event attendees intend to share images on social media so having an area that athletes can capture a podium photo would have a dual benefit.

Key insight - Recognition of participants achievement is considered to be an important part of an event experience, removing prize giving could have a negative impact on customer satisfaction.


The response to the event in terms of participation and feedback provided demonstrates that customer demand for events exists, however, the desire to return is much stronger among competitive athletes.

The research highlighted trust as the main factor in making a decision to return, highlighting the need for clear communication with your existing audience base who are far more likely to be the first to return.

The response to price increases is certainly a positive sign and provides a route to profitability despite reduced event capacities. Pricing changes should be carefully considered and take into account comparable events and the overall value proposition to the customer. The event in question recorded an increase in customer satisfaction when providing complimentary photographs.  

As a commitment to supporting the return of events we are providing complimentary use of our photography powered market research tool to unlock value from participant photo sharing.

The product leverages A.I. to automatically filter and subsequently brand all images that meet our standards. Ensuring that photos are made available to participants in record time without compromising on quality.

By uploading your event’s photos to an inphota album you can build a greater understanding of your audience by turning your images into insights.

The pathway to hosting larger events is likely to be challenging, however, in the context of the current conditions, if ever there was a time for the industry to innovate and test new approaches it is now.