The spread of COVID-19 has already had a far-reaching impact on the Mass Participation Events industry, leading to cancellations and postponements of major events across the world. With uncertain times ahead it’s time to ask ourselves what can be done to minimize disruption of an industry that consists of a high number of small businesses.

Enforced cancellations of events have put many organizers in an unenviable position with the difficult decision: refund participants and incur financial losses, or withhold refunds and risk loss of reputation with customers. In the past week, we have seen several debates on how best to manage the process of event cancellations in a way that encourages customers not to seek a refund, with deferrals and converting events to virtual challenges mooted as possible solutions.

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Virtual challenges such as Run Disney, shown above, attract participants with unique and creative medal designs.

For major marathons with annual dates and ballot entries, the attendee has a greater incentive to defer, but when it comes to the grassroots events that the industry is built upon, will customers be happy to accept a deferral when an organizer is unable to confirm a rescheduled date? Where does this leave the event organizer who has already committed to purchasing items such as merchandise and medals?

This then leads us to virtual challenges. Virtual challenges are not a new concept, with the most common method involving a participant completing a specified distance in their own time at a location of their choice. With results often self-validated, participants are asked to share proof that they have completed the activity to claim their reward. This provides a way of issuing participation medals but requires a lot of additional work on the side of both organizer and participant and raises the question: is this an acceptable substitute for a customer who paid for a race-day experience?

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The Data

Having completed a research study of over 10,000 mass participation attendees we learned that the primary motivation factors for participants choosing to enter an event were:

  • Goal setting/Health Improvement (25%)
  • Enjoyment of race-day experience and course (15%)
  • Recognition and Rewards (9%)

With this in mind, the current method of approaching virtual challenges may appeal as a training aid but doesn’t replicate an event experience in a way that motivates consumers to participate in physical races. The current method of managing virtual challenges has proven to be effective for large events with international recognition such as the New York Marathon, where virtual challenge offers a way of participating for those who did not secure a spot through a ballot entry, but does a local 5k or 10k have the same appeal? What happens if every event organizer transfers their event to a virtual 5k, run on a treadmill or around the participants local neighborhood? Suddenly every event has lost the unique point of difference that motivated the customer to register in the first place, and it’s likely that participation will fall, and event organizers will receive a high proportion of refund requests.

We are therefore left with the question: how can localized event organizers run a digitized, decentralized event that has customer appeal whilst remaining respectful of the policies put in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19?

The Product

Our participant research suggests that most mass participation attendees make their decisions based on finding a way of motivating themselves to improve their health, with the ability to record their efforts and receive recognition as key factors. With this in mind we focused our product development to create a solution that meets customer needs, and we are delighted to introduce Time Challenges by inphota.

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For event organizers the product allows events to be run on a specified course and rewards are to be granted without the need for encouraging large groups of individuals to congregate. We offer a way for people to register for and complete a real-world course at a convenient time during a specified event window, providing a way of managing an event without encouraging group gatherings that would risk further spread of COVID-19.  

For participants, Time Challenges offer a ‘virtual experience’ that closely resembles an event-day experience by  enabling efforts on a specified course to be tracked digitally using their mobile phone or connected wearable device. Courses are predefined and anyone who wishes to participate in a challenge can do so at a convenient time, with their completion time displayed on a leaderboard immediately. An event organizer can then quickly and easily access information on those who have completed the challenge to fulfill completion rewards.

Although the majority of those surveyed are not motivated by competition in the sense of winning, it is important for them to benchmark their results against others. Time challenges ensure that there is an effective way to manage results without creating an operational burden on event organizers or a barrier to entry for participants. The real-time leaderboard allows participants to get immediate feedback on their efforts and organizers to effectively manage a process of reward fulfillment where applicable. This is achieved through a one-time Strava pairing, linked to a participant’s account, reducing the need for manual processing of results and improving the participants race day experience.

Innovation in the Face of Adversity

The current challenges facing the industry encouraged us to challenge traditional thinking and in doing so we have developed a virtual product that supports a race day experience rather than competing with it. The product allows an organizer to digitize either an entire route or a section of it, providing scope for creative sponsorship activations within an event, such as the final KM of a marathon or a tough climb within a cycle sportive, once physical gatherings recommence.

If you, like many, are experiencing event cancellation woes and seeking a solution that allows you to retain revenue whilst keeping participants happy then please get in touch by emailing to discuss how you could convert your planned race into a inphota Time Challenge.