The impact of COVID-19 on the mass-participation event sector has been widespread with thousands of events postponed or even cancelled completely. The disruption has been felt by event organizers of all sizes and although the negative impact has been widely acknowledged, a major question remains; how and when will the industry recover?

With access to thousands of runners, triathletes and cyclists who have actively participated in events within the past 12 months, inphota conducted a survey* designed to help understand current athlete sentiment in relation to the return of mass participation events with the objective of generating insights regarding customers’ feelings towards key aspects of the industry’s recovery; when will customers return, what will they expect when they do and, importantly, are they ready to start registering for events again?

Although nobody can be sure what a recovery will look like exactly, as a business that supports the industry by developing tools that help event organisers better understand and more effectively engage with their audience, we wanted to leverage our access to known participants of mass participation events to develop an understanding of the current customer sentiment.

It is our aim that this report will be of benefit to organizers by providing actionable insights that  support planning of the safe reintroduction of events and help increase the speed of recovery at the point that mass-participation events return.  

When will events return?

The question that we’re all eager to answer is “when will participants feel comfortable attending events again?”

Given what you know about the pandemic today, at what point do you believe public health officials in your country will allow participation sporting events to return?

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The survey responses indicate that athletes are not expecting an immediate return to events with Q4 2020 (43%) and Q1 2021 (23%) representing the modal responses for expected return of mass participation events.

The results of this analysis paint a positive picture for the return of mass participation events with 58% willing to return once appropriate permission has been granted and a further 25% keen to return earlier.  

Key insight - An athlete's desire to return to events is influenced by their motivations for participating, knowing why your audience chooses to participate in events will help indicate who is likely to return first.

What is the “New Normal”?

Knowing the “when” and beginning to understand the “why” athletes will choose to return to events is a great starting point and leads on to the next important question for event organizers everywhere; what will they expect when they do return?

Given what you know about the pandemic today, moving forward, what size event(s) would you be comfortable participating in after a return to gathering is allowed?

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The chart highlights current customer desire and should be noted that at the point of writing a vaccine for COVID-19 is not available and is a major influencing factor on the size of events that participants are willing to attend. The positive outcomes are that athletes are willing to return to events without a vaccine being made available, however, the majority will not attend events of more  than 500 people (70%) and 29% are only looking to attend events of less than 100 people.

In relation to adaptations to operational aspects of an event athletes value physical distancing at the startline (39%) over any other factor showing that there is a desire to return to events and an acceptance that it could be some time before a vaccine is made available.

Key insight - The combination of the size of events that athletes are willing to return to and criteria in relation to physical distancing at the startline suggests that a rolling wave start could be a key consideration in relation to the reintroduction of events.

What impact will there be on registration behaviour?

An important aspect of the industry's recovery is going to be cash flow; we all want customers to start registering for events again but if we promote an event too soon then we risk wasting precious marketing budget advertising to an audience who are unwilling to commit.

Given what you know about the pandemic today, how far in advance would you be comfortable registering for an event?

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The results highlight a significant degree of uncertainty amongst athletes with only 29% willing to commit to a registration more than one month in advance of the scheduled event date.

With athletes unsure when events will return, event organizers will need to consider the aspects that will make them feel more comfortable committing to a registration. The most important factor here is refunds. There has been significant debate around this topic amongst event organizers and undoubtedly it will continue to be a heated topic of conversation. Taking into account the strong feelings on this subject amongst athletes it is important to be clear about refund policies in the event of further event cancellations if you wish to secure registrations.

82% of those surveyed would feel more comfortable registering for events if full refunds were permitted in the event of subsequent cancellations, however, it’s important to note that this jumps to 93% when you take a segment of the audience that had registered for an event that was subsequently cancelled as a result of COVID-19 and did not receive a refund.

Key insight - We’re all in this together. Athletes are feeling nervous about committing to an event registration for fear of losing money as a result of further event cancellations. It’s important for event organizers to have a clear and concise refund policy in place to help rebuild consumer confidence. Furthermore there is a case for the introduction of innovative registration solutions that can ease concerns and build customer relationships with a focus on increasing lifetime value.      

How has COVID-19 impacted exercise habits?

There will be challenges that the industry needs to address during the process of reintroducing events but there are also opportunities on the horizon. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many considering health and wellness, with numerous reports suggesting that there has been a rise in the number of people taking up running and cycling.

Looking at users of the inphota platform, there has been an overall trend towards an increase in physical activity recorded. Activity levels increased by 77% since the first recorded cases of COVID-19 in the regions surveyed and a further 51% upon the introduction of free to enter virtual events.

Key insight - Market growth - people are becoming more interested in exercise and wellness as a result of COVID-19 presenting an opportunity for the mass participation events industry to bounce back stronger.  

Virtual events, a viable alternative?

With the data showing that participants are not willing to come back to events immediately, virtual events provide an opportunity to capitalize on the increased interest in physical activity and grow your customer base, relieving the pressure on marketing campaigns when events do return.

If we continue to look at virtual events as an enforced substitution, a necessity in the context of the situation then they will be viewed in this way by potential participants. If however, we consider why participants either choose or choose not to engage in virtual events then we can develop a blueprint for their use that can help those who are new to sport to form habits that can last a lifetime.

The themes emerging from the participant feedback highlight different segments of the audience, those who see virtual events as an excellent way to stay active and work towards long term health and fitness goals and those who compare to real world events and don’t see virtual as a comparative offering. It’s interesting to note that training alone, describing events as races and focusing on a level playing field are suggestive of a highly competitive audience.

With reluctance to register for real world events at this moment in time and understanding of motivations to participate in virtual events creates a strong case for virtual events being used as a customer acquisition tool, allowing organizers to build relationships with participants who will likely convert into registrations to real world events upon their return.

Analysis of registrations to a virtual event held by one of inphota partners highlighted that 65% of those entering the event had not attended the real world editions of the event.

Key insight -  Virtual events may not be an adequate substitute for competitive athletes but they offer a way of engaging and acquiring a new cohort of customers that can aid the mass participation event industry's speed of recovery post COVID-19.

This article has been developed by taking the key themes from a comprehensive study in relation to the reintroduction of mass participation events, to read the full report visit:

*A total of 2,109 responses were recorded from residents of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman, accounting for  83 different nationalities.