Opportunities and Challenges of Mass Participation in Asia

Mass participation has seen tremendous growth in Asia in recent years, with many newcomers, both local and overseas attracted to the industry without fully understanding the business models or challenges it brings. While on one level, this presents risk to the industry from a reputation perspective, it also presents fantastic opportunities for good concepts that are well executed.

From an opportunity perspective, there is clearly an emerging middle class across the region that has more disposable income, is becoming more health and wellness aware and interested to enjoy experiences and concepts that have been successful overseas. My sense is that, in general, the level of authentic ongoing engagement with participants is limited which presents a huge opportunity for brands, events and agencies that are prepared to invest in making their participants feel valued. So often I see virtually the same communication being cut and pasted from year to year – “Dear Chris, we are excited to announce that entries for XXX event are now open, followed by some generic event information and ending with please click here to sign up” Every past participant on the database gets the same message no matter what distance they entered in or when they participated previously. Generic communication then happens at regular intervals until event day and post-event there may be one or two messages followed by months of silence until the next year launches with similar communication.

A step in the right direction can be as simple as “Dear Chris, congratulations again on running the 10k in 65 minutes last year. We are delighted to launch this year’s event and were wondering if you may be interested in taking on a bigger challenge in the half marathon – if so here is a 10% discount code as a valued repeat participant. If you would prefer to run the 10k again, here is a link to a free training program to help you improve your time and perhaps get under the magic one hour mark”. With the software and CMS systems available these days, it is relatively easy to create such customised engagement and much more is possible.

There is no doubt that calendars in many countries are becoming cluttered by, in the most part, “me too” events with little differentiation and basic levels of organisation and engagement. I was recently talking with Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman, and we both agreed that there is still plenty of opportunity in the market for top quality events that deliver value and a great participant experience.

I believe that one of the biggest challenges that the industry in the region faces is its business model. In general, entry fees are still relatively low compared to other parts of the world, partly because of the still emerging middle class and partly because of the point above relating to perceived value. This makes most events highly dependent on sponsors and government grants which creates significant risk should a sponsor not materialise or renew. Other challenges include the approval process and permits which varies hugely across the region both in terms of time taken and costs, also, the limited pool of experienced staff and volunteers in most countries and the significant operational challenges of delivering complex events.

In my experience working in Asia, where requirements can vary massively from country to country, a vital component to hosting a successful event is working with a reliable local partner who understands the cultural nuances and has a reliable network which includes key government agencies and reliable suppliers. I believe creating this partnership is of significant importance and overlooking it is the biggest misstep an organiser could make.

For example, a number of years ago, I was approached by a massively successful overseas concept offering me a licence for Asia and assuring me that they would be in ten markets in their first year. I cautioned them that was extremely optimistic and, in my opinion, highly unlikely but they were not prepared to listen. Years later they have delivered one average event and one terrible event.

I will be exploring this topic in depth when I deliver the closing keynote at the next edition of America’s largest running convention, Running USA in February 2018. Read more about my thoughts here: http://www.runningusa.org/speaker-series-chris-robb and if you’re interested to attend, tickets are available through their website: http://www.runningusa.org/running-usa-annual-conference. As a speaker, I have access to a limited number of discounted delegate passes. Please email me at chris@chrisrobb.asia if you are interested.