24-11-2020 - Blog

Innovating to embrace virtual competition


In face of the COVID-19 crisis, many sports have embraced virtual competition. With the majority of events shelved until next year, traditional sports are looking for alternative ways to engage participants, fans, media and sponsors.

Running is one such sport and it’s fair to say the entire running community – elite and amateur – has felt the impact of the pandemic. And while most would agree that real-life events are not replaceable through virtual events, there is an opportunity to create something different to satisfy stakeholders.

The Geneva 20km by Genève Aéroport, which was scheduled to take place on the 1st November 2020, would normally welcome almost 4,000 runners to the start line. This year however, organisers OC Sport had to adapt the format, and instead turned to a ‘connected’ race with innovative technology solutions to deliver a unique experience for runners.

Participants were invited to run one of three distances, a 5km, 10km and 20km, on the banks of Lake Geneva at any point from the 1-22 November. But what really makes it stand-out is the communications tools, as Elodie Mens, Marketing and Communications Manager explains.

“We developed a dedicated website and an app to allow runners to track themselves and upload their results, but what makes this event unique is the integration of the audio guide allowed participants to track their position in comparison with runners who have already completed the challenge – a first in Europe.”

Benjamin Chandelier, Outdoor Events Director at OC Sport, says despite the challenges, creating a connected Geneva 20km by Genève Aéroport is an opportunity to reach more people.

“The big challenge is to work on a brand-new concept and to do that remotely. We had to find new ways to engage people around the race and create a community. The sense of community is quite different from a physical race, but there is an opportunity to grow that as we can erase the notion of borders. Participants can race whenever they want, we offer more dates, and we can target more people. For us it’s a chance to explore new possibilities and offer an innovative concept in order to stand out from our competitors.”

It has also been a way to keep sponsors engaged and show they can still reach fans despite the situation. “We’ve definitely had to discuss new agreements with our sponsors to deliver our obligations and ensure their visibility,” Chandelier explains. “Virtual events, or connected ones such as the Geneva 20km, can offer other possibilities in terms of visibility, especially through the app and all the options on social media. I think in the future, the balance between virtual and physical events is something we need to consider, as both have value.”

Choosing to pivot from a live sporting event to a virtual one has been a necessary action for many organisers, and what has surprised many is how effective the shift has been in generating fan interest and engagement.

In May this year, the OC Sport team were set to deliver the World Health Organisation Walk the Talk: The Health for all Challenge. The pandemic forced the team to rethink things however, and the event went virtual, running like an online global relay, connecting WHO Regional and Country offices around the world.

“The WHO virtual challenge was fairly early on in the pandemic, and so we had to adapt in a short period of time. Our role was to come up with the concept, define the programme and tools, coordinate the events in liaison with WHO and to work with the partners for content,” explained Chandelier.

The virtual concept that the team created offered people the opportunity to participate in a variety of virtual, timed events for all ages and abilities, and in accordance with guidelines for COVID-19, with nearly 7 million individuals joining in.

“The event was a great success. We were able to satisfy our client WHO, and to reach millions of people and encourage them to take part in physical activity.”

While organisers such as OC Sport are showing their agility by adapting, coming up with creative solutions to engage fans, participants, sponsors and media virtually can only help the sports industry, even after the pandemic has passed.

And while virtual races can’t replicate the buzz of a packed start line, or the encouraging cheers from a crowd, Chandelier says virtual races are the next best alternative.

“We miss the direct contact with participants, volunteers, suppliers and contractors, the pressure we can feel just before the final countdown and the smiles on the finish line. But this opens new opportunities for us and our partners and we want to ensure we can still offer something during the pandemic. It’s in our spirit to be agile and innovate.”

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