Billed as ‘the highest and toughest cyclosportive in the world’, the Haute Route has become a major event within the European cycling community and has recently announced an expansion into America. In a booming era for both the sport and mass participation, it is carving out a niche of its own.
By Adam Nelson
The long straight of the Avenue Rauski, which runs south out of the French city of Pau into the Basque Country and toward the border with Spain, is the perfect vantage point from which to see the scale of the peloton competing in this year’s Haute Route Pyrenees. 415 amateur cyclists are about to pass the official starting line ahead of the 1,350m climb to the summit of Col de Marie-Blanc, the first of three peaks during the 159km second stage of the race.
The three events currently on the Haute Route calendar – rides through the Pyrenees, Alps and Dolomites – take place in three successive weeks during August and September and are advertised by their organiser, OC Sport, as ‘the highest and toughest cyclosportives in the world’, a billing that feels fully justified from any of the nearly 60 peaks along the way. With mass participation sports events booming and cycling undergoing a surge in popularity across the continent, the Haute Route is taking advantage and reaping the benefits.
From small beginnings in 2011, when it launched with just one event – the Alpine route from Nice to Geneva – the concept has flourished in the past few years. In 2013 the Pyrenees route was established, from Anglet on France’s Atlantic coast to Toulouse, and in 2014, the Dolomites was added, running from Geneva to Venice.
The rate and scale of the growth in just four years is impressive. 240 cyclists competed in the inaugural edition of the Haute Route Alps in 2011; 2015’s instalment of the same race featured the biggest peloton to date, with 650 riders lining up in Nice. The 415 riders on the Avenue Rauski in Pau represented just over one quarter of the 1,600 who took part in the three Haute Routes over the course of the summer.
For Rémi Duchemin, chief executive of OC Sport, the increased numbers are an obvious source of pride, and useful as a demonstration of the success of the concept. But in terms of future growth, saturation may have been reached.
“The maximum theoretical capacity is 500 riders per week,” says Duchemin. “But it depends on what week we are talking about because in the Pyrenees, the accommodation capacity in some venues is more limited than in the French Alps, so in the Alps for example we had 650 riders at the start, and we can do it because the venues are a bit bigger than in the Pyrenees. But in the Pyrenees or for the Italian venues, 500 to 550 riders is the maximum we can accept. 1,600 riders across the three events – this is our maximum capacity.”
The Haute Route was developed following the merger that created OC Sport, between what was then OC Group and the company co-founded by Duchemin, ThirdPole – a noted organiser of mass participation events, most prominently the Geneva marathon. The concept was to take a distinctly OC Group approach to mass participation, applying some of the high-end gloss and marketing nous for which the company had become known through its sailing events to a cyclosportive.
“The combination of the companies started bringing up new ideas and new concepts,” explains Julie Royer, project director for the Haute Route. “At the time we met with Jean-François Alcan, who is now the race director of the Pyrenees and the Alps, and he had the idea at the back of his mind for a couple of years, the concept of the Haute Route. It was quite different to what the Haute Route is now, but it was a concept. He approached the company and it was the right time for OC Sport to throw themselves into that new challenge. We saw in the Haute Route something that was missing from the market. It was definitely a first at the time.”
The three current Haute Routes take in some of the most iconic cycling locations in the world, several of which are shared with the Tour de France.
Royer argues that what really makes the Haute Route unique is how it takes the ‘mass’ out of ‘mass participation’ and focuses on the bespoke experience of each customer. The market niche that OC Sport filled was providing a complete package of accommodation, meals, transportation for the luggage and even a post-race massage, so that riders could take a cycling holiday which focused purely on the cycling.
“It is a mass participation event but that’s not really how we want to see the Haute Route,” says Royer. “For us it’s not ‘mass participation’; it’s really a client relationship that we are building with our participants. We know them by name, pretty much. We are trying to create that relationship and deliver the event as a unique experience for them. By growing the numbers too much you are losing that relationship with them. We organise mass participation events like the Geneva marathon, with 15,000 people running over a weekend. That’s mass participation for us.”
There are, certainly, cyclosportives on a much larger scale: the famed La Marmotte Granfondo, for instance, accepts 7,000 riders annually, and the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire Ride, the sportive sibling of the UK’s newest professional race, welcomed 6,000 participants in May 2015. But these events take place across a single day, and entrants are personally responsible for everything except the route.
With the Haute Route, on the other hand, “the clients enter into our bubble on day one, and they leave this bubble the last evening,” says Duchemin. “In between, the organisation has to care about every single aspect of the life of 500 or 600 riders during the seven days. Whether it’s the racing aspect, or whether it’s the food, the briefings, the accommodation, the medical problems, the transportation of the luggage, the post-race massage – every single piece of their life you can imagine during seven days.”
In comparison with any other cyclosportive, or indeed almost any other sporting event, “it’s a much more demanding organisation”. He adds, “The ratio between the number of organisers and number of riders is important. We have 180 people to take care of 500 or 550 riders, because we have to take care of all the aspects of their lives. Safety is always the first priority of the organisation.”
The Haute Route’s unique selling point, then, is its commitment to the comfort and safety of every participant, so that their attention is entirely on the cycling itself.
“I think the DNA of the Haute Route is ‘ride, refuel and recover’,” says Royer. “We really want the riders to come and have a unique experience where the only thing they have to think about is what they’re doing on their bike, and we’re trying to support everything else from the accommodation to the food to the massage and all the logistics.
“The challenges always come from the logistics,” she adds. “The logistical problems of 600 riders come mainly from accommodation – we are accommodating 70 per cent of the peloton. We’re looking after obviously booking the place for them but, as well, we are delivering the bags from one hotel to another. 500 bags need to go from A to B, on our side it’s six trucks with six guys who are doing that all day, it’s a massive logistical operation for them. It’s about four tonnes of luggage per person per day throughout the few weeks, so those guys are doing a mammoth job.”
Because of its itinerant nature, the number of people and the amount of equipment involved, the Haute Route is logistically one of the most complex events for organisers. Duchemin is well placed to contrast the Haute Route with both other mass participation events and with the professional end of cycling, having worked for many years for the Tour de France and its organiser, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), before cofounding ThirdPole.
650 amateur cyclists joined the peloton in August to tackle the Haute Route Alps, an 855km journey from Nice, France to Geneva, Switzerland.
“Amateur cycling and professional cycling is two different worlds,” he says. “I worked for the Tour de France for many years so I see very easily the differences. In fact the main one is when you work on the Tour de France you focus on the race and the racing aspects of the event, and you put in place a village at the start and a hospitality area on the finish line. And that’s it. All the accommodation, transfers, food, flights, internal communication, internal briefing, is all guaranteed by the team, and not by the centralised organisation.”
Royer adds that, given the locations visited and the unpredictable climate, there has to be plans A, B and C in place for any eventuality with the weather or other unforeseeable event that could affect the race, scaling from putting on extra drinks stops in the midst of a heatwave to hiring coaches and vans to transport 500 riders and their cycles to the accommodation in the worst-case scenario that an event has to be cancelled.
The Tour de France has passed through Pau on 66 occasions, putting it third only to Bordeaux and Paris in the most frequently visited cities on the tour. As the Haute Route riders tackle the descent down La Pierre St Martin, the first summit of 2015’s Tour, back toward the city, they are greeted with the chalk messages written by fans on the asphalt to Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali et al.
The Haute Route’s intention is not to create an amateur Tour de France – a niche already filled by L’Étape du Tour – but nor is it by coincidence that the route passes this way. Aside from their obvious natural beauty, the Tour has made these mountain ranges “the most iconic cycling route that you can find on the planet”, according to Duchemin, partly motivating the initial choice of location in 2011. Duchemin refers to the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites as “the triple crown at the top of our pyramid” which will remain their gold-star events, but says that one measure of their success so far has been the changing attitudes of host venues.
“If I remember before the 2011 edition we had to convince the venues to accept and welcome the Haute Route, and we had to make some very difficult negotiations with the police and the prefecture for the road priority and permission,” says Duchemin (left). “Now it’s the opposite. This year during the Haute Route I think every day I had two or three representatives from venues who want to discover the Haute Route from the inside, and wanted to convince us to come to their venues.”
In 2017 the Haute Route will break out of this stretch of Europe for the first time, launching an event in the Rocky Mountains, USA. Specific locations have yet to be officially announced, though with 4,800 kilometres of mountain range to choose from, organisers are spoilt for choice, and interest from potential host venues appears high – Duchemin claims that “during this Haute Route we had three US venues coming to Europe to engage with us and see if we can make a deal for 2017”. Firstly, in 2016, a smaller, trial event will be held in the Rockies to test the waters as OC Sport dips its toe into a new market for the first time.
“There are certain key things that, if we want to export the Haute Route, they are the concept we are exporting,” explains Royer. “But it always comes with challenges and a little bit of change where we have to. If I take the example of the Italian market, it’s quite different from the French market because the relationship with cycling is quite different. In France we can go deep into the Alps and people will know what we are doing, but moving the concept to Italy we face a lot more difficulty to recruit marshals, we struggle a bit more to get the authorisation that we need on the road.
“It’s purely due to the knowledge of cycling that we’re facing in the different market. And again in the US, where cycling is booming and it’s one of the growing markets in cycling, we still need to get a lot more knowledge on what we can do, how we can make sure the riders are safe on the roads.”
Further expansion, should it come, will be slow. Royer talks of the importance of maintaining the aforementioned ‘DNA’ of the Haute Route, and ensuring that any further events capture the same feel so that OC Sport “deliver an event that is ‘the Haute Route’, and not just a similar concept in a different place”.
Part of this consistency will be provided by the Haute Route’s commercial partners. French cycle manufacturer Mavic became a main partner of the Haute Route for the 2015 edition, having supported the events since the beginning, and has already signed on as title sponsor for the Haute Route Rockies. Similarly Tag Heuer, the premium watch brand, became the races’ official timekeeper earlier this year and will hope to capitalise on the manoeuvre into the lucrative American market in two years’ time.
For Mavic, the Haute Route offers an obvious opportunity to work closely with cycling enthusiasts and develop that brand connection. “It’s a way to engage with customers during a long period of time, and it’s a difference from coming out to other events,” says Duchemin. “It’s a limited number of customers, yes; we’re speaking about 500 or 600 customers only. But they have the customers directly with them for seven days. So you can engage, you can experience with a customer and it’s a strong way to interact with your customers for those brands.”
Tag Heuer’s motivation is slightly different, and speaks to the profile of the typical Haute Route participant, who Duchemin describes as “the new cyclist”.
“Today our clients on the Haute Route are largely executives coming from the UK, the US, Mexico, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, etc, and it’s not the traditional cycling base we have seen in France or Belgium or the Netherlands for years,” explains Duchemin. “It’s mainly people who have started cycling in the last five or six years – ten years maximum – and these guys have become totally engrossed in cycling, and they live for cycling. They train, they buy cycles, they buy kit, and it’s clearly the new generation of amateur cyclists.
“For Tag Heuer, they don’t care about professional cycling and the big names, etc. They are interested by the profile of the ‘new cyclist’. They see a lot of bridges between their other clients and the new cyclists. Same profile, same expectations, same demand.”
That there is overlap between the profile of a Tag Heuer customer and an Haute Route participant will perhaps not help with the perception of exclusivity that surrounds this kind of sportive, though Royer argues that the OC Sport is doing what it can to keep the Haute Route as open as possible.
180 members of staff are on hand to tackle the logistical challenges presented by the Haute Route.
“It is expensive if you look at the figure at the bottom of the website, but when you include a week experience and a week holiday it suddenly is not that expensive,” she says. “What we are trying to do with our two accommodation packages – the entry fee is the entry fee, we can’t have two levels of entry – but what we are trying to do is to provide a very good value basic accommodation which means for the week you can pay about €250-300 for a week accommodation. It’s basic but it does the job and that allows people with a little bit less income to still be able to do the Haute Route. That’s something we don’t make any money off, it’s a very basic package, but that’s how we’re trying to attract more people and keep it open to keen riders.”
Another step has been the introduction of the Haute Route Compact, a three-day event which serves as both a feeder to the main ride and as a budget option, allowing many more people to get involved.
“The concept of the compact is quite new, we only launched it in 2013, and the idea was to create a feeder event, so someone who can’t take a lot of time off family or work or someone who feels they are not fit enough can come, have a little taste, see how they feel and then come back next year,” says Royer. “With the riders who did the compact in 2014, 70 per cent of the riders doing the compact came back in 2015 for the full week. So that’s clearly what we wanted to see from the compact and it’s something we want to keep doing.”
Royer draws this back to the Haute Route’s attempts to connect with its customers and clients, to build a relationship with them rather than creating a buyer-seller paradigm. As a measure of the success of this relationship-building, Royer claims that 30 per cent of riders each year are returning from the previous year, and that the majority of new riders are there on the recommendation of someone who has been previously.
“We’d love to think that it’s our marketing activation that makes the difference but to be honest it’s the word of mouth,” she says. “It’s people who have done the Haute Route who are talking on their Sunday rides with their friends, just sharing their experience, that’s who brings us the newcomers. One rider will come with two next year, so it’s really engaging with the communities that brings us the new faces.”
“Work in progress” is a phrase Royer drops into the conversation on more than one occasion; about the Haute Route Compact, the evolving relationship with sponsors, and the expansion of the concept into new territories. The so-called “triple crown” at the heart of the Haute Route’s business, though, seems fully formed after five years of development and growth. With that “DNA” established, and a passionate client base who are returning and introducing new customers all the time, the challenge is to see how much higher the Haute Route can go.
This article was originally published in the November 2015 edition of SportsPro magazine.
After its acquisition by Dalian Wanda, a corporate restructure at marketing giant Infront Sports & Media made its active lifestyle and endurance business one of its fi ve key pillars. Hans-Peter Zurbruegg, the man charged with heading up that new division, runs the rule over the current state of the mass participation market.
By Adam Nelson
The office of Hans-Peter Zurbruegg, director of active lifestyle and endurance at sport marketing giant Infront Sports & Media, could be adorned with a sign: ‘You don’t have to be a marathon runner to work here, but it helps.’
“I have a big passion for endurance sports – I do Ironmans, I run marathons – I love this type of sports,” says Zurbruegg who, between Infront’s tie-ups with the World Marathon Majors (WMM) series, the Frankfurt Marathon and the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), among others, has responsibility over more mass participation and active lifestyle events than anyone else in the business. As he explains, it doesn’t just help to have a passion for your work: sometimes they go hand in hand.
“Actually the idea to work with the Berlin Marathon came to me during running the marathon in Berlin!” Zurbruegg says. “I thought, this is such a beautiful event, with 40,000 participants and one million spectators so close around the streets, there must be something we can do together. So I called the two managing directors about three weeks after the event, set up a first workshop and a couple of weeks later we had our second [mass participation] partner after WTC.”
This was in 2012, during the formative period for Infront’s work on mass participation sports. It had won the marketing rights for the WTC’s Ironman series the previous year and, though there was some growth, triathlons were still overwhelmingly a niche event, especially when compared with the scale of the big marathons. After the Berlin Marathon deal however, says Zurbruegg, “the idea started to grow”.
“We had strong successes immediately with both partnerships.” he notes. “With WTC we improved their production and media elements, we did the same in Berlin. In our first year, we took over the entire media production and brought it to a really top level. As a result we managed to bring the event back on the public broadcast channel ARD, meaning much higher reach. Finally, we also were successful in acquiring new sponsorships immediately.
“One year later we had an acquisition opportunity for the biggest running series in Germany. It is a corporate running series called B2RUN, which we’ve already expanded into other countries, so the whole active lifestyle portfolio gets bigger and bigger.”
In addition, the company now represents the Frankfurt Marathon and, crucially, the World Marathon Majors, the first time the ‘big six’ marathons – Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York – have been marketed on an integrated platform.
The sector’s expansion has been such that Zurbruegg is now the first ever director of active lifestyle and endurance at Infront, with the division having been created in February 2015 to reflect mass participation sports’ prominence within the company’s structure.
“We decided to put up the active lifestyle and the endurance division as their own strategic pillar of Infront,” explains Zurbruegg. “Next to football, winter sport, summer sports and media production, this is basically now the fifth strategic pillar of Infront.”
Participants pass through the iconic Brandenburg Gate in this year’s Berlin Marathon, one of the ‘big six’ in Infront’s portfolio.
The restructure came in the immediate aftermath of Infront’s acquisition by Chinese investment firm Dalian Wanda, in order, according to a press release at the time, ‘to strengthen the management of its mass participation property portfolio to increase strategic focus on this growing business segment’. It was a reasonable augury of things to come. In August 2015, Dalian Wanda made its second major acquisition of the year in the mass participation sector, purchasing WTC for US$650 million, claiming that the deal would see the company ‘become the largest sports operating company in the world.’
Purely in the world of mass participation, Zurbruegg doesn’t believe this is overstating the case. “I think we can consider now our entire partnership – Infront, Wanda and WTC – if you combine these assets in active lifestyle and endurance, I’d say it’s definitely now the global leader in this field,” he says.
“But obviously it’s an extremely fragmented landscape. There are so many events everywhere and our mission is also to put in more structure, maybe structure entire series on a global basis, but there are of course individual market players who you will never be able to acquire because they are just owned by clubs. For example, the members of the WMM series, you cannot own these type of events.”
The ability to claim ownership over entire events and series is something Zurbruegg cites as a major advantage for agencies in the mass participation business.
“In comparison to winter sports, summer sports and football, in this business you can own events,” he says. “In football, everything is owned by federations or leagues. But in mass participation you can control and own events. This is of course an extremely nice complementary asset to a sport marketing company like Infront.”
In the specific case of WTC, Zurbruegg claims that “when we lined up the partnership with WTC a couple of years ago, we always had the vision that at one stage WTC would be for sale and we would have the best in roads and leverage and relationships for an acquisition”. Infront’s “extremely strong partnership” with Wanda enabled it to “achieve our vision”, with many observers speculating that Philippe Blatter, president and chief executive of Infront and noted Ironman enthusiast, had been the driving force behind the deal.
“With Ironman, with WTC, you own the best operator in active lifestyle events,” Zurbruegg (left) explains. “They have a unique network of operational capacities around the globe, from New Zealand round to Hawaii. They have, everywhere, teams who can set up and perform at an extremely high level of operational excellence; they can do this type of event. With Ironman, you nearly own the sport.”
It is nevertheless surprising to see a marketing agency like Infront – whose other major clients include the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Fifa, the German Football Association (DFB) and several major soccer clubs – investing so heavily in mass participation properties, which have traditionally proved much less marketable, lacking in reliable stars and brands around which to build a campaign.
“Why is it interesting for a sports marketing agency to get engaged in this now?” Zurbruegg asks. “I think there are several factors. One factor, certainly, there is a very strong underlying growth trend for this type of business. On a worldwide basis you can notice that there is an increasing consciousness for an active lifestyle - toward health, wellbeing, fitness and so on. Furthermore, sport offers both a recreational activity but also a new challenge. At the time when material interests are satisfied, people tend to strive for more. They are looking for ‘money can’t buy’ experiences, for individual satisfaction, and that’s exactly what you get during these events.
“I think the best way to explain it is if you run a marathon and cross the finish line, this type of emotion is really hard to get. You can buy a nice watch, you can buy a nice car, but you cannot buy a finish in a marathon or an Ironman. For this you need to train half a year or even a year, and this is why at the end that feeling is so intense.”
One of the most significant areas for this growth is Asia, particularly China, where Infront is making its biggest inroads. While interest in mass participation events in the west has grown gradually, in China, the rise in a middle class with expendable income has occurred concurrently with a rapid increase in uptake of recreational sporting activity. “The growth of this middle class is expected so strongly, it will be in a few years as big as the entire European market,” claims Zurbruegg.
“Obviously a lot of active lifestyle and endurance trends start in the US, come to Europe and finally go to Asia,” he explains. “That happened with the first jogging wave in the 1970s; now it’s exactly the same thing. I think one key thing is certainly the entire development in Asia. Asia will grow in the coming years at an extremely fast pace, and gain significance not only due to the economic development but also and particularly due to the affluent middle class sector which is extremely well positioned also for the entire entertainment business and growing interest in sports. This will be a key driver for active lifestyle in the entire Asian market but particularly, of course, also in China.
“You see it when you talk to elderly people in China,” Zurbruegg observes, “in their generation running was simply a sport that you don’t do. Today, with a lot of Chinese people having studied in the west and they brought back this active lifestyle culture and you see nowadays people are running in the parks in China, and everywhere in Asia.”
Dalian Wanda’s purchase of both Infront and the WTC has created the ‘global leader’ in the field of mass participation, according to Zurbruegg.
To that end, Infront has recently created its own event series – as opposed to simply working on behalf of an existing property – for the first time. The Happy 10k series, explains Zurbruegg, was created after Infront “saw more demand for more fun-oriented, family-oriented type of running experience” in China. “We just said: ‘what are the market demands?’” he adds. “And we have seen in China there are already several shortdistance running events but they were positioned in a competitive environment.
“So we positioned the Happy 10k series not particularly as a competitive running event but as a family, happy, active lifestyle running event. And I think that the numbers we achieved prove that the positioning was right. We started in 2014 with five events averaging 3,000, 4,000 participants and that has doubled in 2015, with ten events and up to 7,000 people at each event.”
The idea is to take away the intimidating aspects of mass participation events and get more people on to the bottom rung of the ladder.
“If you think about the entire active lifestyle market,” says Zurbruegg, “you can think about a pyramid where you have the lowest entry barriers into active lifestyle which is running. You only need to have a pair of shoes and then you can go running. Cycling, you need a little bit more, you need to invest in a bike. It becomes more complex when you get into triathlon, in terms of the sportive challenge as well as the training and material required.
“That’s why we see Ironman at the top of this pyramid, and at the bottom is the running events. We want to get more people into short-distance running events Many people enter into short-distance running events, sometimes not even timed. But after a while, they are keen to enter the advanced stage. They want to have a time and start with a 10k event. And next year they ask themselves whether they are even capable of doing a half marathon, and ultimately they want to run a marathon.
“Once you have done that in your local community, basically every runner is dreaming of one of the big marathons, whether it’s Berlin, London, New York, that’s what you will aim for. And then there comes maybe even a next step, moving on to an Ironman. So the short-distance events are a feeder event for the next level.”
Ultimately, of course, Infront’s interest is not solely in getting people running for their own personal wellbeing. WMM series events frequently attract up to one million spectators on the roadsides alone, with many more tuning in to television broadcasts, presenting a big opportunity to sponsors. The advantage Infront is now able to offer, with its associations with WTC and WMM, is giving sponsors clear access to a series of events throughout the calendar, not just a one-off.
“When you talk with sponsors, they don’t want to be a sponsor at just one event,” says Zurbruegg. “They want to have sponsorships or engagements with countrywide series or running series that start in spring and end in autumn. They want to have really broad coverage, more integrated packages, they want to benefit from this extremely emotional environment you have.
“In active lifestyle you don’t have the same type of media coverage as you have for a football game. You have it in WMM and you have it in Ironmans to a certain extent, but there are also events that have no TV coverage at all. But still these events are interesting because of this extremely emotional environment, and because sponsors get direct access to the people.”
Zurbruegg also notes that there has been a shift in the kinds of brands coming to active lifestyle events, due to a combination of all these factors: the emotion of the environment making it a great opportunity for direct experiential marketing, the affluence of the average competitor, and the increased prominence of the events themselves.
“Obviously there are a lot of what we call ‘endemic’ brands, so all the sports, apparel brands,” Zurbruegg says. “In triathlon you have a lot of very specific brands like wetsuits and so on, basically they get access directly to their consumer base.
“But then there are also sponsors like, take for example Abbott, who we brought to the WMM as a title sponsor. They used to be a pharmaceutical company and they developed into a more healthcare, consumer-facing type of company so they saw immediately with covering the WMM you have access to a couple of hundred thousand marathon runners. And the participants, whether it’s marathon or particularly Ironman, their income level generally is far above average. That’s why it’s such an interesting target group for all the sponsors.”
This article was originally published in the November 2015 edition of SportsPro magazine.
Challenge Family: a case study
Though founded in 2001, Challenge Family’s roots can be traced back to 1984. That year, the small Bavarian town of Roth staged the inaugural edition of a triathlon that has grown from humble beginnings and only a handful of competitors to become one of the most legendary multi-discipline events staged anywhere in the world.
Featuring a 3.8km swim and a 180km ride followed by a marathon, what started out as a gruelling event for local enthusiasts became a regional, national and then continental championship before eventually joining the internationally renowned Ironman series run by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC). It was under the Ironman banner that the Roth triathlon became the largest race of its kind, attracting not only the biggest names in the sport but also 5,000 amateur athletes from all over the world and more than 180,000 spectators. In 2001, however, the event’s Ironman status came to an abrupt end.
When the WTC attempted to apply new restrictions on Roth, which had grown so popular that it held a prestige not even the annual Ironman World Championship in Hawaii could rival, the German organisers decided to break away. As a consequence, the Challenge Family was born.
“We completely reinvented ourselves,” says Felix Walschofer, the chief executive of Challenge Family and the son of the company’s late owner Herbert, whose friend had started the race now known as Challenge Roth. “We created a lot of side events around the main triathlon. We started a kids’ triathlon, a sprint triathlon, a relay sprint for local businesses to compete against each other, a women’s fun run; we have a huge rock concert on the market square every Friday night before the event; a night run, a lot of different things because we wanted to offer everyone who comes to Roth, not only the athletes but their families, too, the possibility to join in on the sporting weekend.”
By repositioning the event as a welcoming celebration of all things triathlon, rather than merely a sporting contest reserved for the elite few, Challenge Family saw its famed race go from strength to strength.
“Within only three years the concept worked completely in our favour and the race was completely sold out with a huge waiting list,” says Walschofer. “By allowing relay teams to race after the individual athletes we have it a whole different approach. We gained a lot of sponsors that way because a lot of companies encouraged their people to get fit, to get healthy, to train. We have big contingents of the relay spaces taken by sponsors to give to their workforce or to clients.”
The Roth triathlon has become more inclusive since leaving the Ironman series back in 2001.
On the back of the event’s success in Roth, Challenge Family elected to replicate its unique model abroad and in 2007 the company staged its first overseas triathlon in Wanaka on New Zealand’s South Island. From there the Challenge network has grown exponentially, becoming one of the most recognisable brands in longdistance triathlon with some 26 races in 15 countries spanning four continents.
Challenge Family has, however, remained true to its founding principle of staying rooted in the local community. “We have one point that is extremely important to us: we need local flavour involved,” says Walschofer. “For instance, in Australia all the finishers get handed a big stein with beer. The Aussies absolutely love that but it only happens there. In Taiwan there is a tribe that does spiritual dances and blesses the athletes, etc. We try to work in as many regional things as possible.
“We also try to work closely with the authorities, not only for road closures but for tourism. The race is normally held in shoulder season so we can help fill in the hotels. There needs to be clear benefit for the community – for the restaurants, the hotels, the gas stations, etc – so that everyone sees the benefit of the event.
“This is also why we work with a franchise model where we have locally based organisers that live there, that go and see the firefighters that close down the bike course for us, that can go for meetings with the different teams involved. That way there are strong bonds with each individual community. And then we also try to buy or rent everything locally – whether it’s the grandstand, the tents, whatever else we need infrastructure-wise, we try to do that locally so that as much benefit as possible stays in the communities.”
Though Challenge Family is looking to franchise more events in the near future, Walschofer insists the company’s ethos and the philosophy that underpins its events will endure. “We’re debating where to go next,” he says. “At the moment we have about 120 races that want to join Challenge Family, and only a few of them finally will because we want to go to every race, we want to see it, we need to know whether it’s a fit. We need to see how the attitude of the organisers is towards athletes, towards the communities. If it all fits, then we would go to the next step.
“My key priority for the next 12 months is the same as in the past and it will never change in the future: ensure the highest possible quality for the athletes. We want to blow them away by the races, by little things in the races; we want them to feel part of it, to feel a member of the Challenge Family, and we want them to go home having had a blast.”
This article was originally published in the August 2014 edition of SportsPro magazine.