Once you get going, it's really hard to stop
I got asked the other day (for the 4,000th time) when I think mass live events are going to happen again. The answer I now give parallels the response I tell my 8-year old daughter when she asks, for the 20th time in just as many minutes, "when is the food going to be here?"
"It will be here when it gets here," I say. "Not a moment before and not a moment after."
She doesn't like that answer. But I've never claimed to be Nostradamus and I'm not about to start now. I'm just a guy with opinions that sometimes prove right, and I'm about to tell you another.
Sir Isaac Newton was a famous scientist in the 17th and 18th centuries. Myth has it that young Ike (if I may be so bold as to call him that and pretend I'm his BFF) was laying down under an apple tree one day, perhaps taking a little mid-day snooze, when an apple from said tree fell down and bonked the poor lad about the head. This caused the sudden revelation, and consequent discovery, of the Theory of Gravity.
In reality, we know Newton did actually witness an apple dropping from a tree and, upon pondering why it falls straight down and not, say, up or sideways, he did eventually formulate his Theory of Gravity. We are unclear as to whether or not he was walloped by said apple but, hey, being hit by a fruit sure helps kids remember his name.
Anyway, Newton went on to be a mathematician, physicist, astronomer, author and one of the most famous scientists this side of Al Einstein (another of my BFFs).
In addition to gravity, Isaac also made a momentous discovery around momentum. He famously said (or wrote... or both), "a body in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an outside force."
Had I actually showed up for most of my AP Physics class in high school, I'd probably add a few extra paragraphs here about the impossibility of creating perpetual motion as the machine itself would violate at least the first, and definitely the second law of thermodynamics. But I didn't show up to most of my AP Physics classes, so you are in the clear.
Let me repeat Ike's words, cause they are important to what I'm about to say.
A body in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an outside force.
The Shoe Boom
Unless you've completely checked out of industry-related news over the past year, you probably know that there has been an increase in athleticism during the pandemic, and the growth is expected to continue.
The bicycle market has boomed in 2020 and, based on current behavior, it is expected to grow by $4.2b between 2020 - 2024 (https://yhoo.it/2Zj98oJ)
Similarly, the increase in people running and walking has caused a boom in the athletic footwear industry. According to Data Bridge Market Research (https://bit.ly/3jE84VN)
[The] global athletic footwear market is expected to rise to an estimated value of USD 96.10 billion by 2026. The rise in the market value can be attributed to rising health awareness, changing consumer lifestyle and technological advancements.
All of this is good news, right? I mean, I hear more than a few people talk or write about a running boom (https://bit.ly/3asgKLR). Our industry is going to catapult back to greatness, right?
This, my friend, is where Sir Isaac Newton comes back into the picture.
The Outside Force
There is not a direct correlation between the amount of people running and the eventual number of registrations the industry will see in future years.
If I told you that there was a 40% year-over-year increase in sales within certain sectors of the car market, you may rush to invest some money in gas stations. Then I will tell you the increase is in electric car sales and, consequently, the car boom is actually worse for gas stations. If gas stations don't get creative over the next few years, they can say buh-bye to their businesses.
This is the same with the endurance industry.
The fact that footwear companies are selling more shoes actually has very little to do with event participation.
Remember, a lot of people used to go to spinning and yoga and throw-truck-tires-until-you-puke classes. Those places have been shut down during the pandemic but it's not like the class-goers are just going to sit around and do nothing. Oh, and those classes are beginning to open back up.
According to Running USA's National Runner Survey, the average runner participated in 7-10 events per year and they've done that very consistently from 2015 to 2019.
Let's remember what Newton said: "a body in motion stays in motion."
The body in motion, in this instance, are all the people consistently participating in 7-10 events per year. When somebody is used to doing an event every month or two, they've built momentum and will continue to keep that same momentum until such time when that movement is "acted on by an outside force."
Let me introduce you to COVID-19, the outside force.
With little to no endurance events over the past 12 months, the year 2020 destroyed the momentum of avid event participants. Because of this destroyed momentum, they were forced into different behavior.
Toto, I Don't Think We're In 2016 Anymore
Up until 2016, the endurance event business rode a wave of "if you build it, they will run." Every year we saw greater and greater participation and the biggest challenge was simply securing a date.
This wasn't just running either. Through the early 2000s the triathlon and cycling businesses grew by leaps and bounds. Ironman events would sell out in minutes. Even walking became one of the fastest growing fitness activities.
But then event organizers got an awakening in 2017 that really smacked them upside the head in 2018. Numbers began to go down and suddenly everything that we did to attract participants in the past wasn't working as well. Not as many people were registering and they definitely weren't registering as early as they used to.
I'm not going to get into the reasons for this drop in participation, because it's not my point. My point is that event organizers, in hindsight, had it easy up until about 2016. After that, you really had to work smarter for your money.
In talking with some event organizers, it sounds like the knowledge of more running shoes being sold is being translated into the belief that we will have a boom in event participation. People are beginning to think we're headed towards Easy Street, like the event industry experienced in the early 2000s.
Consider this a warning. And one in which I hope I'm wrong.
But going back to Newton, participants have lost their momentum with event participation. They are no longer used to participating. That's done. As we all know, it is so much easer to keep an object moving when it is already in motion than it is to build momentum with an object at rest.
Simply said, I think it's going to be more challenging than we think to get people back to mass event participation.
In true entrepreneurial fashion, I am an eternal optimist. There are no challenges in my mind, just opportunities. But this COVID thing, well, it's a challenge.
If there are any thoughts I can give here, it's the advice that no event organizer should assume event participation will go back to normal. We lost sight of normal in March 2020 and it's not coming back into view anytime soon.
It's the ones who are most creative, the ones who are asking the right questions and truly listening to the answers, the ones who believe that our future events can be different than the past, can be better than the past, can be more engaging than the past... these are the event companies that I believe will flourish in the years to come.
We've gone through an intense time of change. Our industry came to a screeching halt. Now it's up to us to build back that momentum and get things moving again. It's time for us to change. Without change, we'll end up like a gas station in a world of electric cars.
So let's go. Let's start building that momentum.
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