Large Events Progress Report: Moving Forward in 2021

It was only two months ago that we declared that events were back, citing dozens of small, local races and a handful of modified events exceeding 1,000. For all the optimism we felt then, even we underestimated the speed and velocity of event returns. Given the rate of change in the industry, it’s time to check back in and assess.

Vaccines, Reopenings, Travel

The vaccine rollout in the US picked up significantly in the spring, with nearly 60% of the adults in the country at least partially vaccinated, and shots now available to kids 12 and up. With the progress in vaccinations, case counts and hospitalizations have also fallen sharply.

C.D.C. recommendations have also shifted and cities and states across the country are beginning to reopen and remove gathering restrictions. On May 15th, the C.D.C. recommendations were updated to say that fully vaccinated people do not need to mask outdoors or indoors (except as required by the state or local regulations or business guidelines). Although mask mandates and specific restrictions may remain in place in some states and cities even after re-opening, the opportunities for events – especially outdoor events to return are drastically increased. As of this writing, 31 states are considered open, with 7 more scheduled to open by June 1. The NYTimes keeps a relatively comprehensive list of the state of opening in each state.

Along with reopenings, states are also lifting any remaining travel restrictions. And a recent poll indicated that 80% of Americans plan to take at least one domestic overnight trip this year. With increased travel, destination races are set to rebound.

Large Races Return

With the return of more normal activity, we are starting to see large races return alongside smaller community events. While there are still modifications, large events are mostly expecting to return in some capacity by Q3 and Q4. While plans vary widely by location and race, trends include:

  • Postponement. Most large events that are typically scheduled for Q1 or Q2 opted to either go fully virtual or push their race date to summer or fall.
  • Hybrid options. Most events that are planning an in-person race are including a virtual option. Even the Boston Marathon will offer a virtual option in 2021.
  • Race format changes. Several large events are choosing to reduce crowding by offering multiple days and/or multiple race courses for athletes. For example, Bolder Boulder is giving participants 6 courses to choose from over 3 days, assuaging concerns about crowds gathering in the small city.
  • Participation caps. While many races are able to continue at or near their normal size with changes to the start process and finish line, several of the largest have announced reduced sizes. The Austin Marathon in April reduced capacity by 53%, the Philadelphia Marathon is cutting their field by 50%, and the TCS New York Marathon is limiting their participation to 33,000 (compared to 53,000+ in 2019).

What does all of that look like in practice? We took a look at races from our 2019 list of Largest Races, and the status of the events in 2021. Some events have not yet made a decision, and there is still room for things to change, but this paints a clear picture of progress within the industry. All race status information is pulled from news releases, race websites, and publicly available information as of 5/22/21. Updates and corrections are welcome.

Q1 Races

Races that are typically held in Q1 had the toughest road forward in 2021. Most were forced to either go fully virtual, cancel, or postpone to later in 2021. The Gate River Run in March did successfully host a hybrid race in March 2021, with an in-person field of 8,000.

Races highlighted in purple have postponed their event to later in the year.

Q2 Races

Q2 races were the most likely to postpone their event to later in the year, with half of the events opting for a postponement and planning for an in-person or hybrid event. However, more progress was made during the quarter, with the Kentucky Derby Festival races taking place over 4 days in April, the Bolder Boulder going off on 6 courses at the end of May, and Grandma’s Marathon still planning on a June event.

Races highlighted in purple have postponed their event to later in the year.

Q3 Races

The summer heat of Q3 usually makes this a less popular time for large-format races, but there are a few marquee events traditionally held in July, August, and September. While two have postponed to fall and a few have not yet made an announcement, Q3 races largely expect to move forward with a hybrid format.

Races highlighted in purple have postponed their event to later in the year.

Q4 Races

Two things stand out when you look at races that are traditionally in Q4:

  • Most events expect to proceed with a hybrid or in-person event.
  • In a normal year, Q4 has more large events than any other time of the year – and this chart doesn’t include the many races highlighted above that are moving to the fall.

While we saw similar optimism about fall 2020 at this point last year, the likelihood of these races actually moving forward feels much higher. This time last year, the Boston Marathon was just about to cancel, with other major races following in quick succession. This year, confidence is high that races will be able to move forward.

Recommendations: Act NOW

When we look at the plans above, we note two things:

  1. We expect a busy fall race season, with athletes eager to travel and race again. Some large races have already demonstrated their viability and many mid-sized events are proceeding in Q2, but by late Q3 and Q4, we expect to see large races roaring back.
  2. We expect a busy fall race season, with a ton of competition each weekend this fall. The season that has always been the busiest for running is getting even busier due to postponements.

So how do you proceed to guarantee success?

  • Don’t wait. If you’re planning an event for later in the year, the time to promote it is now.
  • If you have a small or midsized event in Q2 or early Q3 and you’re able to get permits for it, keep it on the original date rather than postponing. It’s better to be one of the first races happening than to fight the big names for a weekend in October.
  • Offer a hybrid race, with virtual options. Your virtual race may be much smaller than the in-person version, but the additional registrations can help make up for any losses due to competition.
  • Lean into social. We saw tremendous success in 2020 with social marketing tools like referral rewards and grout/team incentives. After a year of isolation, people are more motivated to gather than ever – give them an extra nudge, and your supporters just may invite their friends and family to join them at your event.
  • Be strategic. Rather than framing the busy fall as merely an obstacle, look for some advantages. Is your half marathon now just a few weeks from a full marathon? Market yours as a training opportunity. Or, work with local race organizers to build a race series and cross-promote each others’ events. Again, get your message out early and get on the calendar now.
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