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Volume 21 No. 34
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Plugged In: Mary Wittenberg, Virgin Sport

Since leaving New York Road Runners in 2015, CEO Mary Wittenberg has been building Virgin Sport, Richard Branson’s latest fitness brand. It’s deliberate work. Virgin is developing a mass-participation event series at a time when most road races and obstacle-course operators are struggling for growth. The secret, she believes, are multifaceted “fitness festivals” with different entry points for consumers tailored to a host city’s unique culture — a stark turn away from the industry’s venture-backed growth plays of an earlier era. After three events in the U.K., Virgin’s attempts to launch in the U.S. were dealt a critical blow when the California fires forced them to cancel a pilot event in San Francisco.

When people today want to spend money and time, they want to spend time with friends and family, and they don’t all want to do one thing. So for us the idea is to recognize that and embrace it and not fit everyone into the same box.

Courtesy of: VIRGIN SPORT

On what the San Francisco cancellation means for U.S. plans:
The plan had been likely for two [additional cities before returning to San Francisco in 2018]. But I really like the idea of a pilot event, which is what we were going to do here. We were going to end up with 5,000 to 6,000 [participants]. That was a great size for a starting point. So we’ll have to sit down and assess now what we do — my instinct today is it doesn’t change all that much. We’re in this for the long run, so it’s not a race for 2018. … I think we’ll still look at a pilot format for the one to two new ones. And then the question is, do you stay pilot in San Francisco, or do you instantly go to a larger size? Sum it up to say, I don’t think this past weekend changes anything long term. Whether it shifts some of the timing relative to the U.S., we’ll see.

On building a new fitness series when the industry isn’t growing: It’s a time of opportunity. I think that you need to be willing to invest in these experiences, it’s a time where great care and focus on the customer and the community is really important. It’s a time of differentiation. Today you can run in so many different ways, you don’t need to go to a big race to get a good workout in. You go to a big event now for experiences, so for us the experience has to be high quality, super spirited and unique, worth traveling and worth paying for. For us, running is part of it, but it’s not the whole story.

On the basic proposition of Virgin Sports’ festivals: The idea is to wrap art, music, fashion, food and fun around a variety of new sport and fitness activities that gives a group of friends, a family, all a chance to be a part of it, and trying to extend beyond one type of athlete getting to be a part of something like this and everybody else being relegated to the role of bystander.

You had three events in 2017. How quickly can this grow? You should expect us to take our time. We are completely focused on the experience of the consumer and the community, first and foremost. For me, the model of really nailing the experience is Airbnb. When you think about their business story, for me it rings true. It’s not about “can we do 25 events or 50 events in 10 years because that’s what a business model says?” It’s all about these early events being really compelling experiences, for the people we’re working with, the consumers, the community and, I should add, sponsors.

                                                                                                                            — Ben Fischer