How event organisers are navigating COVID-19

The COVID-19 global pandemic has changed our lives completely.

The way we travel, socialise and exercise, to name a few, happen in a whole new way now.

When it comes to sporting events, the intensity of the change is no different, mass participation events have been one of the most affected by COVID restrictions.

In this Q&A, Suzie Ryan caught up with three commercial event organisers; John Guise from World Series Swim (Queensland), Grant Siedle from the Rip Swim (Victoria) and Mark Emerton (Emo) from Elite Energy Events (NSW) to see how they have navigated the event world with COVID-19.

1. Thinking back to when COVID was just hitting, how did you think COVID was going to affect your business/events?

John: We knew it would have a huge impact in 2020; mass gatherings were always going to be the last to bounce back after COVID. We were always holding out hope for our 2021 Summer of events to be held, though.

Emo: I suppose my attitude is “go with the flow”. If I was going through this alone, I would have been a little concerned and worried, but I knew we were all in this together, and we could ride the COVID waves of ups and downs together. I feel we were very honest and upfront right from the start and made our athletes aware of the difficult situations event organisers are in. A few personal emails explained why no event organisers are in a situation to offer 100% refunds.

The day any funds are paid is when those funds start to diminish (even before race day, cancellation or rescheduling). These funds are consumed by bank fees, registration platform fees, staff wages, submitting approvals to the many authorities, overheads, marketing, design and ordering of event merch (t-shirts, towels, medals etc.), and this list goes on.

Grant: At first, I thought we would just need to adapt and then it would settle down.

2. What impact has COVID ended up having on the events you run and your business?

John: It has been a real rollercoaster!  We have now had to cancel a new event, Swim the Gold Coast, in both 2020 and 2021, but there was more demand than ever for the events we could hold.  The Bondi to Bronte Swim had to go virtual in 2020, and although that is never the first choice, it proved how strong the swimming community really is – it was a huge success, and swimmer engagement online was really impressive.

Emo: I do feel that Elite Energy has been reasonably fortunate in that we have been able to squeeze most of our major events in during the safe (if there are any) periods. Our numbers at events have increased, and this (we feel) is due to two factors;

  1. People are extra keen to get out and race, participate and just enjoy exercise.
  2. By having some events postponed/cancelled means that “event cramming” has occurred, and thus all our athletes will cram 12 months of racing into eight months so that they can get all their racing in. 

Grant: I have had to reschedule a few events and cancel some training sessions, but so far, I have been lucky that demand is still strong for next year.

3. How have participants responded to cancellations of events?

John: Overall, really supportive.  I think most realise the position that organisers are in and that any COVID related health order is completely out of our hands.  There is a lot of frustration, though, across all mass participation events.  People train hard for longer distances, especially, and they have made a lot of sacrifices.

Emo: 99.9% of our clients have been very supportive and very positive. This all starts from communication at the beginning and not wait until it’s too late. Being honest with the athletes and explaining the situation will gain benefits down the track.

There have been a few unhappy customers, but when we deal with over 50,000 athletes per year, we will always get a few that are unhappy. Also, keep in mind that during these times, there is a lot of stress, tension, financial worries etc., so cash in hand is very precious to many, and we like (if possible) to accommodate for these personal issues.

Most of our athletes usually just roll their entry to the same event (when rescheduled) or apply for a credit to their next event, and this is a positive outcome for all.

Grant: People understand that it is beyond our control. In some cases, we have given refunds, but most people were happy to rebook another date, given The Rip Swim is quite a bucket-list swim.

Swimmers on the start line of the Cooly Classic
A World Series Swims event in Queensland.

4. Have you run any events during COVID with restrictions? How was the experience, and what was the general feedback from participants?

John: Yes, we have run a couple of events with COVID restrictions in Queensland from February to April 2021, we held three events, and the response was fantastic.  With so many cancellations, I think swimmers were just grateful to have any events to participate in.  So the support for all the new rules around how the events needed to operate was amazing.

Emo: Running events since covid have had many restrictions and operational challenges along the way. I do feel that no one ever had the right answer, and all were jumping into this new global challenge called COVID, so many of us learnt along the way.

For the first time in over 20 years of being in the events industry, I feel that many event organisers have worked together and helped each other through this pandemic. From collaborating and charing COVID Plans, sharing ideas and concepts around mass participation challenges pre-event and during an event to just calling each other and asking, “how did your event go”. Building these relationships helped many event organisers and confirm they are “not alone”, and this flowed to the participants who (we hope) felt confident that we all were doing our best to deliver COVID Safe events.

Grant: Yes. People did not notice too much difference part from wearing masks on a boat to the start! And there were no social functions afterwards.

5. Where do you see the future of events going with the current circumstances?

Emo: I do feel that we are all heading down the “No Vax No Race” pathway. I do feel that we will have no option but to only have participants who have been fully “double-vaxed” to enable confidence events will be delivered as safely as possible. The “no vax no race” policy will always ruffle some feathers, but we are all in these exceptional times and need to do what is best to keep events moving forward, athletes safe, and businesses afloat.

I do also feel that events will grow as many have found exercise during COVID as a way to cope with the challenges we have been dealt with. COVID has also allowed many to look at their own lives and redirect some of their business hours into sport, exercise, relaxation, energy and family, all with positive outcomes.

Grant: I hope to still be able to run my standard events as they are all less than 50 swimmers. Fingers crossed!!

6. What do you think will change and what will stay the same in the future in terms of events because of COVID?

John: Early Summer events will undoubtedly still be affected in some states, but hopefully, in 2022, we will see more stability.  I think if borders can stay open, everyone will enter events with more confidence, and that will play a big part in the whole industry bouncing back.

Emo: As I said above, I believe the change post-COVID will see events happening only for the vaxed. I do feel we all will have no option as restrictions will be in place to not allow for the unvaxed to be a part of social gatherings. Like it or loath it, I do believe it’s here to stay.

Grant: Perhaps some events may need to run on a smaller scale and charge more. Virtual events may take the place of real-life ones, but without the human factor, events are never quite the same.

I wish everyone luck and really hope we are able to get back to enjoying the outdoors like we used to.

Participants swimming in the Rip Swim
The Rip Swim, Melbourne.
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