How Chris Robb is Impacting Millions of Lives with Mass Participation Asia

Sanchit MalikEvent Management, Webinar

Be it emerging or developed countries, we see a trend inclined towards fitness all around us. People spend more time in taking care of their mental and physical fitness than before. Mass participation activities such as running, cycling, triathlons, and yoga have all gained increasing popularity in the last decade. Although these mass participation events have always been enjoyed in European countries and in USA, we noticed their recent rise in Asian countries like India, China, Singapore and Indonesia.

Townscript got a chance to interview Chris Robb, CEO & Founder of Mass Participation Asia, Asia’s leading annual mass participation sports conference. Chris has been closely working with the mass participation industry for the last 35 years and has witnessed the transition of the industry from using manual methods to using technology to organise mass participation events.

We are excited to walk you through Chris’ journey in the mass participation industry and his take on the future of the industry.

  1. How did you get started with Mass Participation Asia (MPA) and what are your future plans?

The whole idea of Mass Participation Asia was to bring the industry together on an on-going basis to share best practice, to promote collaboration. If we learn together as an industry, more people’s lives are benefitted and the industry gets benefited commercially. That’s the primary motivation and it started 3 years ago in 2015 wherein we organized Mass Participation Asia conference in Singapore followed by Thailand and in Singapore this year again. We are also in advanced discussions with Singapore government to anchor this event here for next 5 years alongside the Singapore Marathon. This year in Singapore we had 60 speakers from around the world including IAAF, European athletics, representatives from New York Marathon, Chicago Marathon, Avid World Marathon Majors etc. This is a wonderful opportunity to share knowledge.

In my last company, where I was caught up in the day to day operations of events, with MPA it is interesting to look on an event from the outside. Now I’m more of an advisor and able to impact the industry through Mass Participation Asia. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been on the helm of events with more than a million people, so I’ve also been able to help millions more through charities.

In 5 years from now, I see MPA as a series of events around the world with culminating in Singapore. We plan to have several 1 day events in different regions like Europe, India etc. that are workshop focussed, have a Singapore event to host the annual industry award with an innovation showcase to bring people more and more together.

2. Your book on Mass Participation Sports Events is a detailed manual for any event organiser who plans to organise events in this industry. Would you like to share about it and its contribution to the industry?

My book jumps into details, because a lot of this is education. When I wrote the book in 2015, I thought to myself, “here I am with over 30 years of experience in the industry, wouldn’t that be great if I could share it with people who can use it to kind of shortcut their career to make it easier for them in terms of learning”. Also, MPA can draw on that so that everyone who attends the conference gets a copy of the book, and people can buy it on amazon.

Another evolution of that education that I’m offering is that next year I’ll introduce my first ever Mass Participation master class, which will be a 12 month programme with monthly modules and 15-20 participants from around the world. The objective is that participants will work very closely with me and the peer group, through webinars hosted by me, and one on one mentoring session to help participants problem-solve as they grow their businesses, or impact the mass participation industry globally if they are working for not-for-profits or corporates.

If this is successful, the intention is we’ll have hundreds of leaders part of this master class who will then be training other people within their organization. And together we are building a stronger robust industry across all verticals.

Typically, this industry is most focused on running but uniqueness of MPA is that it focuses on triathlon to some degree, cycling to some degree, obstacles to some degree, and my sense is we all have similar challenges and opportunities – sponsorship, and funding whether it be gross, or entry fee or revenue. We need to get everyone rated, we need platforms like Townscript irrespective of the event type, we need to get planning, we need to get risk management. The principles are all similar. To be able to share that knowledge and collaboration, I think we might be able to impact the industry better.

3. You mentioned that you plan to host satellite events in different regions. What is the idea behind that and how are you visualizing it?

One of our real focus is around education and what I recognize is that whilst it is a wonderful opportunity being an anchor here in Singapore, it is not the cheapest city in the region to come and spend time in. You’ve got people in other emerging markets like India, and Thailand. Singapore can be a pinnacle but I feel I can send the education to other markets, with running or other 1-2 days events that are more specific to these markets. Singapore is unashamedly an International event. Of the nearly 250 delegates we’ve got who’ve registered for this year’s event, more than 50% of them are coming from overseas.

Is there is a way we can visit a country like India and see if we can have people flying to Mumbai and Delhi and have a more relatable transfer of knowledge? While we will have international speakers, most of the delegates will be local. We know that people from other markets want to visit the Asian markets and explore opportunities here.

The approach is not about bringing in a bunch of experts telling Indians or Chinese people how to run events. Let’s collaborate and see in what ways we can learn from each other. Undoubtedly, there’ll be things that people will take away from India that they can learn and apply elsewhere, and then we all globalize in the industry.

4. It is relatively difficult for companies from mature economies to come to developing countries to organize mass participation events because margins are lower and competition is higher. What is your opinion about the mass participation sports and activities in developing countries?

The business model between developed markets like Europe and America, and South East Asia and Asia are completely the opposite. There are many events in Europe and America that survive entirely on their entry fee revenue.

Now in Asia, without significant sponsorship and government money, the commercial model is unattainable. That presents issues for the industry as well. If events had to rely over one sponsorship avenue, the participant entry fee doesn’t deliver for them. For the industry globally, the biggest opportunity is around engagement. I see so often, that companies don’t spend time with the existing participants they already have a relationship with. There’s an opportunity for engagement not only for events but also for brands.

5. What will you suggest to the new entrepreneurs who are trying to build their business in this industry and can’t survive on only entry fee revenue?

It is often where people go wrong. Even in MPA conference, we had a session on “From Passion to Profits”. What you often have is these entrepreneurs who are runners who think they are going to organize a run but have no real business acumen to drive them and become barely surviving hand to mouth organisations.

Sponsorship is key. In various markets, government grants is important. My understanding is that’s not prolific in India. What is important is analyzing – what are your different revenue streams. Then it comes to engagement – can you create year round training programmes so that you have the opportunity to monetize your data? It is not that simple but try to be creative about what are the other revenue streams.

6. According to you, what are the 3 major key points to keep in mind for a successful race management?

One, it is all about people and relationships – your relationship with staff, sponsorers, participants and government agencies in case of grants.

Two, not necessarily an operational one but surround yourself with mentors when you are young and starting out. Reality is that there’s many people out there who share their time and knowledge. I currently mentor many people and I love doing that.

Three, being very clear in understanding all elements in your P&L. As your businesses grow, being very clear on what are the parts that you are adding on. Are they really making sense?

There are people doing portfolio of events and delivering 15 events a year and they are scratching the surface. They’d be a much better business if they had 50% of their events being focused on. Less is sometimes more. I spoke about alternate revenue streams but that can sometimes be a contradiction. Be very clear on your financial data analysis and what impact it is having on your business.

7. What are your thoughts on how Race Managers can leverage technology to improve their race experience for the participants? How do you think technology will impact this industry in coming future?

Change is incredible. I’ve witnessed timing 10,000 runners with manual systems using sheets of paper. Technology is crucial and it will continue to transform the industry – from access to photographs to running data to integration of heart monitors. But where does it go from here? Artificial intelligence, using facial recognition – there’s so much evolution which is super exciting but where is it going to go I have no idea. If you think about this industry in 10 years time, the integration of technology in the industry is going to be so different. Timing participants is going to be way simpler than it is these days.

From race management point of view technology plays an important role in the whole command and control thing. In a hypothetical situation, if there is a thunderstorm on the day of the race, there is no way for the organizer to reach out to make sure everybody reaches home safely. I believe tech application will apply in this sort of space. Facial recognition will also help in identifying certain terrorism threat; communication with participants will all have impact on management.

At the same time, the reality of this industry is – however well you are supported from technology, it is an industry that cannot be talked behind the desk only. There is no substitute of being on the ground, or on the race site. As the industry evolves, there’s going to be more people building on that storage bank of experience but this exponential growth of the industry can be concerning. With such growth, safety, medical, and customer service become an issue. Whilst we can have as much tech as we want to support it, it also comes down to how well experienced and well trained are people on the ground. It is very difficult for robots/tech to replace these jobs.

Mass participation industry is definitely an exciting space to look at right now. We hope insights shared by Chris will not only help you in understanding the industry better but also guide you to steer the management of your mass participation events.