COVID-19 disrupted mass endurance sporting events at an unprecedented level this year and the road to returning to normal is long and uncertain.
Lonnie Somers, co-owner of HAL Sports, dubbed 2020 the year of the asterisk and with over 15 years of experience in producing, consulting, and timing/scoring mass participatory endurance sports events, we’re going to take his word for it.
We caught up with Lonnie to talk about the effects of COVID-19 on his 2020 event plans, how he’s navigated the Spring event season, and how he’s planning for the future.
Q: What is Spring racing season usually like for you?
A: Generally, after a good handful of events in the 1st quarter of the year, spring ramps up for us quite heavily with around 35 to 40 runs, walks, and stair climbs. It was quite a whirlwind in March as things were starting to shut down.
About one week prior to the “stay at home” orders, we were just eking getting an event done in Oklahoma City and the next day in Portland. Then one of our fully operated events, Denver’s Runnin’ of the Green, was the first one affected just three days prior to it taking place.
Q: How much of your event schedule was disrupted by COVID-19?
A: In short, all of it! Once the “stay at home” orders took effect, we naively (as just about all other events and event producers) thought this would be a few week disruption and things would be back to normal around late April/early May. Obviously with the severity of the pandemic, that has changed all of 2020 and likely several months into 2021.
We generally work with around 120+ events per year. For 2020, it was almost five months prior to our first in-person event; we will experience about a 90% drop in events and revenues for 2020.
There are so many variables to consider if an event can take place, such as what restrictions exist at the state and local levels, how to handle the additional safety protocols, capped participant numbers, the upfront expenses (which are incurred several months prior to the event), participants comfort level, etc. all have to be taken into consideration. For many of our clients, and even our events we operate fully, we have had to cancel because the economic risk is too great.
Q: What changes, if any, have you made to prevent canceling events?
A: In truth, there isn’t much we or anyone has been able to do to prevent cancelling events. Safety is number one priority and if an event cannot be done safely and economically, it is better to forgo and cancel (or pivot to a virtual experience if possible) in this year of the asterisk.
Mostly for those that it made sense to do so, we have pivoted to virtual experience. It has been quite amazing how quickly our industry of mass endurance participatory sports has adapted to create some really great virtual (or I like to call them “from your home”) event experiences. I expect that when things are open as normal, events will look to broaden their reach outside of their venues with virtual components.
Q: If you’ve begun re-introducing in-person events, what does that look like for you?
A: Early on we have been involved, authored, and consulted on how events could be done in-person and what guidelines would be required. We have been fortunate to be part of a handful of tasks forces and consortiums working with various municipalities, permitting authorities, and even state governments in working to bring events back.
The goal is the upmost safety at an event. The challenge has been how to successfully keep everyone safe with limited touch points, how you manage a mass start, how porta-potties are arranged, how you keep people socially distanced, how you ensure and make clear anyone who is sick stays at home, and that goes on and on and on.
To give you an idea of what an event might look like being done safely (and how we are handling them):
- Advance packet pickups – strongly encouraged to minimize any congregation at the actual event.
- No event day registration
- Events are capped (depending upon what the mandates/regulations are for that venue/municipality)
- Starts are done in assigned waves or start times in a time trial fashion. There are no mass starts.
- Start chutes are set with markers to have participants stand 6 feet apart at all times and once the start happens, they move up to the next spot until they get to the start line and then are directed when to go.
- Masks are required at all times, except when running/walking in the event.
- There are few, if any, aid stations (if any are, they are no-touch)
- Finish areas may have some swag/goodies, but all of it is set up to ensure no to little touch points.
- Awards are being mailed out and done in live-streamed ceremonies (zoom for example) at a later time or date.
While this is the current look of an event, we work hard to still make the experience fun for our participants.
Q: What new obstacles have you encountered for events in 2020?
A: Well besides getting to a point of having guidelines, the biggest obstacle initially was the unknown. With all the work put into plans for having events, would participants still find events fun with the requirements and would they comply? I have been extremely thrilled at the support and compliance by participants at in-person events.
Really our biggest obstacles are getting the permitting authorities to vet the guideline plans and get common acceptance. Just because our state and main city has approved, doesn’t mean that every municipality will allow events to take place or they are severely limiting them so economically it isn’t feasible to have the event.
Q: How have you overcome those obstacles?
A: Stay tuned! Getting all authorities to adopt the guidelines is going to take time. We have to also realize that at the county and even venue level, we may need to be more restrictive depending on how the pandemic is affecting them.
There is nothing we can do to force things to happen, but we need to keep the conversations going. I truly believe the work that the tasks forces have done actually create a safer event and less chance of any exposure than just being out at the park on your own or even going to the grocery store. Now we just have to get the permitting authorities to fully vet all the work that has been done and see the same.
Q: What do the next 6 months look like for you?
A: We are excited to be able to have most of our fully operated/owned events take place starting in November. While they will be capped and the experience will be different, we are excited to bring some fun experiences to the public.
We know that during this time period, many events still won’t be able to take place, but we are working on some great opportunities that we hope help us to keep the “doors” open, that will support all the wonderful charities that badly need the support, and really encouraging people to move and get healthy through in-person and virtual experiences.
If we can get healthier -- and we need it both mentally and physically -- as a society, we can be stronger and more able to handle this pandemic. Health, in my opinion, is the number one greatest thing we can do for ourselves!
Thanks to Lonnie for this great interview! Check out HAL Sports for more information about their event management services and for more insight from Lonnie read his article covering takeaways from in-person events during COVID-19
Interested in organizing your own virtual race event? Check out our interview with Maya Mor where she told us all about how she raised over $5,000 organizing her very first event 100% virtually!