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Virtually Relevant: How to Produce Large Scale Public Gatherings Online

Bob Bryant

On March 15 the CDC issued guidance related to large events and mass gatherings which specifically included examples like festivals, parades, concerts, and sporting events. That guidance was basically the beginning of the widespread cancellation or postponement of events around the country due to concerns around the spread of the highly infectious COVID-19 virus. In addition to all of the economic, cultural, and psychological impact that this global pandemic is having across the world, it is no less landmark and potentially devastating for the live event industry and its related businesses. So where does that industry go next? What has been the response and the initial impact and where do we go from here? In this podcast, we will discuss how one 65-year-old nonprofit organization that produces live events and is connected to the largest attended single-day sporting event in the world is navigating this new reality, leading with marketing and communications approaches and finding relevance via a virtual landscape.


  • In today's environment, and moving forward in to the future, it is crucial that all large-scale events integrate virtual pieces in to their structure.
  • Now is the time to focus on developing relationships with consumers, generating conversations on social media and earning the trust of the younger generation so they become brand loyal.

Cyndi Greenglass: Could you start by telling us a little bit about 500 Festival and what the organization does?

Bob Bryant: I think outside of Indiana it's probably not well known. Even here in Indiana, there's a blurred line between the Indy 500 as an event itself and what we are. We're a nonprofit community organization that was founded in 1957. The basic premise from civic and community leaders at the time was that they realized there was a lot of equity in being the home of the Indy 500 race. As that was growing, both in ratings but also in public attendance and driving economic impact, there was a notion of how do we leverage that equity and that value for greater good in the community. We operate as a nonprofit with a mission that is basically to enrich lives, create positive community impact, and celebrate the Indy 500. That's grown to where we produce events and programs. The events now have participation of over half a million people a year. So, in an interesting way, we're now producing events from a memorial service in a parade and one of the largest half marathons in the country and a variety of other things that are attracting pretty much the same attendance that's actually going to be at the track in May.

CG: What are the early responses to the recommendation to suspend your events and what are you hearing for likeminded organizations like yours and how are they responding to this new reality of what we're living in state by state?

BB: I think like everybody, this industry and certainly what we do, you're caught a little bit by surprise. You have event cancellation insurances and you account for weather issues and even security-related issues in more recent times. But even within those cancellation policies, not many people were thinking about global pandemic and a health-related issue that would create this kind of national and global closure. The first thing you do is you go into crisis mode and you're really looking at financial impact and how you're going to respond to that and how you can limit the negative side of that impact. But quickly after that, you get into mission mode, which is why do we do what we do and how is that going to impact our ability to create that positive impact in the community? What's left that we can continue to do and how can we uphold things that were in person events that you simply cannot have in any degree from that March 15th stay at home order. Then you start to look out and say, "Well, how long is that going to occur?" That's been the moving target for everyone—not having clarity on if you move events to a later date. When you move events to a later date, are you running into other events that had already been scheduled? How are you going to impact those? Can you maintain your sponsorships? Can you maintain your ticket holders and registration, participants and things like that? Then I think as you come to a realization that you're not even necessarily safe in how far out you might move things this year, I think the next step for us was just to say, "Well, we're about providing experiences for people and typically those are some large scale in-person experiences, but how can we do that in a new format and potentially at a different scale?" Where’s that content going to reside? It's going to be social media. It's going to be online. It's going to be website. Those connections are now going to occur in a digital space. That was an interesting transformation for us to realize that we can still be relevant and we can provide relevant content, but it's going to be in a very different format.


CG: How do you migrate from that in-person to the online? Go virtual, so to speak, monetize it or create or sustain value?

BB: What this allows us to do is maybe even further focus on the connection. We’ve gone from museums and even an NFL game where it's not just simply providing the content in a static way. Now people have that ability, obviously through multiple devices, to have more connection to it—to be tweeting about it, commenting about it, sharing photos about it real time while it's happening. As we engage, obviously with younger audiences and new generations, we have to continue to go in that direction. This has actually forced our hand to go farther, faster in how are we actually using Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and how are we using all of the digital realm to make connections. Because then, the people that were participants are actually a part of the content themselves as well. While that’s not necessarily a new concept and that's been present for quite a while, I think this has allowed us, especially as a smaller organization, to make even more of those connections and to recognize that you have to be prepared to respond much more quickly. How do you even provide opportunities and experiences for people to connect in that way? We have something called the one America 500 Festival Mini Marathon, one of the largest and oldest half marathons in the country. It's roughly 25,000 runners every year and in the running industry, a lot of times people can't attend the in-person event, but they still want the shirt and the medal. There had been an introduction of the idea that you could do it virtually. As long as you run that 13.1 miles on that day on whatever course you can, you send in your results and you can still get that shirt and metal. The response we had was over 9,000 people will have run the mini marathon this year, but they will have all done it virtually. They will have done it on their own time, on their own courses over the course of a three-month period of time and then we'll be distributing shirt, metal and hat, and the other rewards they would have normally received and the amount of social media sharing is phenomenal. Some people are going to great lengths to recreate our run that takes a full lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There are people who are recreating the famous yard of bricks and drawing them in chalk on streets and still kneeling down to kiss the bricks and do all the traditions they might've done in the in person run, they're now doing online. They are providing this content in some ways that we couldn't even dream up. We actually have the opportunity for a larger audience because now because 80% or so of our participation is typically from the state of Indiana. Well now people can participate virtually from anywhere. So we added about 15 countries, and we got up to 48 States represented that all took on this virtual challenge. And in fact, after we launched it, knowing that there would be the in person event was canceled for the year, we actually got an additional 1,500 registrations of people who were drawn to the idea that they didn't have to be there, but they liked the idea of recreating an experience on their own and getting again, that reward for achieving a challenging distance.

CG: What are your thoughts on the future of your organization and will there be a new normal as we move forward?

BB: We’re hopeful that the Indy 500 will be underway this year on August 23rd. We’re still looking at some of the events that are typically linked up with that race weekend that we may still be able to have in some fashion if we can conduct those safely as a part of that weekend. Where we recognize that we'll likely always have virtual options to many of our events, we may even develop some events that are specifically to be virtual only. I could see us getting into fitness or running related challenges and things like that that are becoming quite a bit more prolific right now, nationally and even internationally, where people want to be able to have that type of participation and be in that sort of online community, but have some payoffs and some reward for what those achievements are. I think you're going to see continued connection in the online realm and the digital space in terms of added executions. I think it even opens up, if you will, the athletes or entertainers themselves, as you've seen those more personal direct connections, in a variety of ways from athletes and from entertainers and celebrities. We’re just going to continue to grow and continuing to realize that the online space is a relevant space for content.

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