In the first of a series of interviews with leading live events industry professionals, Access asks London Marathon race director Hugh Brasher about what the year ahead is likely to hold for his business and the wider sector.

This interview, along with the views of more than a dozen other senior events professionals, will be published in the February edition of AAA. Don’t miss it – subscribe here for free.

What do you believe will be the biggest challenges for the industry in 2022, and what measures would you like to see taken to tackle them?

There are a lot of issues the industry could face in 2022 but trying to predict the future is nigh on impossible. It’s about thinking of as many scenarios as you can and coming up with as many contingencies as you can, while all the time remaining flexible in your thinking. I constantly think back to a line a friend of mine said to me right at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. She said ‘they said the First World War would be over by Christmas’. And this pandemic is like a war. Who knows how long it will go on for? There are ups and downs, you win a battle and you lose a battle but you have got to think long term and be prepared to innovate and do things differently.

“You have got to think long term and be prepared to innovate and do things differently.”

At the moment, I think some of the biggest challenges are with people – whether it’s an organisation’s staff or event day roles such as volunteers or stewards.

The pandemic has had a huge cultural effect on how people view their lives. It has prompted people to re-assess their lives, whether that’s where they live or the jobs they are doing and retaining that talent pool of staff in an organisation will be a challenge for all companies. But with every downside there is also a potential upside and this will also provide an opportunity to refresh your organisation and bring in new talent. There will also be the continued challenge of absenteeism caused by Covid-19 as we have seen most recently with the Omicron variant and we will need to continue with extra contingency planning for our events.

With regard to volunteers, they are a key part of the events industry but the current challenge is finding enough people who want to do this in a pandemic. Volunteers tend to be older people and many of them do not want to put themselves in certain positions in the current climate. Now, we are lucky because we are an outdoors-based industry and the Government now acknowledges that being outside is the best place to be, something the Mass Participation Sports Organisers (MSO) have said for a long time, but finding volunteers has been and is likely to continue to be an issue.

Then there is the issue and impact inflation will have on the industry. There is talk of a potential 7% rise in inflation which is something we haven’t had for such a long time. A lot of it is driven by the issues of production in factories in Asia being shut down for some length of time and that is still going on.

So there are going to be challenges for us all, but we can tackle them together. One of the good things to have come out of the past 24 months or so is our sector (the mass participation running events organisers) coming together to form the MSO group to help each other get through this. We have never worked like this before. We have shared challenges, given each other alternative routes of supply, reported issues with volunteers and passed on new contacts. We need to continue to do this, to keep lines of communication open and to improve our reporting and sharing. The more we can do this, the more we can network to promote this way of working, the better it will be.

“We are realising things can be done differently which opens up a whole new talent pool.”

After nearly two years of the pandemic, from an industry perspective do you believe anything positive has come out of it and are we better placed to collectively face challenges as a result?

I do think there is huge positivity in how we are communicating across our industry in a manner that never happened before. In the MSO you have ourselves at London Marathon Events alongside the likes of Human Race, Limelight, Great Run and myriad other organisations. It was an organisation that was born from conversations on sustainability in the industry but it’s grown into something where we are genuinely trying to help each other get through this together.

Holding our first ever virtual London Marathon has also been a positive and changed our view of what is achievable with technology and how we can create an even more inclusive event than the in-person event because participants have 23 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds in which to complete the marathon distance.  Indeed, the pace of change in technology – people talk about five to 10 years of technological advancement being condensed into 18 months – and our embracing of it has been a huge positive.

There has also been the opportunity for staff to work differently. We are trialling a system where our staff only need to be in the office for two days a week. We are realising things can be done differently which opens up a whole new talent pool. Suddenly it no longer has to be the case that we employ people from London, we can employ people from around the world and bring greater diversity of thought to the organisation.

From sustainable solutions to the use of new and emerging technology – what do you believe are the biggest opportunities for the sector in 2022 and subsequent years?

In sustainability you have to talk about the three Ps: profit, people and planet and you have to look at all three together, holistically, as there are opportunities in each one of those.

There’s a great opportunity to be more local. I think we can look at how we can redefine our supply chain to really think about the communities we serve and why we actually exist. There used to be, and still is in a lot of places, an adage that a board’s objective is to maximise its revenue for its shareholders. Well, that’s a pretty antiquated way of looking at it as you have to look at what you are doing for society as a whole and I think there are huge opportunities for innovation in both sustainability and technology.

I think ‘the people bit’ is probably the most important because we exist through relationships. The interactions, the friendships are what drives us as human beings and how can we enrich those in a world when you are at the end of a screen? What we do as an events industry is bring people together and we can do it safely. We proved that with the 2021 London Marathon which was largest marathon in the world, both in person and virtually plus the two combined, and that came about through a huge amount of work done by the team. The London Marathon was such an amazing occasion last year because it showcased that community spirit and togetherness that we have all been missing.

Last year’s London Marathon had the highest ever rating from our participants with 98.37% of the nearly 10,000 people who responded voting the event good or excellent, and that was in the year of a pandemic and in a year of the biggest changes we had made to the event. I believe that positivity was because of the euphoria they felt from feeling safe and from being together and being cheered on and that’s what our industry does. Whether it’s live music, sport you are watching or sport you are taking part in, we bring people together. What we need to do is remind people, now more than ever, of how great that feels and people will want to get that feeling back again.