As a keen marathon runner, I was intrigued to see how the 40th London Marathon would adapt to the restrictions brought about by COVID-19. In August, race organisers took the sad but inevitable decision to make the event virtual for all but the elite runners. But without the 750,000-strong crowds of supporters - not to mention the spectacular sight of thousands of runners streaming across Tower Bridge, would the event still be able to excite, inspire, and engage?

This is the question brands have faced all year, as events and launches have been forced to pivot to a virtual model - or face cancellation. In the tech industry, we saw this shift begin early on, with the cancellation of MWC in February; a move which seemed shocking at the time - before the days of widespread lockdowns, but which is now characteristic of 2020.

This time last year, the experience economy offered a viable route to connecting with consumers; particularly the much-coveted millennial market - nearly three-quarters of whom preferred to spend on experiences over material things. Despite recent promising news around a vaccine, it's clear that the return to pre-pandemic life will be slow, so finding new - and virtual - ways to engage consumers is vital. 

It is clear that the role of tech will be instrumental in helping brands maintain these connections. Returning to the example of the 2020 London Marathon, while the cancellation of the live event will have been disappointing for many, the fact that 36,000 people were still able to run on 4th October was in itself a triumph. Through innovative use of tech solutions, the event organisers were able to bridge the gap between virtual and IRL experience. The London Marathon app tracked runners' progress through their chosen 26.2 mile course, while individual experiences across the country were shared on social media, with over 15,000 runners engaging with #The40thRace on Instagram. Tech played an important role in the elite training camp and among production staff, with Bump devices enforcing social distance and ensuring the elite event could go ahead safely.

So as we look ahead to 2021, what can brands learn from the successes of the London Marathon in making virtual every bit as engaging as IRL?

  • Connection is key: The marathon showed us that consumers still value being part of a community and sharing experiences even when apart. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Twitter has reported a nine-fold increase in interest in live events since the beginning of the year - and it's clear that use of platforms that allow users to share experiences at the same time can engender a powerful sense of connection and community.
  • Keep it personal: The virtual marathon offered opportunities for participants to run the race in a time and location that worked for them - from their back garden to their local running track - this made each of the 36,000 experiences feel bespoke.
  • Invest in the right tech: As the last nine months working from home have underlined, the importance of tech solutions has never been greater. The 2020 London Marathon was only able to go ahead thanks to an app which worked seamlessly to track runners' progress - wherever they were in the world. Check out platforms such as Whova and Hopin, which are leading the way when it comes to innovative solutions to bring virtual events to life.