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Challenge Family: Building the Triathlon Ecosystem, a conversation with Zibi Szlufcik

As years go, 2020 is probably one to learn from and then forget for most people in the Events business.


Speaking on Friday to Zibi Szlufcik, President of the Board at Challenge Family, we discussed how Challenge Family navigated its way through the pandemic, and delved into their plans and aspirations for the future as they aim to build the triathlon ecosystem for mass participation athletes and professionals alike.


Right from the start Zibi admitted that 2020 was a difficult year to navigate for all the events on the Challenge Family roster: “I think 2020 was a commercial disaster for all events across the globe, not just the Challenge Family,” said Zibi when discussing the COVID-19 pandemic, “no one knew what to expect and initially had to navigate almost blindly through the situation.”


On the back of their most successful year to date in 2019, Zibi praised all the Challenge Family Race Directors, Partners and Sponsors for their reaction in the face of the pandemic, “I think we found a clever way with each of our race directors to provide acceptable policies for our athletes who had purchased entries in 2020.” (Note: Challenge Family offered race deferrals, race changes or money back opportunities). “On top of this we were extremely lucky that all of our sponsors and partners honoured their agreements and are still standing by us this year.”


When asked why he thought Challenge Family had managed to retain all their partners despite the pandemic, Zibi said something that truly hit home “I think the word Family means something in all languages around the globe, and we’re lucky to have cultivated great relationships with all our partners and athletes, thanks to that they feel like a part of our family and stuck by us.”


We’re all part of an eco-system,” continued Zibi, “and we all depend on each other to keep growing and succeeding. We’re happy with how we handled the situation and proud to have respected our brand values throughout.”


Moving onto more positive subjects, Challenge Family managed to deliver two blockbuster events towards the end of 2020, with 5000 athletes racing Challenge Taiwan and an incredible Challenge Championships race taking place at Challenge Daytona in the USA. “Challenge Daytona was four years in the making with Bill Christie,” explained Zibi, “when I first saw the venue and told Bill that it was an arena built for Triathlon he almost laughed in my face, but we quickly turned serious and built towards that incredible broadcast for the Pros in December 2020.” For reference, Challenge Daytona generated 300% more broadcast interest than the Kona coverage ever has.


The triathlon community in Taiwan is growing fast,” added Zibi, “this year there will be 6000 athletes racing and I hope that down the line it will become a destination race for triathletes around the globe and a legacy for what we’re building in the triathlon community.”


Adding to the success already seen at the start of 2021 (Challenge Wanaka and Challenge Shepparton have already taken place in the southern hemisphere), all the Challenge Family events currently on the calendar are confirmed for this spring and early summer, “We’re positive for this summer, we’ve got Gran Canaria next weekend, two events confirmed already in Austria as well as one in Belgium and one in Spain.”


The amount of additional work done by our teams to develop event delivery policies in line with Governmental guidelines in each territory is massive. The way I see it there is no reason to blame, scream or shout. It’s the new world that we’re living in, so we need to adapt.”


Turning our attention to the future, we questioned Zibi on the Challenge Family business model and growth plans in coming years, “our business model isn’t a one size fits all approach,” explained Zibi, “each event is unique. Some events are 100% Challenge Family owned, others are joint ventures and others are franchises. We look at each case separately and decide the best way forward based on the location, the parties involved in organising the event and the most appropriate business model for the event.”


The Challenge Family has a portfolio of services and each race decides, with our input of course, which services they want to contract from us and which ones they want to do themselves. What connects all our events across the globe is that regardless of the business model behind it, each event has a local team on the ground ensuring we are connected to the local community.”


When asked to elaborate on their growth plans, Zibi proved quite philosophical “our aim is to grow the sport of Triathlon and our brand within that ecosystem such that it can play an important role. Sometimes we’re saddened by the fact the market leader tries to implement their strategies to develop a monopoly. Variety is key, and I think we can agree that in no domain is a monopoly good for business.”


We want to contribute to healthy lifestyles, reducing obesity and increasing sports participation by attracting entire families to our events with a festival of races over each weekend. The way I see it, selective growth is the way forward to establish ourselves even further as a global brand across all continents.”


We receive over a 100 applications or requests for new events every year, but if you pay attention, you’ll notice there’s only two or maybe three events added to our calendar each season.” Explaining the five stage process they go through for building new events Zibi said the most important factor is to deliver events and experiences in line with the Challenge Family values, “I like to say that we teach people to under promise and over deliver, you can’t buy word of mouth marketing but if you do your job right you can earn it, and this is most valuable marketing asset out there.”


Our aim over the next 5 to 10 years is to attract more people into sport, helping to change their mindsets and lifestyles in the process. We want to build on what we’re doing to become a global quality leader in event delivery and allow people to live memorable experiences.”


Asked about the recent collaboration between Challenge Family and the PTO (Professional Triathletes Organisation), Zibi was quick to correct us on the timeline of their relationship, “Challenge Family was actually a founding member of the PTU seven or eight years ago before it morphed into the PTO that we know today. We’ve supported this organisation and its objectives from the start as the pro athletes are a key part of the Triathlon ecosystem.”


I think it’s our obligation as part of that ecosystem to help develop the sport and that means taking a broad approach to include amateurs, pros as well as other events organisers.”


The Collins Cup is an idea I bought into immediately when it was first mentioned, I’ve taken my son to the Ryder Cup (A Golf tournament between Europe and the USA) a couple times and it always brought great entertainment and incredible memories. Connecting The Collins Cup to The Championship in Samorin will bring a great spotlight on our sport over that weekend and it will be beneficial for everyone.”


Learn more about The Collins Cup Here -> The Collins Cup.


Part of our responsibility in the triathlon ecosystem is to provide pros with an opportunity to earn a learning,” continued Zibi, “we need to navigate the landscape and learn from sports like Tennis and Golf where we’ve seen professionalism evolve exponentially over recent years.”


Asked for an insight into the broadcasting challenges of the open-road course in Slovakia, Zibi didn’t want to reveal too much about what the PTO and Challenge Family have in store, “All I can say is that if you enjoyed Challenge Daytona then you can expect even better this summer in Samorin!”


As we concluded our conversation, we asked Zibi to define what he thinks will be the key to Challenge Family’s success in the future. Without hesitation, Zibi honed back in on a key message that he explained was at the heart of Challenge Family’s brand values “I always tell our race directors to treat others how you want to be treated, its the simple element of paying attention to small details that will make the biggest difference to athlete experiences.”

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