Richard Branson On Why He’s Launching Virgin Sport

Richard Branson On Why He’s Launching Virgin Sport
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We caught up with Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Sport CEO Mary Wittenberg to discuss why they're combining fitness with the swagger of Virgin

Emily Wasik
  • 26 may 2017

When people think of fitness events like jungle marathons or Patagonian expedition races, they think of the participants as buff fitness junkies clad in tight lycra who could be mistaken for Baywatch actors or Greek gods. Well, just like how fitness fiend himself Sir Richard Branson believes that everyone, not just astronauts, should be able to experience the great unknown of the solar system with his Virgin Galactic venture, he also believes that everyone—young, old, fit and flabby—should be able to enjoy getting fit. His solution to mobilize the masses to do so? Launching a fitness festival evocative of Coachella!

Virgin Sport announced the launch of Virgin Sport San Francisco: Festival of Fitness on May 19 at the iconic Ferry Building along the Embarcadero in the ‘City by the Bay’. Sir Richard, Virgin Sport CEO Mary Wittenberg, ASICS Americas’ President and CEO Gene McCarthy, and invited guests ran, pedaled, lunged and namaste’d while discussing Virgin Sport’s vision to get millions of people moving, and its first US event in San Francisco this October.

Virgin Sport San Francisco is one of Virgin’s four Festivals of Fitness launching in 2017, with three additional events in the greater London area. Virgin Sport Hackney was held on April 30, Virgin Sport Westminster will be hosted July 9, and Virgin Sport Oxford is slated for October 8.

We caught up with Sir Richard and Mary at the world’s first press conference on the move to get the exclusive scoop on why they decided to combine the sweat of sport with the swagger of Virgin.

PSFK: How are you feeling about the first-ever moving press conference?

Mary: We’re really excited about it. In fact, we are actually doing some waltzes right now as we talk to you, so that we keep our muscles moving. Richard will be on a spin bike and I’ll be on a treadmill and we’ll have yoga mats and bikes for others to join in, including the media .Our message at Virgin Sport is really to help people to move to their best lives. We really want to encourage movement throughout the day. There are time barriers we want to help people overcome, along with mean bosses who makes you sit your desk all day. It all starts with movement for us.

Sir Richard, you’ve said that a lot of sporting events like marathons and half-marathons, they’re more focused on the participant, but Virgin Sport wants to make it more like a music festival. Can you elaborate on what you meant by this?

Sir Richard: I’ve done a number of big events in my life. It’s been great fun for me, but it hasn’t been necessarily great fun for my children or  family. The idea came about when I was doing the Cape Argus, which is another grueling bike event outside Cape Town over the mountains.

My son-in-law, Freddie, started bending my ear about this. Both of us, we were just talking about the fact that we were having great fun, but we’d left our families back at home.

Bringing Mary in with all her expertise, we decided, hey let’s create a festival, like a musical festival, where everybody could have a lot of fun. That way, kids, grandparents, parents can also join in and those who want to get some serious exercise and serious sporting can do so.

Why the decision to focus on fitness with this latest initiative? How does fitness really resonate with the Virgin brand and its consumers?

Sir Richard: I think Virgin is synonymous with giving people a good time, not taking ourselves too seriously. A lot of Virgin companies have come out of San Francisco, obviously Virgin America being the most famous.

If you fly on Virgin America, the staff that are having a great time. The equality of everything is good. You would never get that incident that happened on United on a Virgin plane. I think people seem to identify well with Virgin.

Also, we’ve done an awful lot of sporting events over the years. I think this is one that can involve hundreds of thousands of people in the years to come.

Mary: Richard and Virgin have always stood for redefining what’s possible. What we want to really help people do is unlock the potential inside of them. People are often scared to try something they really want to do. So I think the way Richard has lived and the way the Virgin brand’s grown up, it’s been this attitude of,”Why not give a go, have a lot of fun, and what’s the worst thing that could happen?” It’s that go-after-it spirit that we want to encourage people to have. We want to support it in a really fun, very ‘Virgin ‘ way.

When I think of those of us who are able to have benefited from sport and fitness in our lives, we get it. For other people, it’s sometimes intimidating. But if you put Virgin in front of sport, I think it just blows the doors of sport and fitness open to a lot more people, and makes it more appealing. It’s only natural fit for Virgin and fitness.

Sir Richard: We did our first tests on the people in Hackney last month. When you turned the atmosphere was electric. Kids were having a great time. It was exactly how a fun music festival should be, and yet it was all-around sport.

The team got it absolutely right. I think if you look at all the reviews from people who were there, they just had a blast. We as a family set a big challenge every year. Last year, my kids set the challenge, which was a 7.5-thousand kilometer hike/bike/swim from Switzerland to Sicily.

It took a month, but it was wonderful to be able to participate with my kids and grandkids in tow on a challenge like that. I just think that to try to make these events more like  family events, rather just Dad, Mom, or one of the adult children, I think we’re onto something which is going to really resonate with families.

Why do you think that San Francisco would be a great stomping ground to kick off the first US event?

Sir Richard: It’s beautiful, first of all. It’s got wonderful hills, which makes it more challenging, and I also think we’re biased. We love San Francisco. We’ve had thousands of people work for Virgin companies in San Francisco. I‘m building a hotel in San Francisco, which we’re opening in three or four months time. Virgin Atlantic flies from San Francisco. I think that the Virgin brand resonates really well here in San Francisco. I’ll let the lady have the last word.

Mary: It’s a super active community. The people here want to be outdoors. It’s going to be a great role model for other cities, because people really do get out, and fit sport and fitness into their lives.

Obviously, San Fransisco also has a great entrepreneurial community, and a giving-back community, which are two areas that are really important to us as a Virgin brand. It’s a great fit for Virgin Sport.

 

San Francisco will be Virgin Sport’s first US event, and will feature the Virgin Sport SF Half marathon, starting and finishing at City Hall on Sunday, October 15. Festivities start Friday, October 13 with a pre-party at City Hall. The fitness party continues Saturday, October 14 with the Twin Peaks Mile hill climb, a new one mile run up one of the most iconic views of the city. The climb will feature waves of runners based on speed, costume, team and more, all in a celebratory atmosphere. 

To register or for further information on Virgin Sport San Francisco, please visit the website

When people think of fitness events like jungle marathons or Patagonian expedition races, they think of the participants as buff fitness junkies clad in tight lycra who could be mistaken for Baywatch actors or Greek gods. Well, just like how fitness fiend himself Sir Richard Branson believes that everyone, not just astronauts, should be able to experience the great unknown of the solar system with his Virgin Galactic venture, he also believes that everyone—young, old, fit and flabby—should be able to enjoy getting fit. His solution to mobilize the masses to do so? Launching a fitness festival evocative of Coachella!

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