Sir Richard Branson understands the value of sport and fitness. After all, when he’s home at Necker Island, the billionaire entrepreneur wakes up each morning and plays tennis, goes kite surfing, and gets in a little paddle-boarding or swimming. Then the 66-year-old does it all over again as the sun sets in the evening.
That passion for staying in shape is part of why Branson helped launch Virgin Sport, an arm of his Virgin Group conglomerate that is gearing up to host its first U.S.-based “fitness festival” in San Francisco this October.
Virgin Sport San Francisco runs October 13-15 and is designed to be a family-friendly event that includes a half-marathon and other fitness-related activities that are paired with local food, drink, and entertainment. It’s essentially a less-intense version of fitness events like Tough Mudder that are open to a wider range of participants and add in local elements.
Virgin Sport launched two years ago after Branson and co-founder Freddie Andrewes were on a rigorous bike ride in South Africa. Andrewes asked Branson what he thought about creating a company that “combines the sweat of sport with the swagger of Virgin,” and Virgin Sport ultimately became the result.
The company hosted its first “fitness festival” earlier this year in Hackney, an area of London, with the first U.S. event coming this October. The idea is to bring people together and help encourage them to live healthy lifestyles, explained Mary Wittenberg, CEO of Virgin Sport.
“Our whole purpose at Virgin Sport is to help people move to their best and healthiest lives,” she said today on a conference call with reporters. “We just want to help people take on dreams, overcome challenges, and wrap it in a lot of fun.”
Branson helped recruit Wittenberg from New York Road Runners, a non-profit she led for nearly two decades. She said some of her best memories from that organization was exposing people to the power of sport and fitness.
“Some people have barriers to that, either in their own mind or from society,” Wittenberg explained. “We have a huge opportunity to put Virgin in front of sports and just blow that barrier away.”
When they first met, Branson told Wittenberg that he wanted to get “millions of people moving.”
“That is ultimately the end goal,” Wittenberg said.
Branson, who spoke with GeekWire during his visit to Seattle in March, noted that he “wouldn’t be able to achieve all the things I am trying to achieve in my life if I wasn’t at the peak of fitness.” He said his family likes to participate in fitness-related challenges, like a 2,500-kilometer bike-swim-hike extravaganza in Europe earlier this year that made him feel like a 25-year-old again.
“Not everyone has the time to do something like that, which is why Virgin Sport is a fun way for the whole family to participate and have a good time with,” Branson said.
Added Branson: “It’s an all-inclusive fun day of sports for the whole family, which I think has been lacking in a lot of these events today.”
Wittenberg noted that Virgin Sport is using technology in a variety of ways, including a custom-built CRM system that allows the company to personalize communication with festival participants “so we can go on journeys with them.” There are also ideas to weave in an eSports aspect to the events.
“We want to help marry the enthrallment kids have with tech and eSports with some of the fitness side, and put it in a broader mix of festivals,” she said.
Wittenberg also said there are ideas to use augmented reality as a way to “bring people together throughout these weekends.”