Virgin America Virgin Sir Richard Branson

Virgin-backed fitness festival set to hit San Francisco


By Doug Zanger, Americas Editor

May 18, 2017 | 4 min read

Returning to the city where he helped start Virgin America, since acquired by Alaska Airlines, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Sport chief executive Mary Wittenberg and Asics Americas president and chief executive Gene McCarthy announced the launch of Virgin Sport San Francisco: Festival of Fitness.

“The challenge and spirit of sport inspires us, and we’re having a blast building a new movement to combine the sweat of sport with the swagger of Virgin,” said Branson, who was recently awarded The Drum's Lifetime Achievement Award at The Drum Marketing Awards. “With the precedent of Virgin America and our upcoming Virgin Hotel, we love San Francisco and its passionate residents, and look forward to breaking new boundaries here together.

This weekend of sport and fitness, set for October 14 and 15, features two signature runs, the Twin Peaks Mile hill climb, which takes runners to iconic views of the city and San Francisco Bay, and the Virgin Sport SF Half, a half marathon starting and finishing at City Hall. Throughout the weekend, the city’s Civic Center Plaza will be transformed into a fitness hub, offering inclusive workout challenges for every level.

Billed as a way to get millions of people moving, it’s unclear whether this is an entree for Virgin into sports and fitness marketing in a more significant way in the US. But both Branson and Wittenberg indicated that the festival, which recently took place in the East London borough of Hackney, and is planned for Westminster in London and Oxford in the UK, may find its way to other cities around the world.

“There will be many other cities around the world and in particular in America that [will] have these events,” said Branson. “And, every event, we're going to learn something from the last.”

“We see chances for whole communities to rally together, and for other people outside of those to want to go be part of it,” added Wittenberg, former president and chief executive of the New York Road Runners Club, the organization that runs the New York City Marathon. “So, [we’re] looking forward to over the next many years ultimately being throughout the US and the UK and well beyond.”

What makes these festivals different is that they tend to attract a range of people, not just elite-level athletes. Additionally, activities such as yoga and boot camps are part of the equation with Wittenberg telling Outside Magazine the brand seeks to create a “Coachella of sport” that gives a greater chance for wider participation in a more entertaining package.

“If the end goal is opening up sport fitness running to more people, we've got to break the barriers that people sometimes just create in their own minds, [that they] sometimes get from society, where they don't feel it's accessible to them,” said Wittenberg. “So, the opportunity to put Virgin in front of sport and just throw that barrier away, and help a lot of people be open to say, ‘Hey, well that sounds like fun, that sounds different. I want to be part of it’.”

Branson attributes his own fitness as an important catalyst for success and feels that, by empowering more people, any goal can be met.

“I wouldn’t be able to achieve all the other things in my life if I weren’t at the peak of fitness,” he said.

Asics, which had a 25-year sponsorship run at the New York City Marathon that ended in 2016, is serving as a brand partner and, according to Wittenberg, the company, itself looking to carve out its own place in the US market, was a good match for this first event.

“Their heritage is all in mind, body and spirit, and they’ve always understood a more holistic approach to run and fitness,” she noted. “They’re looking to shake things up a bit themselves and take some new approaches, so they are a great fit for us.”

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