Triathlete.com senior digital editor Liz Hichens shares her observations from the weekend at TBI.

The ninth annual Triathlon Business International (TBI) took place on Jan. 25-27 in Tempe, Ariz., with multisport leaders, retailers, coaches, media, and more coming together to talk about the status of the sport and brainstorm about how to best fuel growth in the industry.

The three-day conference featured several general sessions with talks about topics like research, social media, and open sessions to encourage creativity. Throughout the weekend, several individuals, companies, and events were recognized (see the award list below) for their contribution to triathlon in 2018. At five points throughout the weekend, coaches, retailers, and race directors participated in breakout sessions to gain knowledge from experts within their own niche of the sport.

Throughout it all, several themes developed about the current state of the sport:

Things are turning around… in certain areas. While there is still strong acknowledgment that the sport needs a major turnaround in terms of participation, there are many that feel we’ve seen the beginning of the comeback. There are some areas (like California) that are still looking for a change in momentum, while certain regions are seeing a strong uptick. DelMoSports founder Stephen Del Monte was enthusiastic about his events in the Philadelphia/New Jersey region and said that he’s feeling strong about the enthusiasm for the sport there.

Safety—and promoting it—needs to be a priority. There was a lot of data presented throughout the weekend, but the piece of info that seemed to create buzz around the room was the one by TBI researcher Nick Lehecka that showed athletes have a negative correlation between sprint triathlons and safety. Lehecka suggested that some athletes are jumping to long-course races because race directors are more likely to close courses. At one point, Ironman CEO Andrew Messick stood up and talked about the fact that the topic of safety and communicating those initiatives was majorly important for the Ironman brand. Many races are enforcing strong safety elements, but then are doing a poor job of communicating to their athletes on that topic.

It’s time to be more innovative. A highlight of the conference was a presentation on strategic reinvention by Hoka One One co-founder Jean-Luc Diard. Diard talked about the importance of innovation, how to do it, and the art of intelligent risk-taking. If the sport is going to grow, the industry has to start trying new things. Del Monte gave a similar message during one of his panels, using his Women’s Philadelphia Triathlon (which also won the conference’s Best First-Timer Event award) as an example. No one was sure if it would work, but the race saw a sold-out event in 2018 and is already at 85% capacity for 2019 (the race doesn’t take place until July).

Women are getting more opportunities in the industry. Like the sport itself, the triathlon industry has a disproportionate ratio of male to female leaders and workers. It felt like there was a much stronger female presence at this year’s conference, and the reality is that women still only made up 30 percent of the attendance. Ironman Foundation Executive Director Sarah Hartmann is leading a charge, built from an idea out of last November’s Outspoken Summit, to create a rich forum for women in the industry. Hartmann, along with an advisory committee of six other leaders in the space, created the TBIW Mentorship Program. Women from triathlon, swim, bike, and/or run industries will be paired up as either a mentor, mentee, or both. Learn more at Triathlonbusinessintl.com/tbiw.

What is the future of conferences in triathlon? The conference saw a decrease in attendance this year, with 147 people on hand. A hot topic was the need to make things more efficient for everyone in the industry. Coaches, race directors, retailers, and other business leaders all have other conferences (many of which are put on by governing bodies such as USA Triathlon and come with continuing education units) to attend throughout the year. Additionally, the loss of Interbike has created a void in the industry, but the current format of the TBI conference means that it isn’t something that can be considered a realistic alternative. Is there a way to make things more efficient for everyone involved? It will take a lot of collaboration from several different parties, but TBI President Dan Empfield closed out the conference by saying they would dive into those options for the future.

The 2020 Triathlon Business International conference will take place for the third year in a row in Tempe, Ariz. at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotels on Jan. 23-25.

2018 Triathlon Business International Awards

Best Published Photo 2018: Rocky Arroyo, “Prison Break”
Best Published Article 2018: Brad Culp, “Toward the Light” Triathlete magazine
Event Video 2018: Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon Marketing – IMG Action Sports
Steve Hed Award 2018: Hoka One One’s Nicolas Mermoud and Jean-Luc Diard
Ron Smith Award 2018: Dan Empfield
Jason Kilderry Award Most Influential Coach 2018: Lorrie Beck
Most Dynamic Tri Club 2018: Williamstown Badgers Tri Club
Triathletes Choice 2018 – Best Large Event (1,000+): Ironman 70.3 Lake Placid
Triathletes Choice 2018 – Best Small Event (<1,000): Patriot Half Triathlon
Triathletes Choice 2018 – Best Scenic Course: Pumpkinman Triathlon
Triathletes Choice 2018 – Time to Tri Award – Best First-Timer Event: Women’s Philadelphia Triathlon