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On a sunshine-saturated morning in Thailand, Holly Bennett sat down to breakfast with Challenge Family CEO Felix Walchshöfer to chat about the latest happenings in the Challenge Family and his excitement for this weekend’s inaugural Challenge Laguna Phuket.
Triathlete.com: Before we talk about the upcoming event here in Laguna Phuket, let’s cover some recent Challenge Family news. The new Challenge Half Forster took place last Saturday in Australia, the first of three new Challenge Australia events slated for 2013-2014. How was the race and what does it mean to you to see the Challenge brand back in Australia?
Walchshöfer: It’s extremely important for us to be back in Australia, and especially in Forster, an area that is the heritage of the sport in Australia. Victoria [Victoria Murray-Orr, Challenge Family Marketing and Communications Director] went, and she sent me some very funny pictures. We had a welcoming crew there in leather trousers and traditional German clothing with beer steins waiting for the athletes. It was a race with torrential rainfall, which didn’t really make it easy for our crew, and there are of course some small things we wish to improve, but all in all we’re very happy.
Triathlete.com: Normally you or your sister Kathrin try to attend every Challenge event. Why were you unable to be in Forster?
Walchshöfer: Actually it was for a very special reason. It’s something we do every year that we call “Christmas Surprise.” It’s a thank you for our entire staff in Roth–our office staff, all our directors and our registration team–as well as their spouses or girlfriends or boyfriends. We had 90 people this year. And every year we do something different. This time we told them only that they needed to report to the triathlon stadium at 9:00 a.m. with a suitcase and warm clothes. We took a bus to Austria and ate at a famous schnitzel restaurant, then we went to an old salt mine where you can slide through the tunnels and then we went to stay at Lake Fuschel–a beautiful area and actually where Red Bull has its headquarters. We had a party that night, and the staff surprised us with these incredible photographs they had been working on since August–elaborate scenes they had created showing all the different things that had happened this year within Challenge Family. They wrote special verses to a well-known German song for all the directors and for Kathrin and me, and performed these with a presentation of the photos. It was amazing how much time they put into this and how thoughtful it all was–for me it was the best present I could have imagined. And then the party that night–we brought our DJ from Roth and it was so much fun. I mean we have people who are in their 70’s, but the earliest people to leave the party left at 2:30 in the morning! The next day we went around the lake to a famous Christmas market, and finally we went home.
Triathlete.com: What about other new races on the horizon? The first Challenge race in the United States, Challenge Atlantic City, was announced in September and U.S. triathletes are eager to know when we’ll see more.
Walchshöfer: Since the launch of Atlantic City we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of contacts from organizations and communities that want a Challenge Family event. At the moment we are in contact with two organizations in two cities that are very interesting to us. We hope to be able to work with both of them, because they would fit in just as the crew from Atlantic City fits in. They’re very athlete-focused and great people, so we hope for further announcements not too long from now.
Triathlete.com: I assume you can’t spill the beans as to the locations, but can you give any hints? And would the races be scheduled for 2014 or later?
Walchshöfer: I can’t tell you, but it could actually happen that one of the races would be in 2014. But it’s more likely that it would be 2015, because we have to be very cautious to do all the correct steps with everyone and do it in the right way.
Triathlete.com: But still no hints as to the locations?
Walchshöfer: I have to say no. But I will say that I’m thrilled at both of them! I think they will be a really good fit together with Atlantic City. Also, Atlantic City is going to have a very good pro field. I can’t talk details about that at the moment either, but it’s going to be very cool.
Triathlete.com: You’re here in Thailand for the inaugural Challenge Laguna Phuket. You’ve been to Phuket once before–so what are some of the reasons you enjoy it here and believe that this race and venue are a good fit for a Challenge event?
Walchshöfer: It’s a holiday region. We try to host most of the races in regions where the athletes would love to stay afterwards. We have a lot of offers from regions that are not in the nicest parts of a country, more industrial areas and that sort of thing. And those are normally the areas where there’s a lot of public money and they want to attract us, but we don’t go there because we want our races to be somewhere very nice for the athletes and their families. We need that combination of a very welcoming community that wants us and wants the triathletes, and is also so nice that the athletes will stay afterwards. And where it is not working we make changes. For example, we just changed Henley in England for Weymouth, which is one of the prime British coastal destinations. From the feedback we received from the athletes it just didn’t work so well in Henley, so we changed it and now we’ve seen an increase of over 50 per cent in comparison to last year’s entries, so it was the right choice.
Here in Phuket, it’s just a stellar destination. The Laguna Phuket resort is wonderful. You have the beach, you have elephant riding and you have all kinds of tours that are offered. There are wonderful temples, beautiful cities, the giant Sitting Buddha–it’s just awesome. There’s a very friendly Thai way here. And it’s not too expensive for Europeans or Americans, and of course for all the Asians and expats living in Singapore, Shanghai, Bangkok and Hong Kong to come here. So while we’re in the final stages of some new thrilling Challenge destinations both in Europe and the U.S., we’re also working on more in Asia. Here in Asia the interest in Challenge is very high, and we’re very happy about that.
Triathlete.com: Every visitor to Thailand raves about the food. What’s your personal favorite Thai dish?
Walchshöfer: Pad Thai. That’s an easy one–I love it! And I do like spicy food. I will eat spicy food until I get the hiccups!
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