The world’s first ‘virtual’ Tour de France: Interview with Ruth Rowan

This year the world experienced the famed Tour de France in a completely new way. In an extraordinary pivot the race that generally attracts up to 10 million spectators had to create a new a brand new experience for fans and staff using technology.

Marketing recently caught up with Ruth Rowan, global CMO at NTT Ltd. – the company that, partnered with A.S.O and Zwift, worked to create an enhanced virtual experience for fans.

Many live events have had to be reconsidered due to the COVID-19 pandemic and safety concerns. Can you tell me how NTT Ltd. worked with other companies to bring the Tour de France to life this year?

Obviously COVID-19 has led to a fundamental shift in the way we live, work and play – and that includes live events. Very early on we made the decision to not take clients and our technical teams, that deliver the solution, to the Tour de France this year and so we had to think creatively and work together with the A.S.O to make sure we could still deliver the best experience, without physically being at the race.

NTT developed a ‘Virtual Zone Technique’ that brings together different technologies to deliver its services remotely for the first time, keeping staff safe while supporting the running of the race and providing an enhanced experience for fans.

To create a digital ‘global stadium’ for fans who couldn’t be at the roadside this year, NTT and A.S.O made use of our advanced, real-time, data analytics capabilities, featured across multiple channels. Many people have used exercise and sport to enhance their lives during recent months and it was critical that the Tour de France was able to do this this year. We made the fan experience even richer with technology.

Getty images

PARIS, FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 20: (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

What technologies are being utilised?

There’s a range of technology being utilised to bring this to life for fans. Sensors are mounted beneath the saddle of every rider, providing real-time data on speed and GPS location every second. Our team of experts used a moving mesh-network to transmit this data from the riders ultimately through to broadcast and the finish line.

Our cloud-based real time analytics platform processes millions of data points a minute, organising and distributing it to a global team of technologists, data scientists and marketers to create the stories that have come to define the Tour de France viewing experience. This data produces real-time insights into the race situation, team tactics and individual’s performances.

In addition, the NTT Predictor machine learning engine makes live race predictions such as stage favourites, ‘catch the break’ predictions and estimated time of arrival for the peloton at any point on the course. This information is then integrated into the Race Centre, a live-tracking app and website with enhanced user experience and easier access to information. It also feeds into our brand-new augmented reality app, which gives a select number of users a 3D view of the race in action for a unique perspective of the race, and the official Tour de France Fantasy Game.

How can a virtual event capture the energy and ‘fan experience’ of an event that is usually in-person?

Nothing can replace the energy and excitement of being at a live sporting event, but these are unprecedented times and through data storytelling, we can provide an immersive viewing experience across broadcast, social and digital channels attracting a new demographic of fans to the sport, which fans can experience from the safety of their home. We’re creating a virtual stadium to connect fans with similar interests, whether they’re at the race, in a cafe or at home in a different country.

Obviously, it’s a very different experience than if they were at the roadside. But we use technology, which feeds into social media, as well as traditional media and other digital platforms, to enable fans to connect and share their thoughts, feelings and experiences in real-time as much as they could in real life.

What are some of the specific concerns and priorities when planning a large scale virtual event?

For this event in particular, there were a raft of considerations around safety, security, track and trace, and amending the start and end villages of the race to comply with social distancing requirements. In addition, we needed to manage this entirely remotely as we made a decision early on this year that NTT wouldn’t take anyone to France.

We have delivered everything from a technical and marketing perspective completely remotely and culture plays a huge part in this – it’s not just about if you can physically do something, but also the attitude and culture of people who want to lean in.

It’s also a lot easier for people to drop off a virtual event, than it would be for them to walk out of a room, so there’s no room for error and we need to be sure that we’re relevant and engaging the whole way through.

What are some of the specific advantages of virtual events?

From a data and analytics perspective, it’s a marketers dream as virtual events are rich in data and we can then learn and adapt as the event goes on and better plan for the next event. Do more of the things that work and less of the things that don’t. And because the data is easy to access and real-time, we can change our tactics quickly.


How is marketing/advertising a virtual event different to a traditional in-person event?

From a marketing perspective, the big change has been relying more heavily on digital channels to replace physical activations. That physical engagement has served the marketing community well for so long, and we’ve built relationships, trust and engagements through it.

We had to put everything into the digital space and think about how we achieve those same marketing objectives, the same audience outreach, connectivity and sense of excitement based on one-to-many, and one-to-one, except in a fully digital way.

What are some of the game-changing technology solutions that marketers should know about?

For us, this year we’ve seen a lot of interest in our new augmented reality app. The app provided selected users with a unique way of viewing and interacting with live race data and the amazing landscapes of the Tour de France. For the first time, this allowed fans to appreciate the scale of the event in 3D from their home – offering an unprecedented view from the sky to see riders among the mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes. Coupled with interactive live data on the race, it gave the feeling they were actually watching the race from a helicopter. We think this is just the start and we are very excited about the AR and VR space.

But there are so many different and cool technologies that marketers can now adopt into their marketing mix and this year we have really been given a clean slate to test and try out new things. Some have worked, some haven’t, but because of the agility of digital, we have been able to quickly pivot and change tactics, if needed.

Are there any developments in the events/marketing industry that you think will continue beyond COVID-19?

A positive from this year has been the opportunity to rip up legacy plans and throw away things that have always been in the plan – it’s all been disrupted. We’ve had to learn more about the virtual world, digital platforms and other techniques and we’ve really had the opportunity to do things differently, think differently and plan differently.

I think an agile digital-first marketing approach will continue beyond COVID-19. It has really exposed what’s important and what’s a little more flexible.

What trends do you foresee in this space?

There will definitely be a trend towards translating authenticity and humanity in a virtual world. I think we’ll ultimately go back to some face-to-face contact and events, because we’re human and we crave that interaction. But there will be a new balance of bringing the digital and physical together and understanding how to create that emotional connection in a digital setting.

Ruth Rowan is the global CMO of NTT Ltd.

Photo by Árni Svanur Daníelsson on Unsplash.

Jasmine Giuliani
BY Jasmine Giuliani ON 23 September 2020
Jasmine Giuliani is the Editor of MarketingMag