Stephen Dell CA: How London Marathon Events has adapted to the pandemic
Stephen Dell CA tells Cherry Casey how London Marathon Events has adapted to the pandemic – and why its return to full strength means more than just one day’s race for glory.
There are few one-day sporting events as iconic as the London Marathon. Created in 1981 by Chris Brasher and John Disley, it has grown from 7,000 runners in that first race to almost 43,000 in 2019 when it was last run in its regular form. It is one of only six Abbott World Marathon Majors – a points-based championship for the world’s best – and attracts first-class athletes such as Mo Farah and Eliud Kipchoge. It raises money for charity in such high volumes that it routinely smashes world records – the £66.4m haul from 2019 was the 13th successive year in which it set a new high for an annual single-day charity fundraiser.
It’s easy to see why, when Stephen Dell CA joined London Marathon Events (LME) as Finance Director in 2019 as only the second person to take the role (his predecessor having been there for 20 years), he sensed he had huge shoes to fill. “It’s a marquee event in the UK calendar of sport, a much-loved brand, and it’s helped charities to raise more than £1bn over the last 40 years,” says Dell. “To safeguard the business, especially this past 18 months, is a huge responsibility on my shoulders.”
But it’s a task Dell relishes, not least because of the structure of the organisation, and the visionary social purpose that guides it. LME is a for-profit business, which is wholly owned by the London Marathon Charitable Trust, explains Dell. The trust takes 100% of the profits generated by the marathon and other LME-run events and makes grants to projects and organisations that inspire physical activity across the UK. In the 40 years since its inception, this has meant more than £93m going to 1,470 projects ranging in both size – a £5,000 renovation of a local community centre, for example – and nature – £20,000 was recently granted to London’s Southbank Skate Space.
To encourage people from all walks of life to become physically active, “you can’t just focus on the traditional sports,” says Dell. “You do need to go, for example, to the BMX tracks, which have helped lead to some of the Olympic success we’re seeing today.”
While this vision is the driving force behind LME, the organisation still needs to operate as a profitable company; something that presents Dell with “a day-to-day struggle”, he says. “We really want to inspire diverse communities and events, but obviously that has an impact on profitability.”
One way around this has been to create a portfolio of events – in addition to the London Marathon – to drive profits as well as offer greater accessibility. “One of my biggest bugbears is that I’m always asked, ‘What do you do for the rest of the year?’,” says Dell. But pre-Covid, LME ran 13 mass-participation events, including Swim Serpentine, the Vitality Westminster Mile, which even toddlers can join, and the Vitality Big Half, which includes subsidised community places. There are plans to extend this further by introducing, for example, walking events and workplace challenges. LME also intends to continue with a type of mass-participation sporting event that, pre-Covid, may well have been undreamt of: virtual marathons.
Like most businesses, LME had to quickly pivot to have any chance of surviving the pandemic. Unlike many others, however, LME had to do rather more than contend with Zoom meetings and home offices – it needed to take a sporting event with tens of thousands of participants and move it out of its home. But on 4 October 2020, while a few dozen elite athletes tackled 19 laps of St James’s Park, the Virtual London Marathon took place with almost 38,000 attendees. It was a huge success, notching yet another Guinness World Records entry as the largest of its kind.
“People really grasped the virtual and made it their own,” says Dell. He believes the ease with which anyone could join, as well as the longer time limit (24 hours to complete the distance rather than the usual eight) encouraged “a different type of participant”. While nothing compares to being cheered on by a 750,000-strong crowd, runners had access to an app – created by LME partner, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) – with motivational commentary from the likes of Paula Radcliffe to maintain morale. They also took part on “their own streets, wearing the official running number, with their own support across their own finishing lines”, says Dell. “That really inspired people.”
While virtual is something LME wants to continue in the future, it is on the condition that it remains an innovative complement to its USP – “physical events on the streets of London”. And on that front, says Dell, after initial hesitancy and concern that it couldn’t be done safely, “we’re starting to see a few green shoots”.
One such cause for optimism is the company’s 5km run in Kempton Park. As part of the government’s events research programme, different start release and finish line processes were introduced to maintain social distancing, with the aim of building confidence – at both governmental and societal level – that mass-participation events can take place safely. It was a great success, says Dell, and something of a small-scale pilot for the next planned event: the London Marathon 2021, to be held on 3 October. If all goes ahead as planned (“things change on a week-by-week basis – we’re always watching the news”) the event will see up to 50,000 virtual and 45,000 in-person runners all participating as part of the organisation’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
“We’re certainly not going to be complacent and we’re still running lots of different scenarios of possible outcomes, but we’re very hopeful that it will be a great return,” says Dell, adding that the London Marathon has always tried to work as a reflection of the capital itself – one that prizes unity, diversity and community – and this year is no exception.
We’d like to see it as a great beacon of return from the pandemic. It’s such a big day for London, we want it to be a really positive one, and a sign that things are getting better.
Having joined in March 2019, Dell’s two-and-a-half years with LME has been most remarkable for the time spent grappling with the pandemic. An intense challenge, but one for which his ICAS training left him well prepared. “We had to make some pretty quick decisions last year on which direction to go in, and my CA skills meant I could quickly translate to a diverse board – all with different ranges of financial acumen and understanding – what the financial impact of each would be,” he says. His training also afforded him a “solid grounding in professional integrity and ethics”, which has helped hugely in his role as a leader. “If you can build trust within your team,” he says, “everything follows from there.”
Dell’s decision making clearly paid off, as LME has made it through without any job losses, even making a small profit. The trust has had to make its reserve from 2019-20 (£8m) “last a little longer”, but a key part of Dell’s role has been to work closely with the trust’s staff so their existing grantees understand how the pandemic has affected their projects, helping to ensure they have everything they need to deliver what was planned. Plus, while they’ve had to “pull back a little bit”, the trust is still making new grants, he explains: “There’s still a lot of great work happening, even throughout a pandemic.”
This great work was the reason Dell was so attracted to the role. “I wanted to join a brand doing incredibly exciting things with that wider social purpose,” he explains, “as well as to take on a number-one role where I was charged with responsibility for all aspects of finance.” For its part, LME was impressed by Dell’s past experience in strategic roles. “They wanted someone to come and help the business make educated decisions, rather than just add up the numbers,” he says.
This particular experience was honed during the two roles he held prior to joining LME: Head of Strategy at Pentland Brands, for which he spent four months in Hong Kong, and Senior Manager, Strategy at fashion brand Burberry, which he joined in 2012. Dell always knew he wanted diversity from his career – one reason why the ICAS qualification was so appealing. “It gave you a clear career path to work across different companies, sectors and industries,” he says. “If you go through ICAS, you just know that you’ve got a very bright future.”
Indeed, despite a tough 18 months, the future looks good for LME, and Dell. As well as a new headline sponsor (TCS, replacing Virgin Money after 17 years), LME has “very ambitious objectives”, including new partnerships that aim to inspire everyone to get off the sofa and get active, regardless of age, location or ability.
“The greatest thing about my role as FD and on the board,” says Dell, “is that it goes far beyond the numbers.” His decisions have a positive impact on the business, which in turn, has a positive impact on many people’s lives. It’s hugely rewarding, and a reminder that the London Marathon stands for far more than that “one day a year” when tens of thousands pound the streets of London.
Learn more about the ICAS Well Together campaign encouraging physical activity.