May 20, 2019 – One step at a time – and there have been many steps – a new segment of Croatian tourism is taking hold. Taking a closer look at the fabulous Run Croatia story.
It is about three years since I first met a very energetic young lady called Iva Hafner, who had a passion for running and wanted to turn Croatia into a run-friendly destination. Although I have run two marathons in my life (yes really, although some 30 years ago), I must confess that I did not pay too much attention to the idea at the time, as the project was only just starting, and I thought it would be one more good idea that would not go very far in Croatia.
I was, however, very impressed with Iva’s focus and determination in that first meeting. And then I met her brother, Berislav, and that same family determination shone through again.
And not only is Run Croatia moving forward, but the model that they are building is really exciting, and an example of how you can build up a year-round tourism segment from absolutely nothing. Iva kindly agreed to sit for an interview in Zagreb recently. It is a great story.
1. How and when did Run Croatia start, and what was the original concept? And who are the founding fathers and mothers?
Run Croatia was founded in September 2015 after Berislav finished all World Majors as the 13th man in the world. He then decided to leave his successful corporate career as a retail director in Oracle and embark on an entrepreneurial path to follow his passion. Soon after, he found partners in crime: his school buddy Sven, who is a passionate sports aficionado and a journalist and his sister – me – with a track record in online travel, who loves to run for human rights.
2. What was your first race? How hard was it to organize, and how successful was it?
It’s somewhat significant that in March 2016 our first 10k race took place in the small town of Ludbreg, which is famous for its Centrum Mundi landmark -the center of the world. Ludbreg also means ‘Crazy Hill’ in Croatian. Some 30 runners showed up and I won the first place in the women’s category. I’ll probably never get the chance to repeat this success again.
3. Take us through building up from that first race to where you are today.
We never planned to organize races, we had never done race event management before in our professional lives. The main idea was to work together with existing race organizers and to help them promote their events and destinations more aggressively, in order to attract better sponsors and create an image of Croatia in the world as the ideal destination for running all year round.
When we started approaching race directors though, it became clear that we were perceived as their direct competitors. So in order to build our brand and the community, we decided to build the umbrella organization on our own.
Now 33 events later we have managed to attract well-known sponsors and more than 30 nationalities run our races mostly offseason, which makes it interesting to move away from the ‘sun & beach’ mentality. We are especially proud of our biggest race Zagreb Advent Run, which we co-organize with Millenium Promocija.
Zagreb has become very popular being voted as the best Christmas market in Europe, and our event is one of a kind in the program. In 2018 more than 2500 costumed runners and walkers moved cheerfully through the center raising awareness against diabetes and contributing to the cause. We had a Nordic walking world champion competing and winning as well as a runner from North Carolina coming to Zagreb only because of the race.
Compared with other European cities we succeeded in attracting more participants than Vienna or London. We were very happy to get the recognition from the Croatian Association for Public Relations, who awarded Zagreb Advent Run as the best-communicated event in 2018.
4. How many races are therein 2019 – give us a flavor of the diversity.
We started the year on the islands of Krk, Hvar and Pag with 5 races in 1 week. After that, there are 10 more events until the end of the year – all in beautiful locations scattered around Croatia. Our 4th edition of the International Half Marathon Lun-Novalja on the island of Pag attracts more runners from abroad than domestic ones. They say it’s a boutique running event with a demanding route, beautiful scenery and not easy to reach outside of season, but definitely worth it.
We especially love themed races like Hvar Wine Run with the best wine from the island at the after run party. Last year there was an American couple on honeymoon spontaneously signing up on the spot. They were very happy with having such an adventurous experience and even winning 1st place in the women’s category!
5. You have built up a great Run Croatia network with partnerships with airlines, hotels etc. Tell us more and who is in the network. and how can businesses join?
When we did a deep dive into our business relationships, we realized that we should connect all involved parties around our events into a “Run-friendly platform.” We started with branding the hotels as run-friendly like LifeClass Terme Sveti Martin, Falkensteiner Hotel Park Punat, Vitality Hotel Punta Losinj which need to fulfill certain criteria in order to get certified.
The logical next step was to develop a “Run-friendly employer” certification since we co-operate with many companies who deeply care about their employees’ fitness and motivation. For our community and our partners we have developed an app glook.me which rewards running, walking or cycling activity by earning Go:Coins which can be then spent on products with significant discounts. You can save a lot of money by just moving! You can contact us at runfriendly.world or runcroatia.hr
6. Your ultimate vision for Run Croatia?
So far we have stayed loyal to our somewhat chaotic approach of not having a business plan. This way we stay flexible and open for opportunities which help to create the platform. Run Croatia is like a premium virgin olive oil binding all ingredients together for a perfect salad. Where previously was no obvious connection between different business parts and activities, we bring them together through dedicated execution so everyone can profit from being part of the chain – as an individual, society or company.
7. Connecting with the diaspora – what plans?
We would love to find partners abroad who would help us promote Croatia as the 1st Run friendly destination in the world. This could happen with organizing race events which promote beauties of Croatia through the positive energy of running. Also, we would love to invite diaspora to run in Croatia. We have some ideas in this direction how can we all run & party together for a good cause.
8. You have run some pretty interesting marathons in different parts of the world – tell us more.
Berislav has an impressive track record by finishing all World Majors before starting the Run Croatia project. When we were in our start-up phase we were thinking of which values drive us and how can we show them through running by getting out of our comfort zone. So we decided to run the Pyongyang marathon with the message that running knows no borders and it’s a universal human right to move freely.
Soon after I was preparing to run a half-marathon at the Teheran marathon in April 2017 since it was announced that it would be open for women for the first time in the history of Iran. Shortly before the race the regime forbade women to compete and allowed them only to run a 10 k loop around an empty stadium. I decided then with a group of other female runners to stage their own secret race in order to fulfill the missing distances. This experience was an eye-opener that women have to fight for the right to move freely and not taking it for granted. You can read about Iva’s experience in Tehran here.
9. Your vision of Croatian tourism direction in general?
We are lucky to live in one of the most diverse countries in the world when it comes to landscape, culture, history, gastronomy.. with the perfect conditions for all-year-round tourism. It’s sad to see how big is the economic dependency on the high season which brings overtourism per se with all its devastating socio-environmental effects into play. We need more creative types, who care about people and environment first, and then about business, targeting high-quality niche guests who are conscious about nature preservation and respect the local culture. With our Run friendly concept, we want to stir the streams outside of main season and attract active outdoorsy guests who value the environment and are interested to explore different parts of the country outside of main season.