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Dejan Nikolić, Director of the Belgrade Marathon

You Can do It!

The Belgrade Marathon will be held for the 29th time on Sunday 16th April. Since its third edition in 1990, it has been headed by Dejan Nikolić, a former athlete and tourism representative, which is no coincidence. Today marathons are at least equally sporting, tourism and business events, and all three dimensions require both vision and long-term work.

It is for these reasons that Dejan Nikolić and his team from the enterprise Belgrade Marathon Ltd. are working hard to prepare for the 30th Belgrade Marathon, to be held in 2017, while preparing in parallel for this year’s 29th edition – the jubilee must be marked honourably.

The event that represents marathon running in Belgrade and Serbia was initially called simply the Belgrade Marathon, but then it changed in line with several main sponsors, only to now again bears its original name. Will the 30th marathon be “just” the Belgrade Marathon?

The Belgrade Marathon has passed through various stages, and one of the most important turning points in its history was the title sponsorship contract concluded with Soko Štark. At the time we compared that to the marathon starting its first year of school because it was concluded just before the seventh Belgrade Marathon in 1994 [children officially start school in Serbia at the age of seven].

If I consider the role of Soko Štark and the company’s then CEO, Vojislav Đorđević, from today’s perspective, it would perhaps be better to ask what would have happened to the Belgrade Marathon if it weren’t for them or, even better, would the Belgrade Marathon even exist?

Do you still have such partners, who support and understand the basic mission of this event, at which more than 20,000 people enjoy socialising and spreading good vibrations?

We still cooperate with Soko Štark, which is part of the Atlantic Group, and they are with us at the Children’s Marathon, through which they promote their brands. First, it was “Smoki”, then “Smoki Smokić”, and this year they will have a new product. We renew our cooperation each year, but it is better for us, and for them, as well as for all other partners, to establish long-term cooperation.

belgrade marathon
TEAM PIRAEUS BANK, CorD Charity Masters 2015

There’s no need even to mention what such cooperation means to us, but it enables our partners to familiarise themselves with the event in the best possible way, to be able to use it in the best possible way in a positive sense. Whenever we have established such cooperation, it has also proven to be the best formula for our partners, because we are able to establish promotionally functional collaboration.

This is now the case with Uniqa [insurance company], with whom we have long-term cooperation, similarly to with the MediGroup system [private healthcare], which has expressed an interest in the event we organise, and we also want to contribute as much as possible to the work they do. We have several other partners with whom we have cooperated for a long time – With Idea [retail] we are in the third year of a three-year deal…

All major world marathons are named after the cities in which they are held (London, Berlin, New York, etc.), and they all have great support from the City, citizens and companies … Do your development plans for the Belgrade Marathon have adequate support in Serbia?

The Belgrade Marathon today finds itself at a new turning point. We want to organise the 29th Belgrade Marathon well and raise the level of its quality a little bit higher, but that’s not easy because we want and strive to do that every year – meaning, for 29 years we’ve been trying to respond to the social and economic challenges, and we don’t want the 30th Belgrade Marathon to be the nice commemoration of an anniversary merely, but rather for it to be a step into the future in every way.

What is most important for us is that the runners are satisfied. Considering that we operate on the international market, which is extremely strong and well developed, we have to keep pace with our “rivals” and respond to all the challenges, not to organise an event that is just for local runners, but also for foreigners who travel the world and who use social networks and other media to constantly compare the marathons in which they participate. Of course, we can’t compare ourselves to the New York, Berlin or London marathons, and we must constantly seek and advance along the road to the goal we have set for ourselves.

In the early 1990s, you had the slogan “If New York can, so can Belgrade”

Perhaps that slogan seemed pretentious to some, but that was primarily related to the idea of a city marathon, and not to grandiosity; it was more a desire to show that we are members of the same marathon movement, marathon migration, in which tens of millions of runners today participate, people who actually divided their annual holidays into several shorter trips in order to be able to visit three or four marathon destinations every year.

This is a new, important element that we are also relying on and which has brought us an increased number of participants over the last few years. That increase will be much greater this year, and we are doing everything we can to ensure this progression continues in the years to come.

What does that “everything” imply?

That primarily implies everything that is in our power and everything that we are able to provide with the support of our natural partners in this work. Expert analyses show that the Belgrade Marathon is the most important tourist event in Serbia, and that’s why, together with the Tourist Organisation of Belgrade, we developed the project “Long-Term Business Development Strategy of the Belgrade Marathon”, which is also supported by the Belgrade City Assembly, including in financial terms.

We will start to implement it this year, while we expect the first results in 2017, at the 30th Belgrade Marathon, and for them to then become increasingly better year on year. We have taken advantage of the experience of other marathons, especially those in the region that took on a similar endeavour 10 or 15 years ago.

Considering that we operate on the international market, which is extremely strong and well developed, we have to keep pace with our “rivals” and respond to all the challenges

These are, first of all, Prague, Istanbul and Athens, the home of this racing discipline and its own idea, which had a marathon that fell well short of the reputation implied in the name. They started implementing a project in Athens in 2005 that was supposed to be completed by 2010, when they celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon and that legendary first-run from Marathon to Athens, and to make this event worthy of its roots and name.

The project was supported by as many as three ministries, the President of Greece accepted to be the patron, and the Athens Marathon swelled from its usual 2,500 participants to 16,000 runners, with half of that number coming from abroad. Considering that each foreign runner is on average accompanied by at least two companions – that equates to 24,000 visitors, meaning the Athens Marathon has become the city’s most important tourist event of the off-peak tourist season.

Is there a projection of when the Belgrade Marathon could have 10,000 participants in the half and full marathon?

At this moment we already have a much higher number of registered runners than we had in last year’s record-breaking marathon, so we expect at least 50 per cent more foreign participants this year. Last year we had 1,600 guests from abroad – around 800 runners and their companions. We now already have 1,500 runners registered from 50 countries and all continents, not counting the companions who will come with them.

belgrade marathon

This is a very high rate of growth, particularly given that we have yet to begin implementing our project. I will remind you that they cover all of their own travel and accommodation costs for their stay in Belgrade. Not even Belgrade’s trade fairs and expos can lure as many visitors, and for those events, travel and accommodation expenses are covered by private companies. This is a qualitative difference.

One of the most important elements of our strategic project is to present the Belgrade Marathon at specialised fairs of the kind organised by major marathons, e.g. the New York City Marathon, as well as those in neighbouring countries, and also to cooperate with other marathons in the region.

Do you also take advantage of the fact that many tour operators and specialised publications and websites have been recommending Belgrade as a desirable tourist destination in recent years?

This fact certainly favours us, but we must not forget that we are also competing with, amongst others, Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Athens, which were among the 20 most visited cities in the world long before they got their own marathons. It is not easy to compete with them, but we are managing to fight for our place, and we also cooperate well with them, and also with Ljubljana and Zagreb.

Moreover, this year, we expect a record number of participants from Croatia and Slovenia. In fact, we are all recording an increase in the number of participants. The fourth wave of increasing the number of participants in marathons worldwide is now in progress, especially participants of the half marathon, which is much more appealing to novices, and that’s why we are considering changing the concept for the 30th Marathon. So, there are enough runners – we just need to know how to attract them and send them home satisfied.

Which other “markets” do you take into account?

Those are primarily marathon runners from the U.S. We have had excellent cooperation since 1989 with the New York Running Club, the world’s biggest sporting collective, which has 65,000 permanent members and 220,000 associate members who occasionally participate in their events. They all run, while the demographic picture of marathon runners indicates that as many as 80 per cent of them, regardless of gender, are highly educated and have high incomes. In America, that means an average of about $80,000 a year, so they can afford to satisfy their affinity for running all over the world.

At this moment we already have a much higher number of registered runners than we had in last year’s record-breaking marathon, so we expect at least 50 per cent more foreign participants this year

Then there is also the Japanese market. The Honolulu Marathon is the second biggest “Japanese” marathon, despite being held in an American state, because 50,000 Japanese people participate in it every year – in terms of runners and their companions. Surveys and research conducted at major marathons show that marathon runners spend more money than regular tourists, and Japanese marathoners spend $100 per day more than runners from other countries. That represents fantastic potential, and we have established contacts with several Japanese tour operators and can expect the first effects to be felt at the 30th Belgrade Marathon.

When it comes to the U.S. running market, your natural partner could be Air Serbia, the successor of national airline JAT, with which you also cooperated for well over a decade…

After a break of a quarter of a century, Air Serbia is restoring direct flights to New York, and that would certainly be a natural partnership. Last year many of our 1,600 guests from abroad also came to Belgrade on Air Serbia flights, and we are keen to increase our number of participants coming from the U.S., and not only from New York, where we presented ourselves at last year’s fair.

This year we will also participate in the Chicago fair, which is home to a huge Serbian diaspora. Many young people, members of the second or third generations of immigrants from Serbia, many of whom speak only English, came to our booth and expressed a desire to come to the “old country” and to see Belgrade and Serbia, where they have generally never been.

How could the 30th Belgrade Marathon differ from the upcoming race, except for having significantly more participants?

We are also considering changing the course and have received support for that from the City. In doing this, we will try to devise a route that is not temporary but instead can remain for a more extended period. We can’t make it quicker, because we don’t want to change the positions of the start and finish lines. They are in attractive locations – at the top of King Alexander Boulevard and on Terazija – and given that we want to incorporate the new Ada Bridge into the course, which has an extra climb, no matter which side you enter from, we can’t speed up the race.

However, we can make it more attractive. The new bridge would contribute to that, but also avoiding the second circuit of New Belgrade for marathoners. They don’t like to run along the same route twice. That can also be seen by the example of the Ljubljana Marathon, which immediately recorded strong growth in the number of participants after changing its route and abolishing the second circuit.

Do promoters impact on increasing the number of participants and can you tell us who the Belgrade Marathon’s guest of honour will be on 16th April?

We founded the institution of promoters in 1990, when Bob Beamon visited us, then long jump world record holder. In a way, we brought him back into the focus of the global public, and he helps the world to see us. Since then, the promoters of the Belgrade Marathon have been the kind of athletic greats who have shifted the boundaries of human possibilities, and some of them still hold world records or records for medal hauls at major competitions. This will also be the case with this year’s promoter, but I am saving his name for the very end.

However, I can already tell you who will be the promoter of the 30th Belgrade Marathon. We are preparing a project that we have already presented to the city government and Mayor Siniša Mali through which we intend to bring a group of former promoters to the 30th marathon to be with us, to hold several public workshops with the children participating in the Children’s Marathon, but also with their peers from all over Serbia, because the whole of Serbia now runs in the Belgrade Marathon. Their stay in Belgrade and Serbia would undoubtedly contribute to better and greater media publicity worldwide.

And what kind of impact is achieved by the humanitarian activities that you nurture at the Belgrade Marathon?

They also undoubtedly lead to an increase in the number of participants, because many potential runners need some incentive to uncover the marathon running that lurks inside them. Helping someone else is a good motive. We have the example of CorD Magazine, which has been using the Belgrade Marathon as a platform for its humanitarian activities for 11 years, and it does so in the right way, similar to that nurtured by the London Marathon.

CorD engages a large number of individuals and companies who gather around each of their runners and collect money to help individuals and organisations in need. To date, if I’m not mistaken, through its activities, it has collected more than 130,000 euros from participants in all three of our races – the half marathon, fun marathon and also the 5km Fun Run, which is the usual option for runners from the embassies of many countries and foreign companies. Apart from this direct effect and the popularisation of running, CorD Magazine’s campaign also promotes donating and giving, and the value of that is truly priceless.

The City of Belgrade provides you with complete logistical support, while the Ministry of Youth and Sport contributes with five million dinars. Do you think that is enough, given the importance of the Belgrade Marathon, and especially the possibility of development based on the “Long-term business strategy”?

Speaking at a recent press conference, Belgrade Mayor Siniša Mali quoted the statistic that the Belgrade Marathon generates income of about 10 million euros annually for the City in different ways, including income from tourism, positive PR promotions in foreign media, humanitarian projects and the like. On the basis of that figure, we calculated that, during its existence, the Belgrade Marathon has contributed more than 200 million euros to the community.

When one takes into account the increasing difficultly of competing on the international market, I think we should receive the kind of financial support from the authorities that we need to succeed in realising our full potential. We can do it. Marathon runners are tough in the world.

That is shown by the example of Slobodan Jotić, a man who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis ten years ago. He fights against this incurable disease by running, and he will run in the 29th Belgrade Marathon on 16th April. His message to everyone is “You can do it!” This is also the slogan of this year’s Belgrade Marathon. Together we can do everything.